March 23, 2011 | Short Order
Millionaire Wizard from Portland Wows Manhattan’s Culinary Royalty
The engineered omelet is more decorative than edible.
Tim and Nina Zagat had beckoned, and a constellation of culinary stars and divas arrived at Jean Georges Monday morning to taste a modernist cuisine breakfast engineered by Nathan Myhrvold, a multi-millionaire scientist promoting 39 pounds of a cooking encyclopedia. For any chef-groupie who wandered in, it was an orgasmic gathering of big cheeses: Daniel Boulud, Ferran Adria, Martha Stewart, Wylie Dufresne, Michael Lomonoco, Ruth Reichl, Padma Lakshmi, plus a platoon of younger toques and the media and puffers who swarm in their wake. Everyone sipped centrifuged juice, a choice of orange or grapefruit and pear. If a cuisinary terrorist – a demented vegetarian or an overheated locavore -- had chosen this moment to detonate a bomb or even a bombe, the city’s gourmands might have been reduced to eating ethnic, luncheonette or Applebee’s.
Nathan Myhrvold credits Ferran Adria for considerable inspiration.
Andre Soltner arrived on the dot of 9 a.m. He lost his day of skiing to come, the 79-year-old retired chef legend of Lutèce, confided. I was early, too, and I found myself at the host's table beside Soltner. He introduced himself to Calvin Trillin. “You two have never met?” I was shocked.
“I’m more interested in the vernacular,” Trillin said to me in a pathetic explanation of how he could be a food writer and yet never been to Lutèce. We nibbled at a remarkable (Andre and I agreed) little corn muffin as Myhrvold explained how he’d come to produce 2,438 pages of food science in six volumes that Jean Georges was calling the new Escoffier. I dabbed my corn muffin with bacon jam, hating the greasy texture. It definitely tasted of chemistry. Andre tasted it twice but was discreet.
Ferran Adria eats. Yes, he does.
Myhrvold, a physicist who gets credit for developing Windows Software, took home $650 million when he left Microsoft and then went on to astounding triumphs at Intellectual Ventures (IV), an invention hatchery. So no expense was spared gathering the equipment and a team to collect, define, explain and examine every possible cooking technique ever contemplated – and to cut pots and pans in half for the photographs that would reveal all. He cheerfully revealed that our breakfast had been cooked and shipped from Seattle.
“I want to read the books,” Andre said. “We have a copy at the school (The French Culinary Institute where he is a prize of the faculty). “So I can read it there."
The mushroom omelet with “constructed egg stripes steamed in a combi oven” was gorgeous. The striped top layer would have made a gorgeous beret. It definitely had a mushroom flavor but it was otherwise a travesty of eggness. “Not as good as a regular omelet,” Andre noted, although he would be upset that I’m quoting him. He’s such a gentle man.
If you have a week free to cook pastrami, you'll want this recipe.
"Pastrami and Hash," as a title for the next course suggested mischief. “Cooked sous vide for 72 hours, potatoes cavitated in an ultrasonic bath,” it said on the menu. Actually, the pastrami had spent three days curing and six hours smoking before the three days of slow cooking, Myhrvold reported with considerable charm, humor and modesty. I think it was modesty. The potatoes were subjected to one of those gizmos people use to clean the tarnish from jewelry,” he explained. The tiny holes that produced caused starch to seep out, making the little tater tots extra crispy.
“This is the best pastrami I’ve ever eaten,” Soltner cried. It was. Yes, it was. Tender, almost gelatinous, but not rudely so, just slightly sweet. And the tater tots were fabulous, too.
His colleague Alain Sailhac, dean of French studies at FCI, came by. “I love that pastrami.”
“We must teach it at the school,” Andre told him.
“But we don’t have the machinery,” said Sailhac.
“We have to buy whatever it is,” Soltner responded.
“Maybe I need my own copy of the books,” he said to me as he got up from the Earl Grey posset and the cold-infused coffee pot de crème with maple crumble. More Frankenfood tricks, but very good. “I need to know more. Out of this will come very good things. We old guys need to know more.”
I guess he’ll have to wait. Myhrvold was not particularly concerned if the book ever made money. But the first shipment sold out in two weeks. Amazon sold the $625 set at $461.62. Myrvold tried to be philosophical. “More books are on a slow boat from China,” he told us. As for a second printing, the paper maker in Japan wasn’t answering the phone. Barnes & Noble’s sold out at $462.62, was taking orders for shipment in July.
Click here to return to Short Order listing.