NYPL: Achatz And Myhrvold

Sadly, I had this post mostly written for the better part of a year. I finally sat down, listened to the audio again and finished the post. It is important to note that this reflects my understanding and take on their conversation, and I am may have unintentionally misrepresented them.

As mentioned previously, I had the privilege of attending “WIRED & LIVE present GRANT ACHATZ & NATHAN MYHRVOLD Moderated by Mark McClusky The Cutting Edge: Tales from the Culinary Frontier” way back in october. Of all the events I have attended recently, this was the only one with really good moderation. In attendance, I saw Jeffrey Steingarten, Tim Zagat, Alex and Aki from IDEAS IN FOOD, and even one of the teachers from cooking school. Best part of all of this is: you can listen to it yourself. Don’t want to listen to it? Here were my take-aways:

On The Beast That Shall Not Be Named

Mark was pretty relentless in trying to get Grant and Nathan to discuss the labeling of this style of food. Molecular Gastronomy, Modernism, Techno Emotional Cuisine… call it what you will. They managed to avoid putting a label on it, citing how different the cuisine is between the chefs that play in this sandbox. However, Nathan described the Modernism/Molecular Gastronomy as a movement instead of a style, comparing it to art and architecture. I really liked this analogy. A lot.

Some of defining characteristics of this movement:

  1. breaking rules and making the diner think.
  2. drawing inspiration from science.
  3. novelty, originality and invention.

He went on to say:


A lot of this kind of food doesnt necessarily have to be delicious. […] great poems aren’t always fun to read, they aren’t always happy.

Where is it ok to make someone think, to give a dish that may not be conventionally delicious but as part of the dialogue with the diner evokes thoughts or emotions versus just saying every single thing has to be finger looking good. Making profound food is not the same as making totally delicious food. […]

A lot of the food that is done in this new style, like a poem, plays on an earlier theme, has the equivalent of a literary reference, makes a culinary joke or counterpoint.

While Grant didn’t really reply, I have to believe that his goal is to do both. I think one of the most challenging things about being a chef is that their art has to be delicious. A restaurant has to survive long enough for someone to be able to look back on it and remember its genius. Another thing that makes this period of time exciting for me is that restaurant culture (for all of its downsides), has given more and more diners the language to understand these references and emotional touchstones. As a result, chefs can produce more challenging food, and still succeed.

On Alinea, Chicago and Spain

In Grant’s intro he described his background, in which he dropped this little gem:


… manipulating and controlling a period of time in people lives, to try to evoke emotion. Doing this through food, through service, through ambiance was very exciting to me.

This quote really put my dinner at Alinea into perspective. My meal at Alinea literally challenged me from every direction. Now I think the meal was over four hours long, but I was more intellectually exhausted by the end of my meal.

They also delved into the fact that this kind of cuisine is being driven out of Chicago more than any other city. In fact, Nathan actually said:

ny is a backward hick kind of place when it comes to this type of modern food

They both gave huge credit to Charlie Trotter and the alumni of his kitchen (and others) for opening Chicagoan’s minds. Grant and Nathan both basically stated that Spain is the new France.

Leading me to tweet:

france : spain :: new york : chicago

Sous Vide

Sous-vide was a thread that ran through the conversation. There were questions about botulism, the NYC health department and whether or not sous-vide would enter the home.

Turns out the number of US botulism fatalities in a year is unbelievably small (and by small I mean 2-3), with a disproportionate number of cases coming from Alaska. That doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind, but the concerns are overblown.

The NYC health department has draconian requirements that are more strict than both US FDA and EU standards. The result is that it discourages restaurants from utilizing the technique. As of August 2008, 19 restaurants were approved by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Nathan didn’t think it would be as common as the microwave, but Grant countered that there is “level of convenience that hasnt been explored” with sous-vide. gachatz went on to talk about prepackaged food designed for SV and that PolyScience working on a kitchen sink that doubles as an immersion circulator.

nathanm had a great response to the concerns that sous-vide will take the soul out of cooking:

What you want to be a thermostat for a living?

I can’t actually write any more. I have listened to bits and pieces of this talk a bazillion times. You owe it to yourself (and me) to listen to it once.

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