June 15, 2013

The Ultimate Hamburger As Brought to You By an Insanely Rich Insane Genius Polymath

[Note: Last night I went out to the backyard to grill the first hamburgers of summer.... then I remembered these hamburgers from 2011. ]

I admire excess. I admire fellow Americans who keep the faith when it comes to one of the central guiding principles of this nation: "If it is worth doing, it is worth overdoing." So when I learned that Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft ultra-millionaire and the guiding force behind the six-volume $625.00 cookbook Modernist Cuisine would be speaking at Town Hall in Seattle last night, I had to attend.

I'd first bumped into Myhrvold in the Penthouse offices in New York over a decade or so back. He was touring New York promoting something that never really got off the ground for Microsoft -- something that happened a lot in that period. He impressed me then as a very high functioning prodigy moving into middle age. He's a fascinating polymath and his years with Microsoft have left him with the means to indulge his obsessions. One long term obsession, stemming (so goes his myth) from nine years of age, is cooking. The apotheosis of this obsession is the book, say rather "block of paper and ink," known as Modernist Cuisine.

"Initially the book was planned to be 150 pages on cooking sous vide in water baths and combi ovens, along with some scientific fundamentals relevant to those techniques.It gradually grew in scope; by late 2009, the book plan had expanded to 1,500 pages,[7] and when finally printed it was 2,438 pages."
Another fact is that the ink used in printing the book weighs four pounds.

Myhrvold spoke about the book and the recipes and techniques of the book for about an hour in his rather high-pitched but scratchy voice. I was kept interested and informed for most of it if not overly impressed. After all, it seemed to be one of those projects where, if you had the obsession and money (He had both.) to toss at a project, you could staff it and fund it enough to make it happen. He was being marginally more interesting than the ultra-rich nerds who go out and fill barns with Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

Then he came to his variation of "The Cheeseburger." Like other things in Modernist Cuisine, Myhrvold's "Chesseburger" is constructed by taking infinite pains to concentrate flavors and make various ingredients do techno-tricks. In exploded form,"The Cheeseburger" looks like this:


Tasty, right? But the payoff is when Myhrvold informs you about exactly how they cook the patty. For reasons explained in the video below, the "shortrib patty ground vertically to align the grain" is first dipped into liquid nitrogen and then lowered into boiling oil.

That's right: first liquid nitrogen at -346F and then into boiling oil. That's when I knew I was listening to a certifiable maniac whose resume and fortune were the only things that stood between him and an Institution for the Cusinely Insane.

Still I had to wonder, "What can that cheeseburger possibly taste like?" I was more than a bit disappointed when he offered to sign copies of his $625.00 book after the talk. I was sort of hoping he'd invite us all out for some burgers.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at June 15, 2013 8:50 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

It probably tastes good but nothing can taste *that* good (as in, to be worth all the effort, money, and hype). Besides, it's over-complicated; a hamburger should be simple. Get some good ground beef with a bit of fat, not too much. Make patty with whatever seasonings you like in it. Put on grill. Get a decent bun from a store bag (yes -- just make sure it's not stale), toast it a little on the grill. Add your favorite toppings -- whatever you like, even if it's that "cheese food" that comes in individually wrapped slices. Eat. There, that wasn't so hard -- and no liquid nitrogen need be involved. (I've been leery of liquid nitrogen ever since that X-Files episode where the guy's head gets frozen and smashed.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 6, 2011 9:39 AM

While ultimately I have to agree with Andrea, that graphic is making me crave a ridiculously overpriced burger in the worst way. If it were scratch & sniff, I'm pretty sure people would be forking over untold sums just for a taste.

Posted by: Julie at December 6, 2011 9:53 AM

I was sort of hoping to have it on one or more of Myhrvold's billions and billions of dimes.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 6, 2011 10:01 AM

I would like to see a video of that poor soul who does the liquid nitrogen to hot oil transfer. Step back. Way back.

Or maybe Nathan just build a robot for the task.

Posted by: Nick Charles at December 6, 2011 10:41 AM

Jesus Mary and Joseph, God save us from culture vultures.

Guys like that could fuck up a wet dream, and will never, ever, get how staggeringly boring they are to everybody else.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at December 6, 2011 11:16 AM

He wants to pump sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to fight global warming. So he's not just cuisinely insane, but a renaissance lunatic, if you will.

Posted by: Timmy at December 6, 2011 11:52 AM

There's no bacon. I realize the whole bacon-worship thing is, at this point, staggering towards any movement it detects slurring the word, "braiiinnnsss!", but there's no bacon on his stupid, costly cheeseburger.

