Why the Stodgy Old World of Bread Is Ripe for Innovation

Jeremy Repanich

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The most unlikely bestselling cookbook writer around has an even more unlikely sequel. Back in 2011, former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold published the five-volume, 2,500-page behemoth he called Modernist Cuisine. Along with a team of chefs and researchers, Myhrvold deconstructed cooking with a scientific precision. They also codified the techniques of molecular gastronomists like Ferran Adrià of El Bulli—simultaneously cataloguing past innovation while deepening the world’s understanding of new the science behind cooking.

Myhrvold’s latest tome, Modernist Bread, digs not into the modernist world of fog and foams, but the uber-traditional world of bread. Though it may not seem like the logical next step, Myhrvold is passionate about the idea of taking something so rooted in the old and finding a way to innovate. We sat down with him to talk about embarking on his love of cooking, how words like artisanal get stripped of all meaning and what it costs to take on such a massive project.

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Back when you were still at Microsoft and you wanted to take a leave to cook, what did you tell Bill Gates?
Well, it was I think 1994, I said, “Look, I want to go to chef school in France.”

At that time, Windows 95 is coming, which was huge for the company.
Yeah, so I wound up doing it in the fall of 1995—after the Windows 95 launch. I remember he said, “Well, I thought you liked food because you liked eating it.” I said, “Yes, I like eating it, but I also like cooking it,” and he eventually said yes.

Was he kind of like dumbfounded by it?
I have many interests. Previous to this, I was at UCLA giving a seminar on my asteroid research and I was doing dinosaur research while I was at Microsoft. So, I was known to have lots of weird hobbies, and he was sort of like, “I don’t get it, but okay.” My cookbooks, he swears, are the only cookbooks he’s ever opened in his life, and he has both the original one and he’s got the bread book now. Now he comes over to dinner and I cook for him. I did on Saturday night.

What did you have?
We had a 12-course dinner. Some modernist and some not.

Do you regularly cook for people?
When Modernist Cuisine came out, we had this street-cred problem because we didn’t have a famous restaurant. To a lot of people it was like, “Who the fuck are they?”

So, we started doing dinners for chefs, and for those we would cook a 29-course dinner, and the idea was basically to show we actually could cook—this wasn’t just science experiments done for the sake of it. In fact, it was really delicious. Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller has come. Ferran Adrià came to one dinner, and then we did 50 courses. He actually asked for seconds of course 35, which we were pretty impressed with.

And then we also started doing what we called science dinners, where we talked about science more generally. And so those are for what I call civilians. For civilians like Bill we do a 12-course dinner—29 is a little much them.

It seems like you were ready for pushback—did the reaction to the original Modernist Cuisine surprise you?
Oh my God, yes. I mean, there was no precedent for it, so you can’t say, “Well, normally a $600 cookbook sells like this.” Or, “Normally when you write a 2,600-page book…” We had no idea how many people would buy it. I’d also expected a little more of a pushback because there’s a whole movement within cooking that is about saying the old days were best. Come to my restaurant and I’ll serve you my grandmother’s recipe.

Tradition has such a strong pull in the food world.
The bread world has been enmeshed in this for a while in what they call the artisanal bread movement, starting in the 1970s with people who reacted to the poor quality of supermarket Wonder Bread with “We’ve got to go back to traditional European breads.” And that was a great thing, but there’s a limit to how far you can go forward if you are only looking in the rearview mirror. And as a consequence, there’s lots of great bakers that invented new things in baking, but they have to kind of downplay that they’re new.

Harkening to tradition is about creating a narrative—how much of what we like when it comes to food is just stories we tell ourselves?
Food is very important culturally, and it means a lot to us, and so we love the stories around it. A great example of this to me is the word natural, which in modern usage means it’s supposed to be good. I would say bread is not a natural thing. We’ve utterly changed it from the way it is. Grain is nothing like bread, the thing closest to grain that’s a cooked product is porridge. But to say bread is unnatural, people would be like, “No, no, no, bread is supposed to be natural.” It’s one of these synonyms for good. The sort of intellectual problem I have with that is that, in fact, it requires huge skill and technique to transform bread from grain and flour. And so then when you start using words like natural, and wholesome…

Artisanal is another one of those words that gets thrown around.
We have a tendency as a society to abuse whatever terms we come up with. We could drive right now to a Safeway and walk down an aisle of bread labeled artisan or artisanal on the packaging, right? And I would say, “That’s all not artisanal or artisan, at all, period.” You could also go to some great bakeries in LA that would be doing their version of what artisanal would be, but unfortunately it has the connotation that it has got to be old and traditional and that the more primitive you make it the better off it must be. And, my rhetorical question is always, “Well what’s next? Stone tools?”

Was that why you wanted to tackle bread next—to be forward looking?
So, part of the reason to write Modernist Bread was, we got a good reaction to the first book, number one, and number two. I thought maybe we could push things a little bit, and say, “Yeah, even if you don’t think of bread as being modern—you think of it in terms of tradition—maybe you should be a little more open-minded.” Modernist Bread is almost a contradiction in terms, but in fact, there’s no reason why bread can’t be as creative as any other kind of cuisine.

