Starchefs 2009 Day One: Chris Young & Nathan Myhrvold: Culinary Engineers

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I first became acquainted (virtually) with Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft and current CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions with culinary technology an important component of his and the company's interest, back in the first half of this decade  on the eGullet Discussion Forum Boards. nathanm, as he is known in that forum, made invaluable contributions to those forums, in particular, the topic, Sous Vide: Recipes, Techniques & Equipment, which may have been the genesis of the project he and Chris Young were at Starchefs to discuss. Today the process of sous vide cooking is widely known and used, even in home kitchens. When Dr. Myhrvold first started posting on the topic on eGullet back in 2004, it wasn't so well known and even he came to eGullet looking for information on the subject. as it turned out, at the time, there was not a whole lot generally known on the subject outside of select high end restaurants and industrial kitchens. That eGullet topic became a major source of information for many, largely thanks to the subsequent work and sharing of information by Dr. Myhrvold. His first post on the subject read:

"I am wondering if anybody has sources for recipes for sous-vide cooking – which is to say, cooking done in sealed vacuum bags.

It started out in Europe as a means to do large scale cooking – like
airline catering – where food is cooked in a factory and reheated
elsewhere. the idea was the cooking was done centrally, and reheating
done elsewhere/later.

Some chefs in the US use it that way – for example for late night food
at Las Vegas restaurants so a minimal kitchen staff can prepare it.
However, there is a clear trend toward high end chefs using it as a
tool in its own right rather than simply a means to centralize cooking.
Charlie Trotter gave an interview in a restaurant trade magazine saying
that 50% of his plates have at least one component made this way.
Daniel Boulud and a number of other chefs are using it.

Typically the ingredients are sealed in a plastic bag under vacuum
(similar to various home vacuum sealer machines). The bag is then
cooked at low temperature – typically at less than boiling (150
degrees), and sometimes even lower. Typical cooking times are long –
hours. It is basically a very gentle form of poaching.

I have a vacuum sealer machine, and I got some heat proof sealing bags.
So I have been experimenting. However, there are very few recipes out
there. This is a bit surprising because it is pretty widely used in
Europe. So, one would expect there to be more recipes or even
information of a general nature.

There is one book on the topic from Amazon – it is very expensive, and
utterly worthless – it is more about industrial processes and gives few
if any details.

Art Cullinaire had an issue with several recipes in it in Spring 2002 – for example: http://www.findartic…457/print.jhtml

On eGullet, the only references seem to be to restaurants that use it – like Trio near Chicago.

My questions are does anybody:

– Have any recipes themselves?

– Know of other sources (books, magazines, web sites)?"

The rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward to September 2009 and Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young, a mathematician and biochemist cum chef and architect and former head of Heston Blumenthal's research team at The Fat Duck, are on stage giving a demonstration on some techno-fueled processes they have come up with to make better-tasting food as well as to make cooking more fun.

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Myhrvold started the demo by talking about culinary books. He noted that there are plenty of books showing step-by-step technique for classic cooking and plenty of excellent books on the science of cooking, though not necessarily how this knowledge is specifically applied to cooking. There are also some books that look closely on specific modern techniques such as sous vide and there are a lot of books by modernist chefs covering "their personal visions of cuisine", but there are none that provide an encyclopedic approach to science and technique in modernist cooking with a comprehensive, step-by-step approach utilizing outstanding photography. As Myhrvold said, "Showing is much easier than telling." As a result, Myhrvold, Young and their team have undertaken a massive project to produce just such a book. Currently about 1500 pages in length and three years in the making so far with 15 people working on it full-time, it covers a wide range of topics including history, food safety, microbiology and many other areas. Their approach is limited to savory, omitting techniques and science specific to pastry. Myhrvold explained that this is "not a recipe oriented cookbook." It is a book focused on techniques, "general things that a chef can apply in a lot of different contexts." There are recipes, but they are supplied to illustrate the techniques. There are "formula-driven" master recipes for techniques with enough information to allow for adjustments by a chef depending on the chef's purpose. The book will have a huge section on food safety including detailed coverage of topics such as trichinella and norovirus, a topic Myhrvold feels is very important.

An important instructional component of the book is the large number of cut-away photos. Myhrvold joked that they have created "half the best kitchen in the world" since they cut all sorts of equipment in half to create cut-away views. These views were not just used to explain modernist technique. They also employed it to explain traditional techniques as well. Some of the modern techniques the book covers include sous-vide, centrifugation, homogenizers, rotary evaporators and many others.

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Their first demo was of a "constructed cream."  This technique "takes an arbitrary fat and an arbitrary liquid and emulsifying it to make something like a heavy cream." At this point, Chris Young took over to narrate the demo, which was prepared  by Max Bilet and Grant Crilly. Young talked about making a dairy-free pistachio gelato by constructing a pistachio "cream" around protein-coated pistachio oil or a heat stable "veal cream" as a sauce for blanquette nuoveau. Their demo was of a heat stable caroteen cream used for a lobster sauce. They added glucose infused water and added protein to coat fat droplets. They got carotene "fat" by blending melted butter with juiced carrots. Carotene is not only responsible for the color of carrots, but also for most of their flavor. After they blend the butter and carrot juice, they centrifuge and separate the components. Most of the flavor remains in the top-most "fat" element, which is retained after the underlying watery elements are decanted off. The remainder is heated to desolidify the fat and decant that off. Since they couldn't bring their centrifuge with them, they brought the carotene fat with them already made. They added the oil to proteins and put that into a beaker  with protein and used an immersion blender to emulsify them together. The result is a heat stable 38% fat "cream."

