Episode #343: Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, Intellectual Ventures, “Pizza In The United States Is What Convinced The World That Pizza Was A Great Thing”
Guest: Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, one of the most prolific inventors with over 900 U.S. patents awarded. He graduated high school at 14, studied under Stephen Hawking in college, became the first Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, and is now the founder of Intellectual Ventures, where he focuses on tackling big questions.
Date Recorded: 7/28/2021 | Run-Time: 56:11
Summary: In today’s episode, we start by talking about one of Nathan’s biggest passions – food! He’s written two James Beard award-winning cookbooks and is coming out with a three volume, 1,700-page book about pizza later this year. We walk through the science, stories, culture, and history behind pizza and get his advice on how to make the perfect pizza. Then we discuss the state of innovation in the U.S. and how he thinks we can fight some of the world’s biggest problems like climate change and combatting diseases.
Sponsor: AcreTrader – AcreTrader is an investment platform that makes it simple to own shares of farmland and earn passive income, and you can start investing in just minutes online. AcreTrader provides access, transparency, and liquidity to investors, while handling all aspects of administration and property management so that you can sit back and watch your investment grow. If you’re interested in a deeper understanding, and for more information on how to become a farmland investor through their platform, please visit acretrader.com/meb.
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Links from the Episode:
- 1:32 – Intro
- 2:29 – Welcome to our guest, Dr. Nathan Myhrvold
- 3:02 – What inspired the Modernist Pizza book series
- 5:13 – Particularly memorable recipes
- 8:43 – Reasons why relatively bad food still exists today
- 19:41 – One of the most popular recipes from the book
- 20:45 – Overview of the Modernist Pizza books
- 26:38 – What a Brazilian pizza is and why it’s so uncommon
- 28:52 – South America’s influence and the slow adoption of the tomato
- 32:20 – What three pizzas would Nathan suggest for your first attempts
- 35:07 – Home pizza cooking hacks to optimize your pies
- 36:39 – Whether or not Nathan would eat frozen pizza
- 36:55 – What’s the most important: dough, sauce, or toppings?
- 39:02 – Startups trying to approach pizza with robotics
- 39:52 – What else is on Nathan’s mind?
- 43:29 – Vaccine storage, Yeti, and the randomness of innovation
- 49:57 – The nearly invincible water bear
- 51:50 – If Nathan could only have one slice of pizza, what would it be?
Transcript of Episode 343:
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Disclaimer: Meb Faber is the co-founder and chief investment officer at Cambria Investment Management. Due to industry regulations, he will not discuss any of Cambria’s funds on this podcast. All opinions expressed by podcast participants are solely their own opinions and do not reflect the opinion of Cambria Investment Management or its affiliates. For more information, visit cambriainvestments.com.
Sponsor Message: Today’s episode is sponsored by AcreTrader. I personally invested on AcreTrader and can say it is a very easy way to access one of my favorite investment asset classes, farmland. AcreTrader is an investment platform that makes it simple to own shares of farmland and earn passive income, and you can start investing in just minutes online. AcreTrader provides access, transparency, and liquidity to investors while handling all aspects of administration and property management so you can sit back and watch your investment grow. We recently had the founder of the company, Carter Malloy, back on the podcast for a second time in Episode 312. Make sure you check out that great conversation. And if you’re interested in a deeper understanding, for more information on how to become a farmland investor through their platform, please visit acretrader.com/meb. And now back to our great episode.
Meb: What’s up, everybody? We have an amazing show for you today with our guest, the most interesting man in the world. He’s a prolific inventor with almost 1,000 patents. He graduated high school at 14, studying under Stephen Hawking in college. Became the first chief technology officer at Microsoft. He’s now the founder of Intellectual Ventures where he focuses on tackling big questions. On top of that, I think he’s found more T-Rex skeletons than anyone in the world. In today’s show, we start by talking about one of our guest’s biggest passions, food. He’s written two James Beard award-winning cookbooks and is coming out with a 3-volume, 1,700-page book about pizza later this year. We walk through the science, stories, culture and history behind pizza and get his advice on how to make the perfect pizza, then we discuss the state of innovation in the U.S. and how he thinks we can fight some of the world’s biggest problems like climate change and combating diseases. Please enjoy this episode with Intellectual Ventures’ Dr. Nathan Myhrvold. Chef Myhrvold, welcome to the show.
