A Modernist Proposal
Carolyn Jung - September 2014
Nathan Myhrvold’s technological solution to the kerfuffle unleashed last year by Time’s “Gods of Food” dust-up: transform them into Goddesses and invite them to dinner. Carolyn Jung goes to his lab to taste how it all went down.
Inside Nathan Myhrvold’s Bellevue, Washington, laboratory at Intellectual Ventures, where innovations are underway to combat malaria, transport delicate vaccines more reliably, and fashion a new-fangled fuel source that would be inexhaustible, there’s also something on this warm spring evening that has probably never been here before: an inordinate amount of estrogen.
Over the past two years, the former Microsoft chief technology officer–turned–Modernist Cuisine majordomo has held 10 dinners at his warehouse lab/kitchen, making them perhaps the most exclusive pop-up invitation ever. But what makes this June night’s marathon 35 course dinner spread over six hours extraordinary is not just the fact that it’s his largest dinner to date, but that all of the 25 attendees are women.
The guest list includes 21 female chefs and four female journalists from around the country, who dropped everything and wondered how this golden ticket fell into their laps. Among the invitees: Anne Willan, the grande dame of French cooking, who founded École de Cuisine La Varenne; Amanda Cohen of the vegetarian Dirt Candy in New York City; Maria Hines of Tilth in Seattle; Nancy Silverton of Los Angeles’ Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza; and Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn, probably the only female chef/owner at the dinner, if not in the nation, who fully embraces the highly manipulated, experimental cooking characteristic of the modernist movement.
On the face of it, the reasoning behind the dinner appeared simple enough. Myhrvold, who has cooked for the likes of David Chang, José Andrés, and Thomas Keller, wanted to outdo his most recent 50 course feast for Ferran Adrià. But he acknowledged there was an underlying subtext, as well.
After all, everyone at the dinner was only all too familiar with—if not still reeling from—last year’s Time magazine story that spotlighted the movers and shakers most impacting the way we eat today. Of Time’s so-called 13 “Gods of Food,” only four mentioned were women, and none of them were chefs. An accompanying family tree of sorts depicted the reach of five monumental chefs who had influenced more than 50 young chefs around the globe. None of those were female either.
On the heels of the uproar that followed, Myhrvold acknowledged that, as plans got underway for this dinner, he purposely dubbed it internally as the “Goddess Dinner.”
He understood the pushback. Myhrvold talked about how Harold McGee comes to mind immediately when it comes to food science but that biochemist Shirley Corriher was also one of the first to write at length on that topic; how chef Elena Arzak has established a name for herself at the cutting-edge Arzak in Spain, yet many still attribute the restaurant’s achievements more to her father, Juan Mari; and how at a previous dinner at his lab, a guest blustered that women chefs can’t work with gels and liquid nitrogen, to which Myhrvold responded by marching one of his most talented female chefs to the table.
“There are many women involved. But the fame has gone disproportionally to some, and they have been mostly men,” Myhrvold says. “It’s not that we’re trying to advance modernist cuisine or convert the heathen to our goals. There is no political goal or statement to this, other than I thought such a dinner would be fun.”
Still, there was no denying the singularity of the event. The women chefs, often accustomed to the role of lone she-wolf in the kitchen, seemed to revel in the evening’s camaraderie, and yes, a plenitude of girl power. Surrounded by an abundance of stainless-steel equipment not typically used for cooking, as well as laser cutters, 3-D printers, and even an eyewash station, they sat down at three white tablecloth–draped round tables. As each course was served, Myhrvold came by, giddy as a kid proudly presenting a special gift for which he’d saved up all his pennies to purchase.
He was rewarded with no shortage of astonishment in return. As Myhrvold explained his “steak frites,” Naomi Pomeroy of Portland, Oregon’s BEAST marveled, “I don’t know anything about this stuff.” A tiny cup held an intense beef mousseline with one perfect French fry balanced on top, its ultracrisp exterior the result of the potato being placed in the same type of ultrasonic bath used to clean jewelry to create bubbles on the tuber’s surface before frying.
