A few hundred miles to the north of Unicorn Precinct XIII, Nathan Myhrvold is conducting molecular gastronomy experiments that Powell can only dream of. Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, is probably about as close as you could get to Powell's reverse image in the world of technology. He has written in favor of intellectual-property rights in the Wall Street Journal and was a major figure in a company that most hackers love to hate. But both men share the same love of MG for its own sake. The difference is Myhrvold has essentially infinite resources with which to do it. His home in Washington State is equipped with a 2,000-square-foot food-science lab and every cutting-edge piece of equipment in the world. His lab homogenizer, for example, is like a superblender - "I can get particles a full order of magnitude smaller than even the best blender in the world," he boasts. "One-micron droplets!" Myhrvold resists the name geek gourmet, although he readily admits to being "a huge food geek." Rather, he sees the movement as "scientifically or rationally oriented cuisine."
Myhrvold knows what he's talking about when it comes to science. He has a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics, and he studied cosmology, quantum field theory in curved space-time, and quantum theories of gravitation with Stephen Hawking at the University of Cambridge before eventually landing at Microsoft. (Myhrvold also has degrees in geophysics, space physics, and mathematical economics.) But when it comes to cooking, he's learning as he goes. Everyone in the field is; even a culinary superstar like Adrià (whom Myhrvold once engaged to create a 42-course meal) is working in a field that is in its infancy. Myhrvold is a regular on eGullet.com and trades tips and suggestions with other users around the country.
But Myhrvold - bearded, cheerful, bespectacled - is never happier than when puttering around in his lab, using science equipment to make food. He uses his ultrasonic cleaner, the same kind of powerful instrument used to clean jewelry, for tasks as different as making stock and emulsifying oil and water. He cooks short ribs inside a vacuum-sealed bag for 36 to 40 hours, and then, when they are completely reddish pink and medium rare all the way through, sears their surface on an induction range that superheats pans through magnetism, without ever giving off radiant heat. He has an ultraviolet sterilizer to free his environments of incubating microbes. He uses a custom-built cold smoker to experiment on salmon, as well as liquid nitrogen to make frozen cream puffs. But his goals are much loftier than just adapting science tools: Like any molecular gastronomist, amateur or professional, he wants to re-create food from the level of its tiniest particles.
Myhrvold speaks rapturously of fluid gels, or liquids that act like solids until the moment you pour them, and mozzarella powder ("You can eat it with a spoon!"). Some of the equipment he uses is beginning to find its way into ordinary restaurants and even the homes of some especially ambitious gourmets. He speaks approvingly of the Pacojet, a machine that grinds and pulverizes frozen ingredients, creating incredibly smooth mousses and sorbets out of practically anything. And he adores the ultimate kitchen appliance, the Thermomix, an all-in-one gastronomy engine that chops, grinds, mixes, blends, steams, heats, stirs, weighs, times, kneads, whips, stews, and homogenizes - sometimes doing two or more of these things simultaneously.
I ask Myhrvold if he thinks the kind of high-tech experimentation he is doing will ever become the norm in ordinary kitchens. "I'm not sure how safe it would be," he concedes. "This kind of cooking is beyond the realm of intuition. You need to know about the equipment, health issues, and the science behind it. But it's not necessarily inaccessible. There are hundreds of people doing it right now. But it's never going to displace the corner deli or pizzeria."
To artist Miwa Koizumi, that's the idea behind this kind of cooking. It's supposed to be strange, to make people reconsider their notions of eating. "I want people to think about taste, about what eating is like as a shared experience," she says. Koizumi, a Japanese-born artist who developed her career in France, is now based in New York City and creates food-art happenings at a performance space called the Flux Factory. Some of these happenings are pretty far-out, which is entirely intentional. Koizumi seeks to reacquaint us with our sense of taste. Thus, in the appetizer portion of All You Can Art, a food collaboration held last year, Koizumi set out to have visitors "eat air." A pomegranate seed was placed at the end of a syringelike plunger, and visitors were asked to plunge, shooting vaporizing pomegranate liquor into their mouths.
Koizumi's art is meant to be ethereal; she's using the techniques of molecular gastronomy to completely abstract flavor from texture. She gets some of her effects from liquid, as well - she used a centrifuge to separate the liquid from 100 tomatoes, producing a golden fluid that visitors were invited to taste. Without the familiar visual cues, many didn't know they were tasting the essence of tomato - which was exactly the point.