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The next demo, followed the theme of "American Cuisine" by looking at the "All-American Hamburger, a staple of the American diet." While they did not actually demo the technique, they did discuss it in detail. Noting that a steak is much more tender and juicy when eaten with the grain rather than against the grain. Asking "why not do the same thing with a hamburger patty," Young described a technique of "lining the grain of the meat up as it comes out of the die and keeping that shape and cutting your patties out of a chilled cylinder, the grains line up so that when you bite into that burger it is going to crumble and really quickly release a lot of the juice very quickly into your mouth" so that one will have an extremely juicy, flavorful and tender hamburger. Myhrvold added that the secret of flavor in grilled foods is the flare-up of fat, rather than the kind of coals or other elements.

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Myhvold discussed the "not new" method of Kraft cheese. Young went on to describe the processing of cheese. Using a tart, fruity, citric acid rich, wine allows cheese proteins to equally disperse in a fondue. They use sodium citrate as a "melting" salt to manipulate cheese texture to allow one that won't melt well to become one that does. The example they used was emmenthal cheese with the citrate to blend and used a stick blender to break it up further and blend even more smoothly. They then cast the molten cheese in a mold to allow to firm up, leaving a cheese with good melting properties for the burger described above.

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The next demo was of a technique they devloped called cryo-rendering, which they applied to duck breast for a dish they called "Duck Apicius" an homage to Alain Senderens, who in turn did a dish as an homage to Apicius. It so happens that today's NY Times has an article on Myhrvold and includes the video the demonstration of the cryo-seared duck beast technique from the ICC. It is an ingenious technique. As an added bonus, if one looks real hard, one can see me in a small part of the video! The basic idea behind this technique is to use cold to balance the heat.

The next demo was of a pork roast, the question being, "how do we get super-crispy skin without overcooking the meat." Similar to the approach with the duck, the idea is to use cold to balance heat and allow the heat to only affect the desired areas. They would make a perfectly cooked, crisp-skinned pork roast to be served over a bed of "coals."

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They used sous-vide stewed prunes to represent "coals," a technique inspired by lava.They brushed 25% gum arabic on prunes braised sous vide with prune juice, armagnac and pork braising juice to act as a moisture barrier and let dry overnight in low temp oven or via a blow torch. The gum arabic coated prunes were then covered in infused sugar "glass" -  a mixture of isomalt, glucose and vegetable carbon powder cooked to 190ºC and CO2 produced by a combination of vinegar & baking soda. Originally small, the "glass"-trapped bubbles are enlarged in a low-pressure vacuum chamber cooling the sugar down.The effect of lava coals is produced by pain d'epice vegetable powder. The "glass" prunes will stay crisp for up to a couple days.

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Back to the pork, the team moved on the getting crispy pork skin. They used popcorn as their inspiration for getting their crisp skin. Their answer was to use pork rinds. They took pork skin, cooked it for about 12 hours sous vide (even faster in a pressure cooker) and scraped the fat off. At this point they had a gelatinized pork skin that still had too much water. It was then "dried", but still had about 13% water. They then ground the skin, but the right size was important. Pieces about 2mm large were perfect. They got these by taking the ground skin and sifting it through laboratory sieves, filtering out pieces that were either too small or too large. The filtered rinds would act as a coating for the meat and would puff up like popcorn when deep-fried. While their pork was cooked sous vide, they remained concerned about overcooking the meat. To overcome this, they dipped the pork in liquid nitrogen, which is about as cold as frying is hot. They dipped the meat for about 25 seconds in the nitrogen, then to make the surface tacky, a quick dip in warm water then a dip in flour or starch. Instead of an egg wash they used a methylcellulose foam, which is easier to get on sufficiently and is also a lot like gum arabic, serving as a moisture barrier for the moisture within the meat, preventing it from getting soggy after cooking. The rind-coated meat was fried and puffed, resulting in a crispy exterior and a perfectly cooked interior.

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The demonstration riveted the crowd, Afterward, I had a chance to meet both speakers. While it was an honor and a pleasure to meet them both, it was particularly gratifying to finally meet nathanm in person, after being mutually acquainted for the last 5 years via eGullet.

Based upon the illustrations shown during the demonstration and a galley copy they had afterwards, the book appears to be stunner, though it will not be particularly portable. It should be available in about one year. I know I will be watching for it!


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2 Responses to Starchefs 2009 Day One: Chris Young & Nathan Myhrvold: Culinary Engineers

  1. Matthew Kayahara says:

    When this book comes out, it is going to be epic. I’m not sure which I’m more excited about: this one or Ideas in Food: The Book. Fortunately, I should be able to get both!

  2. Gfron1 says:

    The moist meat/crisp skin goal was also very well handled by Blumenthal in his Perfection series both with Peking Duck and Roast chicken, but is described in detail in his accompanying books. Thanks for your report. One of these days I’ll be able to get to SC.

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