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March 16, 2005

My interview with Harold McGee

My interview with Harold McGee

Photo Thor Swift / © The Age.com


By Bruce Cole. Published January 2005. © 7x7 Magazine/Hartle Media. All rights reserved.

If there's one book that you'll find on the shelves of most restaurant kitchens, it's the food-science masterpiece ON FOOD AND COOKING, by author Harold McGee. Before McGee, a Palo Alto resident, most chefs were told that their job was just to cook, no questions asked – and most certainly not to geek out on the science behind it.

That was up until 1984. Today, ON FOOD AND COOKING'S influence seems to be everywhere, from the stern-faced lecturers of America's Test Kitchen to the silly antics of Alton Brown on the Food Network. Cookbooks are full of McGeeisms: Searing meat doesn't seal in the juices, for example, and simmering a tomato sauce slowly makes it more watery, not less.

Approaching the 20th anniversary of ON FOOD AND COOKING, McGee noticed that it needed updating. The science may not have changed, but the food had. Things that were once totally unheard of, such as Mexican mole and Sichuan peppercorns, have become almost mainstream. And chefs, such as Spain's Ferran Adria, are experimenting with everything from aroma extracts to liquid nitrogen. McGee knew he needed to modernize his book, and like a good scientist, he did it right. Nearly 900 pages later, and days after he submitted the tome to Simon and Schuster, we caught up with him to talk about a science that's not so weird anymore.

1. By the numbers. The original print run of ON FOOD AND COOKING was 7500 copies. "The publisher said we'd sell a few to libraries and put it out in paperback and see what happened." The book went on to sell almost 150,000 copies.

2. Stiff fish. In the new edition, whose initial run is planned for at least 35,000 copies, McGee has added a lot of interesting stuff. We were especially intrigued by a section entitled "The Effects of Rigor Mortis and Time."

3. Bedtime Stories. Favorite cookbooks? Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook, Paul Bertolli's Cooking By Hand, Richard Olney's French Menu Cookbook and Olney's Simple French Food.

4. Holy Guacamole. McGee recalls the reactions he got from his book the first time around: "The first person I heard from was a guy from Houston's restaurant chain who wanted to know why the guacamole recipe was working in Chicago but not in Atlanta. It's only in the last five to seven years that I started getting calls from people whose names I recognized from food magazines."

5. Juicy News. To brine or not to brine? "What you are doing is making meat that should be better in the first place tolerable by adding juices to it. If you imagine your butcher doing that, selling you a piece of meat that's 20 percent added water, you wouldn't appreciate it."

6.TV Dinner. No contract yet, but the idea of a TV food show appeals to McGee. "A kind of crossover between Nova and a cooking show. You could do so much by helping people visualize what's going on inside their kitchen—and these are experiments you can eat when you are done."

7. Salt of the earth. Although McGee is buddies with England's chef of the moment Heston Blumenthal, owner of the Fat Duck – a man who thinks the practice of salting cooking water is rubbish—he sides with another friend, Thomas Keller, noting that Keller comes by knowledge instinctively. The British, says McGee, sometimes let science cloud their appreciation of what's really going on.

8. Heat of the Moment. McGee's favorite toy is a surface-temperature laser thermometer. "One of the huge unknowns in cooking is that [after] you turn on the heat for the pan, just how hot is it? It's really important to know what the temperature of the cooking utensil is, because the quality of what's cooked is so dependent on the heat treatment you subject it to."

9. Steak out. McGee's favorite method of pan-frying steak is to use an almost-white-hot-cast-iron pan, sear the steak on both sides and then stand it on end to render some of the fat and crisp the edges. He then plates the steak and turns down the heat, letting the pan cool down before finishing cooking. If he's got the time, he'll flip the steak every 30 seconds or so just to keep the juices from boiling to the surface.

10. Mad scientist. His most memorable experiment gone awry would have to be the time he left triple-plastic-wrapped persimmons in the oven and they turned into toxic little volcanoes. Who knew such a pretty fruit could be lethal.

7x7 Magazine.

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Posted by Bruce at March 16, 2005 12:49 AM

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