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US ‘modernist’ chef takes on Gallic gastronomes

A US mathematician who used to work for Microsoft is hoping to win over Gallic gastronomes, as he takes his "modernist" cooking methods to the home of traditional gourmet cuisine.

Defying critics who he argues view cooking “like religion,” chef Nathan Myhrvold is about to publish a French — and German and Spanish — version of his “Modernist Cuisine,” which mixes molecular science with the culinary arts.

The huge five-volume, 2,440 page tome, published in the United States and Britain earlier this year, also has a hefty price tag at €399 ($540), but Myhrvold says he hopes his ideas will win over new fans across the Atlantic.

He even likens conservative reaction to modernist methods — whose exponents include Heston Blumenthal in Britain and Spanish masterchef Ferran Adria — to the reception Nouvelle Cuisine initially received.

“Most really good cooks anywhere in the world in the 90s cooked in a style which was a combination of Escoffier and Nouvelle Cuisine,” he said, referring to renowned Gallic master Auguste Escoffier.

“It was primarily a French technique. France was the home of all the high-end technique. And these techniques had been around for a long time — for 20 years at that time,” he told AFP.

But Myhrvold, who quit his job as technical director at US computer giant Microsoft in 1999, to found a scientific patent company, said he was in a good position to challenge that.

“That’s one of the reason I retired from Microsoft: I wanted more time to cook. And I had been aware for several years of the modernist approach in cooking,” he said by telephone from his home in Seattle.

“My background in science and in cooking together would put me in a very good position to write a book that would explain these new techniques to chef and anybody interested in food,” he added.

Myhrvold was never a professional chef himself, but he spent two years as an intern at Rover’s, a restaurant in Seattle run by French chef Thierry Rotureau, before training at the Ecole de la Varenne, in Burgundy.

It was only after that that he founded a culinary laboratory, where he embarked on all sorts of experiments with all sorts of ingredient, which he then shared with the wider gastronomic world.

His experiments blew some lazy habits out of the water: for example the traditional French dish confit de canard.

“There is a classic French technique for the confit de canard. Almost any chef you talk to will tell you that when you cook it in fat very slowly for a long period of time .. it produces this unique texture and flavour.

“We did a test by cooking it traditionally, but we also steamed it at the same temperature and for the same amount of time, and it’s the same. The oil, actually, doesn’t matter at all.

“When I tell some chefs that, they are almost angry at me,” he said.

The 52-year-old says gastrophiles who question the place of science in the kitchen need to learn from the past.

“People believe very strongly about food. It’s almost like religion. There is a very strong ideology about it. If we look back and look at the Nouvelle cuisine, the ideas were very simple,” he said.

“They stopped putting flour in sauces, for example. But at the time, it was a radical thing. Some food lovers totally denounced Nouvelle Cuisine, some championed it, there was huge controversy.

And he said: “The history of food is all about invention, innovation and variety.

“Once upon a time we didn’t have ice-cream. Current time is more innovative than other point in the history because we have a lot of new technologies. I would ask people to have an open mind,” he added.

“I think there is a lot more to discover. Many things in food are very complicated. Meat is a very complicated thing, created with tons of proteins and molecules and there are a lot of mysteries.”

“I don’t think that we are done anytime soon.”

The European language editions are scheduled to be published later this month, by the Taschen publishing house.

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Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

When travelling through France ordering local dishes and drinks is always a good bet, so we're taking a virtual roadtrip through France, highlighting some of the must-try regional specialities.

Regional cuisine: What to eat and drink in central France

This section of our roadtrip takes in the central part of France, from the tourist hotspots of the Alps and west coast seaside resorts through the less well know (but wonderful) central regions. 

The following is just our personal recommendation for some of the areas we’re passing through – please leave your suggestions and foodie tips in the comments box below.

Savoie/Haut-Savoie – Extremely popular for winter sports, the French Alps are stunning all year round and a summer trip for hiking, cycling or water sports is also highly recommended. The long, cold winters and the popularity of sporty holidays means that many Savoie specialities tend towards the hearty, filling, cheese-based and calorific – fondue, raclette and tartiflette.

