Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Keys to Harold McGee, an Interview

No pretty pictures this time.  It was the end of Dr. Harold McGee's "Keys to Good Cooking" book tour and I had to respect that.  

I find myself in the lobby of The Charles Hotel having a moment of deja vu.  It wasn't long ago when I was sitting right there with Chef Jose Andres.  However, Bianca and Cathy aren't there to support me this time.  I'm doing this one solo.  I make my way over to the reception desk, politely state my business to the attendant and she calls up.  She relays the message that he'll be down at the scheduled time.  I find a seat in the line of sight of the main stairs.  I break out my snazzy new audio recorder, so I won't miss a beat.   

I see Dr. McGee out of the corner of my eye as I'm setting up and walk over to greet him.  I ask him about recording our conversation and he approves.  We start to get settled in and hear the voices from the reception desk carrying over.  He suggests that we find a quieter location.  I agree.  We locate a decent spot and get comfortable.  Dr. McGee made it a point to find an optimal location for recording and I am thankful for his pragmatism.

During our search for a place to chat, I asked him, "What convinced you to meet with me?"  He told me that Chef Andres persuaded him.  This was Chef's response to a request I posted about meeting with Dr. McGee while he was in town.  I abide by the rule, "It never hurts to ask," because this is what happens. 

The Interview

Note:  My questions/comments are in bold and Dr. McGee's responses follow in standard font. 

Can you talk about umami or glutamate's role in food?  Fish sauce as well?

The Japanese have believed for more than 100 years now that we had a fifth basic taste sensation.  It’s caused by MSG and other related compounds that stimulate a particular receptor.  It’s still a mystery why we’ve got that taste.  The original idea was that it’s because glutamate is an amino acid and many of our tastes have to do with essential nutrients or avoiding poisons in the case of bitterness.  People thought that maybe this is an indicator of protein content.  It’s true that many of the fermented foods that we get our biggest hits of umami from are protein rich and fish sauce is an example of that.  Where you start with animal tissue, full of protein, let it sit around for a few months or years with bacteria and the fish’s own enzymes going to work on the proteins.  They get broken down into amino acids and that’s how we end up with a condiment that’s especially rich in umami.

What is your favorite preservation method?

I’m not sure I can say that I have a favorite preservation method.  The combination of salting, drying and fermentation give us cheese, sausages and preserved fish.  In a way, those three go together.  Each one by itself has preserving effects, but practically speaking we rely on all three at the same time for many things.  Alcoholic fermentation has a lot to say for it, but I’d hate to choose between wine and cheese.

What food discovery are you most proud of and why?

Well, I’m not sure I’ve made any discoveries.  I’ve certainly looked at a lot of things, but discovery...  I’m not so sure what that might be.

What’s your earliest childhood memory of investigating food?

I didn’t really do much with food myself until I was an adult.  I did a little bit of cooking at the age of maybe ten or twelve, but it was more learning the ropes than experimenting.  I certainly remember making bread for the first time, using yeast for the first time.  But, that was more just following a recipe and being amazed by the result.

Is that memory strong with you?  What did that lead to?

I think that it was part of my experience with the world.  I certainly don’t call up that memory up every time I bake.  It takes some effort to remember it, but you know those kinds of things become part of you.  Whether they’re conscience memories or not.

Chef Andres once said you were, “...the guy with the light when we didn’t even know there was darkness.”  What are your thoughts on that?

Well, I think that’s a very generous and eloquent thing to say.  A very beautiful thing to say.  I’m happy to say that I think there’s an element of truth to it, but it was more a historical accident. 

I think it’s true that chefs didn’t understand because they had never been encouraged to think about food.  They were encouraged to learn specific ways of preparing foods, but not to really think for themselves.  I feel very fortunate to have been in a position to help turn on the lights, but it’s as much because cooking as a profession was tradition bound and people weren’t writing about the science of cooking.  I lucked into a unique moment in history when someone could turn on the lights.

What’s your favorite fundamental cooking technique?

I don’t have favorites if you know what I mean.  The reason I do what I do in fact is that I love that there are so many different foods, ways of doing things and ingredients.  People often ask me, "What’s your favorite dish?" or "What’s your favorite cuisine?"  My answer is, I don’t have a favorite.  What I love is the fact I can do something different for breakfast, lunch and dinner today, tomorrow and the next day.  The same with techniques, each one of them is fascinating in its own way.