I have no interest in being lectured to on the subject of the perfect cheeseburger by a perfect effing ignoramus.

"I was sort of hoping he'd invite us all out for some burgers."

What interest would he have in letting someone have a taste? It would reveal how profoundly clueless he is*, and make people feel cheated of their time, and money.

*See the whole "no bacon on his stupid, costly cheeseburger" thing above.

Posted by: Mike James at December 6, 2011 12:05 PM

Regardless of the ingredients and price, it all turns to shit.

Posted by: Peccable at December 6, 2011 1:06 PM

According to him, they've sold 35,000 copies world wide and the french, german, italian, and spanish editions have just been released. That means a gross revenue so far of $21,875,000.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 6, 2011 2:57 PM

Wonder what the book's going for on ebay?

They're selling because of his name and reputation, not because of true worth. Coffee table cover for the other rich and famous-es.

Posted by: Jean at December 6, 2011 3:12 PM

Four pounds of ink per copy. Wow, I don't use that much ink in my printer in ten years or maybe ever. Muy extravaganza!

I did enjoy the detailed description of the burger. He should subject this tasty morsel to a market test. Open a restaurant and see how many people will pay him $50 or more for Wimpy's preferred food.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at December 6, 2011 3:47 PM

Well, I thought liquid nitrogen ice cream was a stupid over-the-top idea, and it turned out to be delicious as well as awesome to watch being made.

So if somebody offered to make me a liquid nitrogen donut-fried hamburger, I'm certainly open to having one (and to standing at a distance, watching it made).

Posted by: Maureen at December 6, 2011 4:18 PM

I'm pretty sure that none of the world's greatest hamburgers of the last century or so were made with liquid nitrogen.

Also, he lost me with the mushrooms. Blecch.

Posted by: rickl at December 6, 2011 4:23 PM

So is the name of this pièce de culinary résistance in French called Cuisine à la Merditerranéenne?

You can buy Cooking With Pooh for as much as 50 bucks or as little as 17 bucks at Amazon.

Posted by: Jewel at December 6, 2011 4:25 PM

$21 million for a book on cooking chemistry? I am so going to write a book. Maybe, on make-up chemistry.

Posted by: MOTUS at December 6, 2011 5:15 PM

I just got back from Vons. They were out of liquid nitrogen, and vertically ground rib.


Posted by: jwm at December 6, 2011 5:40 PM

How the f**k do you "vertically grind" meat anyway? What does that even mean?

Posted by: Andrea Harris at December 6, 2011 8:11 PM

Don't know, but this man not only has a kitchen he has a machine shop as well.

Posted by: vanderleun at December 6, 2011 9:51 PM

I knew he was an idiot when he didn't use a Ciabatta roll. At Casa de Casca, we serve Black Angus Chedder & Bacon burgers that we get out of the freezer case at WalMart. We get the Ciabatta rolls there too, and prefer the onion ones, but take what they have as long as it's not multi-grain. Grab some Jalapeno Cheese slices, and a bottle of Southwestern Spicey Mustard while you're there. Saute onion slices in olive oil until they're on the edge of carmalazation, then assemble the ingredients in any way that makes sense to you.

Posted by: Casca at December 7, 2011 6:06 AM

Cheese steaks are still much better than burgers, especially with grilled onions and mushrooms, on homemade rolls. Not the over hyped Philly style with 'wiz' neither. But the very delicious Lancaster County variety.

Posted by: Jewel at December 7, 2011 6:31 AM

36 hours to prepare an effing hamburger?!

They keep using that phrase "ultimate hamburger." I do not think it means what they think it means.

Posted by: butch at December 7, 2011 7:20 PM

Ultimate in that it is the last thing you eat before you die, maybe.

Posted by: Jewel at December 7, 2011 7:29 PM

Or they keep telling themselves that to justify the time, effort, and money expended on a piece of seared dead animal flesh.

Posted by: butch at December 7, 2011 7:34 PM

One of my major gripes about living in AL is that the supermarkets here don't carry potato rolls. Nothing better for burgers & dogs.

Posted by: butch at December 7, 2011 7:37 PM

You know, that top bun reminded me from the start of the photos of nuclear bomb fireballs. And I can't stop seeing it that way, arrggghhh.

Posted by: chuck at December 7, 2011 11:14 PM

Liquid smoke soaked lettuce? He may be a genius but he obviously has at least one white trash gene.

Posted by: B. Moe at December 8, 2011 6:06 AM

We sell potato rolls up here in Amishland. I make potato rolls that are so good, the Amish would kill just to know how to make them.

Posted by: Jewel at December 8, 2011 12:51 PM