With Modernist Cuisine, there was a groundswell of people like Adria doing molecular gastronomy, so your book could have the approach of codifying their work. It seems like there’s not the same movement happening in bread for you to capture.
This time around we couldn’t say, “Okay, let’s make sure we cover every technique Ferran has done.” That was one of our goals in the first book. Well, there is no modernist baker I can do that to. I can say, “Let me cover the traditional breads of France.” And if you look hard enough and you push enough you can find there are some tricks and techniques and things that are unique to a baker, or to some area. We had to do a lot more work ourselves.

Now, for a variety of factors, just codifying in the first book also pushed things forward quite a bit because the act of making techniques more accessible helps. If you go out when you’re in Columbus, Ohio, there will be some restaurant that is cooking with sous vide.

I have a sous vide wand at home.
I take credit for that, or some credit anyway. The diffusion of knowledge from what was in a very small number of super-high-end kitchens, really did work with Modernist Cuisine. We’re hoping it works with the bread book too.

Why tackle what seems to be such a static topic with bread?
Bread is a very special food for us. We have a sidebar in the book on bread riots. They were rioting about bread in London and Paris in the 19th century. There were bread riots in Egypt in 2017. There’s never been an ice cream riot. People will riot about bread because it’s a basic commodity. It’s a food that we have a very special relationship to, compared to other things, and so that feeds into the societal aspect. When you charge for bread at a restaurant, people get mad, but, if you went to a terrific Italian restaurant, no one would expect the risotto has to be cheap. But, it’s a starch, well why should it be any different?

One of the other things that is weird about bread is that we went on a Jihad to make bread almost free, and we kind of succeeded, you know? I mean, for $2 you can get a loaf of bread on sale at a grocery store. Now, it’s not great bread, but it’s two bucks. For each of these breads that we got here [points to bread basket on the table], the farmer made about 5¢, maybe 10¢, that’s it. The reason is we put all of our ingenuity towards making grain super cheap. Now, could we afford to spend more than 10¢ on the grain? Yes, and in other foods that has happened. Look at chocolate. It used to be Hershey’s, now within a mile of here we can get Ecuadorian single origin 77%. It costs more, but it’s good. That sort of relationship—where you’re willing to pay more and get a premium product—is only just happening with bread.

Where were you looking to push bread forward?
Well, I guess the first is there’s more innovation in the bread world than you might think. Chad Robertson has this fantastic bakery called Tartine in San Francisco. His bread is his own creation—it’s unique to him, and you would call it modernist, even. Now if you looked at it you’d say, “Oh, well this must be some peasant style loaf.” No, it’s his unique creation. We found plenty of examples where individual bakers would come up with something amazing and new. Those are as close as the bread world comes to this idea of being modernist and being more open to innovation. In most cases though, they can’t even say that they’re innovative.

What is innovative about Robertson’s bread?
Chad’s bread is a high hydration bread, which means there’s a lot of water in it. That gives it big open bubbles in the crumb. All high-hydration breads are modern. They look rustic and peasant style. Probably the most familiar one is a bread called Ciabatta. Ciabatta was invented in the 1980s. It was not a traditional bread at all.

When I saw that about Ciabatta in the book, I almost couldn’t believe it.
I was shocked too about Ciabatta. No one would have made a bread like Chad’s, or no one did make a bread like Chad’s, and now Chad did. You know, it’s high hydration, it’s sourdough, it’s got a whole variety of very particular things that he developed. It is very technique driven. And it’s also not two dollars a loaf, but, there’s no reason it should be.

Was there anything that surprised you most when you were going through experiments on bread?
Well kneading is basically a fraud. That was a surprise to us.

Kneading is just speeding up the hydration of the gluten, so kneading in and of itself is not a necessary thing?
Yup.

It just cuts out time.
Yup.

That’s funny to me, because one criticism of the original book was that modern methods were providing shortcuts to people. But the old-timey method of kneading is itself a shortcut.
Exactly, and that’s why we like to describe it that way. If you dismiss no-knead bread on the basis of saying, “Oh, well it’s this cheat for people who don’t know how to knead,” you could respond, “Yeah, or kneading is a cheat for people who want to do things fast, right?” Take your pick, they’re both true.

It’s what we talked about before, there’s a constant tension between tradition and innovation in the food world.
Yeah, there’s this idea that knowing what you’re doing somehow is cheating and takes the spirit or the fun out of cooking. And I just flat out don’t agree with that. I think if you’re going to compare food to art, the art to compare it to is architecture. Most architecture is not art. Most architecture is keeping a roof over your head to keep the weather out, and by the same token, most food is primarily about fuel.

Now, if you look at great architecture like Frank Gehry’s Disney Center in LA, that building couldn’t stand up if you didn’t also know about engineering. Mastering those things allows Frank Gehry to do beautiful things. So the idea that knowledge of the technique—or the science behind it—inhibits the art, I think is just wrong.

You’ve said the highest calling for a chef isn’t to be a human thermometer.
I don’t think, “Wow, I’m so good at being a thermometer, and a thermostat, that I can like judge if the meat is done.” I mean sure that’s a skill that some people have, but feeling bad about someone using a thermometer is misplaced. Besides, what makes a chef great is how they combine flavors and textures and different ingredients in unexpected ways.

With these massive books, you’ve put a lot of time and resources into codifying that technique, so I have to ask: How much money did you invest in making Modernist Bread?
Well, we don’t normally release that, but a lot of money. More than anyone’s ever spent on a bread book in history, I am quite confident.

How many BMWs could I buy? I’m talking 7 Series, not 3 Series.
Well, you might need to think about BMW dealerships.

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