What to order: It has to be fondue – but this is really a winter dish. Although some tourist spots sell it in summer it’s best enjoyed after a hard day hiking or skiing while watching the snow swirl around outside your window. The basics of a fondue are always the same – a big pot of melted cheese and some bread to dip in – but there are many varieties based on cheese type. We prefer a mixed-cheese option to get the full flavour spectrum, in the spirit of going local let’s order the Fondue Savoyard.

To drink: Wine! Old Swiss and French grannies will tell you that drinking water with fondue can be fatal, as it causes the cheese to solidify and stick in your stomach. As far as we know this has never been proven with science, but it’s definitely true that a crisp white wine is perfect to cut through the rich, fatty cheese.

Opt for a local vin jaune for the perfect partner.  

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Lyon – you might think that the whole of France is a foodie destination, but to French people Lyon is the ‘foodie capital’, and for that reason it’s a highly popular staycation destination with the French. Definitely check out the ‘bouchon’ restaurants which specialise in the best in local cuisine. 

What to order: Brioche de pralines rosé. There are so many delicious Lyon savoury specialities that it’s hard to pick one so we’ve gone for a sweet treat here. Pink pralines (nuts in a sugar coating) are the city’s signature sweet and while they’re great on their own, for an extra indulgent treat you can get brioche (sweet bread) studded with pink pralines. A slice (or two) with a pot of coffee is quite possibly the world’s best breakfast.

And to drink:  Beaujolais. Stick with us here, there’s more to beaujolais than the much-derided beaujolais nouveau (although that is getting better these days). The wine appellation extends almost to Lyon and is home to hundreds of small vineyards all making beautiful wines, many of whom are taking up production of vins bio (organic) or vins naturel.  

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READ ALSO: Bio, natural or biodynamic: 5 things to know about French organic wines

Auvergne – central France tends to get missed by many tourists, which is a real shame because much of it is stunning, as well as being quieter and cheaper than the coastal areas. The area is dotted with mountains and (extinct) volcanoes which give it a really dramatic character.

What to order: Auvergnat cuisine is quite meat-based, although the region is also known for good cheeses. To combine the two into one meal, we highly recommend aligot – a type of silky, creamy mashed potato with lots of stringy cheese stirred in – topped with a sausage. Have this at a restaurant with a glass or good wine or buy it from a street stall and go watch the town’s famous rugby team. Either way, the experience will be sublime.

And to drink: Volvic. Those volcanoes that we mentioned earlier give the name to one of France’s most famous mineral waters – Volvic. The water is apparently filtered through six layers of rock for five years, so give your liver a rest and sample some.

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Corrèze – moving west takes us into Corrèze, one of France’s most sparsely populated départements and one that even some French people would struggle to point to on a map. Transport is not all that easy unless you have a car but if it’s well worth the effort to visit this hidden but lovely corner of France.

What to order: Savoury dishes often feature mushrooms (especially ceps) and chestnuts and freshwater fish such as perch are also popular but we’re going to pick a dessert – clafoutis. The baked fruit flan is hugely popular across France but is traditional in Corrèze – in the classic form it’s made with cherries, but lots of different fruit options are available.

And to drink: They grow a lot of nuts in Corrèze and as well as eating them, they’re often made into digéstifs as well. If by this stage of the roadtrip you are feeling a little heavy, try an after-dinner liqueur to help you digest (although, despite the name scientists claim that a digéstif doesn’t actually help digestion).

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Île d’Oléron – We’ve now reached the west coast, and just off the shore of the Vendée are two beautiful islands. Île de Ré is known as the ‘French Hamptons’ because it’s such a popular holiday destination for rich Parisians, while its smaller brother Île d’Oléron is less high profile but equally lovely.

What to order: This area is the centre of France’s oyster production and if you take a trip around the island (or on the mainland) you will see hundreds of oyster beds. Virtually all local restaurants serve them, but you’ll also see them piled high at markets, where the stallholders will shuck them for you if you’re afraid of losing a finger in the process.

And to drink: The island is known for its white wines which pair perfectly with oysters. Stop off at the market for a quick glass (and an oyster or two) when you’ve finished your shopping or buy a bottle, plus a platter of oysters and have a picnic. 

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Head to our Food & Drink section to find guides to the regional specialities of southern and northern France.