Both Pomeroy and Ashley Christensen, who owns several establishments in Raleigh, North Carolina, including Poole’s Downtown Diner, admitted they often get tongue-tied even remembering the phrase “molecular gastronomy.” For all the tantalizing flavors, Christensen missed the familiar aromas of cooking, such as a stock bubbling away on the stovetop, which were noticeably absent. Carrie Nahabedian of NAHA and Brindille in Chicago agreed, saying, “For me, molecular is a little abstract and cold. Women have a lot more soul in their cooking.”
Katie Hagan-Whelchel, chef de cuisine of ad hoc in Yountville, California, also derided the fact that she’s met one too many young chefs adept at foams, spheres, and fluid gels, yet clueless as to how to truss a chicken properly.
Using liquid nitrogen to separate grapefruit segments cleanly from their membranes or using carbon monoxide to set the shocking magenta color of a rare beef consommé, as done at this dinner, may not be for everyone. But it appeals to Elizabeth Falkner, who first made a name for herself with her avant-garde desserts at Citizen Cake in San Francisco. “My dad is an abstract painter and my mom is a dietician, so this really speaks to me,” she says. “I like old-school fire and cast iron, but I also love exploring and don’t want to limit myself.”
Crenn wishes more women chefs would embrace this style of cooking. But she understands why they might not. After all, she knows all too well about being pigeon-holed after being given the brush-off by male culinary school directors in France when she tried to enroll in their programs. “Maybe women feel they have to do simple, rustic food because if they start to think otherwise, they get slapped down. So, they stop trying,” she said. “Modernist cooking is one more hurdle for them.”
Christina Tosi, chef of New York City’s Momofuku Milk Bar, was one who did dabble in it for a time. For two years, she worked at wd~50 in order to challenge herself. “You’d be surprised how many women are well-versed in these techniques but choose not to do them,” she says. “At wd~50, I learned how to think about food. I think I apply more of the thought process now than the actual vehicles. I wanted to make cookies and cakes, which are scientific in their own right.”
The dinner did provide inspiration for new techniques to bring back. Joanne Chang of Flour and Myers + Chang, both in Boston, mulled over replicating the luxuriant tofu that Myhrvold had the audacity to make by combining soy milk with heavy cream. Nahabedian was taken with the velvety pistachio gelato made with just nuts, sugar, hydrocolloids—and no dairy. When it came to the impossibly vivid sweet pea puree, however, made by spinning frozen Green Giant peas in a centrifuge, a machine that costs as much as an entry-level luxury car and was designed to separate out the components of blood, the chefs could only gape.
As Lauren DeSteno, chef de cuisine of New York City’s Marea, remarked, few of those at the dinner can afford that caliber of equipment, let alone close their restaurants for months to devote the time to experimentation. As it is, Pomeroy didn’t even have a ’hood when she opened BEAST.
But all those gadgets and gizmos don’t guarantee everlasting success, either. As food cognoscente Ruth Reichl noted at the dinner, “Ferran closed. Wylie is closing. Maybe there’s a reason why more women don’t do it.”
Tosi laughed, adding: “We’re too reasonable.”
Joanne Chang: Flour and Myers + Chang, Boston
Ashley Christensen: Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s, Chuck’s, and more, Raleigh, NC
Amanda Cohen: Dirt Candy, NYC
Dominique Crenn: Atelier Crenn, San Francisco
Lauren DeSteno: Marea, NYC
Kerry Diamond: editorial director of Cherry Bombe
Sara Dickerman: writer for Epicurious.com
Renee Erickson: The Walrus & the Carpenter, The Whale Wins, and more, Seattle
Elizabeth Falkner: formerly of Corvo Bianco and Krescendo, NYC
Katie Hagan-Whelchel: ad hoc, Yountville, CA
Maria Hines: Tilth, Golden Beetle, and Agrodolce, Seattle
Carolyn Jung: writer for Food Arts
Anita Lo: Annisa, NYC
Emily Luchetti: Farallon and Waterbar, San Francisco
Carrie Nahabedian: NAHA and Brindille, Chicago
Melissa Perello: Frances, San Francisco
Naomi Pomeroy: BEAST, Portland, OR
Iliana Regan: Elizabeth, Chicago
Ruth Reichl: author of Delicious!
Karen Shu: ABC Kitchen, NYC
Nancy Silverton: Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles
Ana Sortun: Oleana, Cambridge, MA
Christina Tosi: Momofuku Milk Bar, NYC
Anne Willan: founder of École de Cuisine La Varenne, Santa Monica, CA, and France