Dr. Myhrvold: Well, thank you. Glad to be here.
Meb: I owe you a huge debt of gratitude because, during the pandemic, it was almost impossible to buy dumbbells anywhere in the world. And you put out a cookbook about a decade ago that weighed about 50 pounds. That’s what saved this fine physique. You got a new cookbook out that I’m super excited to chat about today. I’ve only gotten to see the digital version, but it is equally as robust, “Modernist Pizza,” coming out in October, a three-volume. And I wanted to start with the inspiration of the first one almost a decade ago now was sort of a category creator really, but tell us the inspiration. What’s the reception been over the last decade for that book?
Dr. Myhrvold: If you want to learn about cooking, whether it’s classic French cooking or Italian or Chinese or almost the only thing you want, there’s some big books you can buy or a whole collection of books. I thought this had to be true for modern cooking techniques, techniques that chefs have developed in, say, the last 10 or 20 years. And I tell you if I had found that book on the market before I wrote mine, I wouldn’t have written it, but there was no such book. The set of cookbooks that were out there covered a lot of classical or older techniques. They covered the French nouvelle cuisine revolution, which was in the 1970s. They covered some of what happened in California cuisine and, sort of, new American cuisine going into the ’80s and early part of the ’90s, but there wasn’t anything that was about really up to date, state-of-the-art cooking.
So I thought, “Well, maybe I should write the book myself.” It took five years, but I and a team of people accomplished it. It wound up being a lot bigger than we thought. It’s a 2,300-page book across 5 volumes, which is very unlike any other cookbook that is out there, right? Different price point, different weight, different everything, but has gotten an incredible reception. So that book has sold pretty well. We have a “Modernist Cuisine” at home. That was a two-volume sort of simplified version of that. Then we came out with “Modernist Bread,” which is another big six-volume book, and all together we’ve sold about 300,000 of these things, so it was really quite a successful venture and that’s only prompted me to do more.
Meb: The fun thing about the book is it’s like equal parts history, myth-busting, science. And I don’t understand how anyone can publish a cookbook without pictures. And I remember…So I grew up in the Southern family on my mom’s side of cooking, and it was very much a feel, the taste as you go, and we even still have some recipe cookbooks from my grandmother and it’s almost impossible to follow because then it’s like, “Then add onions.” I’m like, “What does that even mean? Does that mean, like, a cup? Does that mean…?” But they were amazing cooks, but they knew it by feel. And I remember looking at their cookbooks and being so not impressed because it’s just words on a page and no pictures. And one of the things you guys did was absolutely gorgeous photography on and on, which must have taken…One of the reasons the book is not $10, by the way, listeners, but was the defining characteristic of the book. What was some of the reception of the recipes looking back over the last 10 years that either surprised you or ones where people gave some pushback on? Any particularly memorable recipes from that book that really stand out?
Dr. Myhrvold: At the time, the book was championing a bunch of ideas that were in, say, the most cutting-edge chefs, and some of that has been called molecular gastronomy. And some of it was fairly controversial at the time because there were people who, sort of, had an ideological problem with someone having a foam on a plate, for example, that wasn’t whipped cream. Whipped cream, they’re cool with. Maybe a mousse that’s whipped, they’re cool with. But, oh, my God, you whipped sweet potatoes? It’s really delicious. So I didn’t understand why it should be something like whipping, which we’re totally used to for dessert with whipped creams and mousses and so forth. We’re totally used to in our drinks with lattes and foaming. Why is foam on a savory plate so damn weird? Well, I don’t know why but it was, and since the book came out…I should say another thing was that this book is…prior to it, the only way to learn the set of techniques that were in that book would be to go and be an apprentice, or in French they’re called …, in a bunch of three-star restaurants all around the world. And so, very few chefs had the ability to learn it.
And we tried to make our recipes…unlike your Grandma’s, we tried to make them very specific. So we would have weights of everything, including the weight of salt. I wanted people to be able to make it, even if they’d never tasted it, and that means you got to be a little bit pedantic about describing everything, but then it enables people to use these techniques regardless of where they grew up, regardless of what training they had. And as a result, now when I go to a restaurant, I see these techniques all over the place, even in restaurants that you might think would be quite traditional, not necessarily. They’re willing to be open-minded about the technique. Sous vide was something that we championed as a good technique and a very useful technique, and now people are selling hundreds of thousands or millions of those sous vide units a year, and it’s out there. I don’t think there’s a single professional chef who hasn’t heard of it.
