The Science Genius Explores Cooking with Pouches
By Mike Drummond

Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold

The former Microsoft chief technology officer, space physicist, paleontologist, photographer, inventor and gourmand believes the kitchen and food production are due for an innovation makeover.

For Nathan Myhrvold, the kitchen is just as much a chemistry lab as it is a setting for preparing cuisine.

When Myhrvold cooks, he’s likely to use exotic homogenizers, liquid nitrogen, high speed centrifuges and gelling agents known as carrageenans derived from seaweed. His area of interest and growing expertise is in sous vide, a method of cooking food in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches submersed in warm water for long periods.

“It takes lots of experimentation,” Myhrvold says of sous vide. But, as he notes, “If you want to do something new and innovative, it takes a bit of research.”

Myhrvold should know. He’s the former chief technology officer at Microsoft and founder of Microsoft Research, the company’s R&D arm. He has a master’s in geophysics and space physics from UCLA, a Ph.D. in theoretical and mathematical physics, and a master’s in mathematical economics from Princeton.

As a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University, he worked with Stephen Hawking in cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space time and quantum theories of gravitation. In 2004, he wrote the forward for Juice: The Creative Fuel That Drives World Class Inventors. He personally holds scores of patents or pending patents, and his company, Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures, which commercializes inventions, has amassed more than 20,000 patents. (Please see “I’m Not a Patent Troll” at the bottom of the page.)

For kicks he funds and participates in paleontology expeditions and is an avid nature and wildlife photographer.

When he’s not acquiring and commercializing patents, contemplating curved space time or digging for dinosaur bones, he finds refuge in the kitchen. He’s an investor in the Zagats’ restaurant-guide business and has a playful business card that reads “Chief Gastronomic Officer.” Cooking is one of his lifelong passions.

“When I was nine, I wanted to cook Thanksgiving dinner,” he says. “And my mom let me. Since that time I’ve been fascinated with the whole process.”

Kitchens have become larger, more complex areas for household interaction. They’re utilitarian. Inviting. Communal. One survey revealed many kitchens serve as the family confessional.

Because it has become the focal point of modern household activity, the kitchen offers a petri dish for innovation, particularly for independent inventors. Veg-O-Matics. Ginsu knives. George Foreman grills. Potato peelers. Pasta makers. Bread machines. There seems to be an endless stream of kitchen gadgets year after year. Yet Myhrvold believes there’s room for improvement.

“The most technologically advanced appliance in the kitchen is the microwave oven,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is find ways in which technology can make material differences in the way in which we cook. Sometimes it’s hardware, others are ingredients.”

That’s one reason he finds sous vide so fascinating. The technique offers a way to test the bounds of taste and technology. Yet when he first dabbled in it, he was frustrated by a lack of information. So he’s writing a book on the subject, still untitled, due later this year.

“Conventional cooking is not taught by explanation,” he says. “It’s just, ‘Do this. Cook it for this amount of time and at this heat and you’ll be fine.’” It’s clear his book will delve into the science behind his cooking method of choice.