How do you feel your research would be received by Brillat-Savarin if he were still alive today?

I think he’d approve.  I think he’d be interested in all the details since he’s one of the first people to make the connection between cooking and chemistry.  I think he’d be happy to be alive today since there’s so much interesting stuff going on.

What is your food related guilty pleasure that no one would ever suspect?

I’m not sure no one would suspect because it’s a pretty common one.  I love potato chips.  I could eat a seven or eight ounce bag at one sitting with no problem.

Any particular kind of potato chips, preparation?

I actually like both styles.  The blond, very thin … style, but I also like the darker kettle style.  They’re both delicious in different ways.

I assume you’ve made your own.  What types of potatoes do you like to use when you’re making chips?

Yukon gold because they have a very pretty color and I think they have a little more flavor than some other potatoes.  Most potatoes make pretty good chips.  Maybe not the white and red really moist ones.  Russets are great. Yukon golds are great.  Purple potatoes make pretty good chips.

Have you ever used beets or sweet potatoes?

I’ve played around with sweet potatoes, not so much beets or other root vegetables.  Celery root would be good.  I've never tried that.

That does sound good.

What are your thoughts on smell-o-vision?

Well, I think there are some basic challenges to doing that kind of thing.  The fact that smells linger and you have to get them into your system and get them out fast, the air around you as well.  I did read that there was a presentation in New York.  I think it was a short opera that was accompanied with perfumes or smells.  It did sound intriguing.  The only direct experience I have had with anything like that are scratch and sniff John Waters movies, which are fun but in a fairly crude sort of way.

I spoke to you before the Chef Adria seminar at Harvard.  You expressed that there were a lot of nights when you were writing "On Food..." wondering if anyone would be interested in the material.  What kept you going? 

A fascination with the material and a belief that other people would be as fascinated as I am if I were able to communicate it well enough.  A very basic interest in and curiosity about these natural materials and what it is that human beings learned to do with them.

How did you get into photographing food at the microscopic level? 

Foods are such beautiful materials.  As a kid, I loved photography.  My father gave me a camera when I was very young and I used to develop my own film, so that’s been a life long interest.  That’s something I enjoy doing when I can excuse myself the time.

Do you still develop your own film?

I only did black and white.  I still love black and white for what it can offer.  I no longer have the equipment, facilities or the time.  That is the great thing about digital.

In all your research, what universal truths have you discovered?

I’m dubious about universal truths.  Partly because foods are complex, human beings are complex, and the interaction between them is so complex.  If there is a universal truth, it would maybe be that things are too complex for us to understand and encapsulate in one single view.  It's much easier to talk about universal truths as a physicist or theologian.  For me, food doesn’t lend itself to that way of thinking.


After the interview, I thank the good doctor for his time.  I offer him refreshments that I brought, the choice between a basil seed or mangosteen drink.  He settles on the mangosteen because it didn't contain any artificial flavors.  I also had some of the thin Chef Andres inspired brittle I prepared.  I explain to him how Chef suggested that I pulverize the peanuts to make it thin.  I read that Dr. McGee didn't have a sweet tooth, but couldn't help myself.  He tried it and said, "It's nice." 

I talked about my recent basil seed discovery and my plans to source my own and infuse flavors into them.  He suggested that I investigate fenugreek, which is now on my list.  He took interest in who I was and he listened to me go on about my adventures in blogging and interviewing people who are passionate about food.  I appreciated that.    

At the end of our meeting, Dr. McGee thanked me for travelling a distance to see him.  I expressed my gratitude for his time.  It was a long trip for him and I was honored that he squeezed me in at the end of his book tour.  I invited him over for a home cooked meal the next time he's in town and said, "I’m not a great cook."  He said, “Neither am I.” 

The scholarly gentleman who wrote "On Food and Cooking" tells me, "I’m looking forward to see what you write," before he departs.  I'm hoping this post finds him well. 



1.  Don't think that most of your questions will have the response you're hoping for, even if you've done a ton of research. 

2.  Don't ask interviewees what their favorite "X" is, because you probably wouldn't like it either.

3.  Keep sharing your knowledge because it opens doors.  Something that I've always believed in.  I have Chef Jose Andres to thank for reinforcing this to the Nth degree.

4.  It's never too late to start pursuing a passion.

Please feel free to post yours in the comments.

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