If you’re ever lucky enough to score a 15-minute interview with Nathan Myhrvold, don’t think twice before you accept. Don’t wonder if he’ll be intimidating (his work may be but he is not!). Don’t worry that you won’t be smart enough to talk to him (he’s very easygoing!). Don’t worry that your questions won’t be interesting enough (he always has interesting answers, even to what you might think is a run-of-the-mill question). Above all, don’t be worried that there might be awkward silences (there won’t be).
Last week, I had the pleasure of spending 15 minutes with Myhrvold when he was in Toronto to promote his upcoming Modernist Bread, releasing in early November. Wait, what… A bread book? Well, yeah, kinda…
A book written by Nathan Myhrvold is not just any book (as you can see from those stats above). His work is an extraordinary combination of food, science and art. His background gives a little hint as to why and how he produces such special books.
- Myhrvold started college at age 14
- He was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University.
- He worked with Professor Stephen Hawking
- He earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics and a master’s degree in mathematical economics from Princeton University
- He also has a master’s degree in geophysics and space physics and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCLA.
- He’s a James Beard Award winner
- He holds the Grande Diplome from the Ecole De La Varenne in Burgundy
- He was the chief technology officer of Microsoft Corporation for 14 years
“So smart” is what most people instinctively say when you mention Myhrvold, the creator and co-author of the revolutionary, award-winning Modernist Cuisine (2011), and the accompanying Modernist Cuisine at Home (2012), which looks at making modernist cooking techniques more accessible for the home cook. Modernist Bread is the follow up to these works and is the most comprehensive guide to bread you’ll ever see. “1600+ pages all about bread?” I hear you ask. You bet (there was also another nearly whole volume of information that they had to cut)! When you look at Myhrvold’s credentials, you know it couldn’t be any other way though. Thorough, beautiful and addictively interesting.
I was lucky enough to preview the volumes digitally over the past few weeks (no, I didn’t manage to read it all and I certainly jumped around from section to section based on the reviewer’s guide, looking at what most interested me first then flipping around in each volume) and have been utterly distracted (in the best possible way) from everything else on my “to read” list because of them. Who would have thought that bread has such a fascinating complicated (his)story? I was most excited to read about the recipe tests and experiments (playing with food as your full time job? yes please!) and was happy to see there are definitely a lot of recipes in there that I would (and totally could!) make myself. The recipes themselves are not complicated – even the “hard” ones are just a little more complex in their timing or perhaps technique but Myhrvold assures me that everyone can make the recipes designated for the home cook.
I own Modernist Cuisine (thanks Neil!) and admit that those are not volumes we cook from – they are beautiful and utterly awe-inducing but I don’t imagine most home cooks (me included) are going to be hauling those volumes out in their kitchen and using them regularly (especially if you have a small kitchen with no counterspace LOL!). The bread recipes? I can see myself using those. A lot. The stories behind how the team arrived at the definitive recipes really make for compelling reading (I know, who would think that bread could be described as “compelling”? Yet it totally is!). Yes, Myhrvold and his team are “so smart”. I imagine if science had been presented to me in this manner when I was at school, I’d have stayed the course longer than Grade 10! And I might have learned how to make bread much earlier in my life!
So, what do you talk about with one of the smartest men in the food world? I tried to keep it simple (because me off topic can get a bit messy!) and was thrilled that even my simple questions sparked such interesting conversation (honestly, this guy could talk bread stuff ALL DAY!).
Five questions for Nathan Myhrvold
1. What kind of bread should I make with my cooking club students ?
I asked Myhrvold if he thought there was a way we could make bread (like, real bread as opposed to simple flatbreads) with my students, bearing in mind that we have an hour together each week. His first question was to ask how often did we meet and when he heard it was just once per week, he immediately suggested his “Our Daily Bread” recipe which you can mix up and then let sit in the fridge for 7 days before you remove it and shape, let rise and bake. Ok then. I’ve got a bit of a project in mind for at least one of my cooking clubs this term!
2. What bread knife do you use? (this one may surprise you!)
“The best bread knife that we have found by far is an electric turkey carver.” You heard it here first, folks! Well actually maybe you were following the conversation at Myhrvold’s public talk on Twitter last week and you read it there. But the question was mine, borrowed by moderator Alison Fryer because, well, everyone wants to know things like this! According to Myhrvold, nothing comes close to an electric knife à la 70s infomercials (something simple like this). They cut clean and straight and no fancy, beautiful knife can even come close to doing as good a job. It’s what you’ll find in Myhrvold’s home kitchen. And if you look closely in Volume 3 of Modernist Bread, you can see one there too!
3. Do you prefer the crust or the crumb?
Myhrvold tried to answer “both”, telling me it “very much depended on teh bread” but eventually decided that it had to be the crust which is a “magical part of the bread experience”. The crust holds the secret to the flavour, though it is a tricky element to get right for many home bakers.
4. Do you prefer baking bread or eating bread?
This is based on my own observation that right now I don’t want to bake or cook anything from my own cookbook having spent a year working on the recipes. It’s also based on the fact that I much prefer making macarons than eating them after 6+ years of teaching classes! Myhrvold, though he is not sick of eating bread (“Are you kidding me?” he asked. His team, although the weight they put on during the recipe testing phase was “a lot” is apparently going through bread withdrawal right now!) says he prefers baking bread (so, based on how much he likes eating bread, he really must adore making bread! I guess it’s the scientist in him – can’t stop thinking “What if we did XYX?”).
5. If you could only eat one bread for the rest of your life?
A man after my own heart, Myhrvold answered without hesitation “Baguette”, referring me back to my earlier question about the crust vs the crumb.
Want to know a little more about Modernist Bread (publishing November 7th 2017)? Check out the beautiful trailer. And if you ever get the chance to see Nathan Myhrvold speak, even if you think you aren’t a food geek or you’re not super interested in the science of food or bread baking, go. You might just change your mind!
(and yes, I totally had a fangirl moment – couldn’t leave without getting a photo, right?)
If you feel so inclined, you can purchase Modernist Bread for yourselves on Amazon or, for free shipping (that’s gotta be worth something on a 53lb set of books!), you can purchase from The Book Depository.
Please note: The product links from Amazon and The Book Depository are affiliate links, meaning if you click over and purchase something, I will receive a very small percentage of the purchase price (at no extra cost to you) which goes towards maintaining eat. live. travel. write. Thank you in advance!
Disclosure: I received a complimentary ticket to hear Nathan Myhrvold speak, courtesy The George Brown College Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts. I was not asked to write about the talk, nor am I being compensated for this post. All opinions are my own.