Meb: I’m very much an experimental chef. About half the things I try…and I try to learn by doing, half of them come out good. A quarter is, like, amazing all time, the best thing I’ve had, and a quarter is, like, totally inedible. So I definitely adopted the sous vide technique from your book in the early days, the cooler sous vide, right? The beer cooler one, or the sink, and then eventually bought whatever, the box one that was like 500 bucks. And now, like you mentioned in your new book, you can buy one for $100 or something now. And the reception used to be from friends and everyone, they say, “Oh, this seems so fancy.” I say, “It’s exact opposite of fancy. It’s like kind of the idiot’s guide to cooking the perfect temperature.” And by the way, every restaurant has this, you just don’t know it. It’s back in the kitchen.
I want you to help me settle a debate, and this is a little bit of pressure because this is a marital debate. My wife and I were driving to an Angel’s baseball game this week, my son is in the back seat and he’s 4. We’re going to see Ohtani pitch, and we were talking about cooking. I said, “I’m going to do a cooking podcast this week,” and she’s like, “Uh-oh.” “I got a question for you.” And I said, “Why does bad food still exist?” And she’s like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, you know, you go to plenty of restaurants or whatever and you have a terrible turkey sandwich, or you go get some awful version of…universally seen as awful. Not just like, hey, this is your taste, but this is just absolutely terrible. You can go two doors down to the turkey sandwich place that has the best turkey sandwich in L.A. Why not just go replicate that?” And we got into a long debate. So I want to kick it to you, and I’ll tell you which side you fall on, mine or hers, and who gets to win on this debate. But in a world of millions of recipes of knowledge compounding over time, learning from other’s mistakes, why is there a scenario where, either from the owner’s perspective are consumers, why does bad foods still exist?
Dr. Myhrvold: One reason is, of course, that people choose where they eat based on a variety of factors, not just food quality. So convenience is super important. If the place with the better sandwich has a line down the block, you might say, “Well, I’m really hungry. I’m going to the place I can go right into.” There’s the issue of cost. One of the things I tell people is if you want to upgrade how you eat, you almost always have to pay more in either money or convenience or both. Convenience because the artisanal baker, you got to drive to that store, it’s not right there in the supermarket, and it’s going to cost a little bit more. Now, is that worth it to you or not? In general, when people are given a choice, they love that.
When I grew up, chocolate was Hershey’s. That was like it and, you know, a candy bar was a coin, depending which period of time, it was a dime or 25 cents or more. Well, chocolate has undergone a renaissance. So today, in L..A or here in Seattle, you could probably buy 50 different chocolate bars, and some of them will be quite exotic, Guatemala, shade-grown, certifiable organic, and you pay more for that chocolate bar, but there’s people who love that. Coffee’s the same way. The coffee, when I was a kid, it was Folgers and … out of a can at the grocery store, and coffee was like this cheap thing that cafes knew they had to serve, so it wasn’t a destination thing. Well, now with both Starbucks and then lots of independent baristas out there, premium coffee is a thing, and there are people that are willing…not everyone is willing to search it out. I don’t mean, like, 100% of us want Tanzania peaberry, or Costa Rica Tarrazu Estate, or care about the difference between a pour-over and a latte. We may not all care about it, but enough of us care that we’ve been able to drink a lot better if you care about coffee.
I think this process of being able to find things that are high quality is something that has rippled through the food world, and that’s largely happened in my lifetime, not because I had anything to do with it, but I was born in 1959, so the end of the 1950s, and the 1950s and well into the ’60s and after that, it was about abundance and price and convenience because most moms were working moms. They weren’t just preparing food at home. And if you optimize for convenience and price above all else, you get some bad stuff, but it’s convenient or it’s cheap. That’s the trade-off. I can’t tell you that this is why all of the bad places exist because there are terrible restaurants all over the place.
Now, some of them are just terribly inconsistent, meaning on a good night, it’s spectacular, not a bad night, it isn’t, and some are just low quality, but for some set of reasons, that is…for example, national brands of food like fast food chains, McDonald’s, or pizza or whatever, they bring a certainty. It’s super convenient and you know what it’s going to be like. If you’re betting on the local burger place, it might be excellent or it might be garbage, but you know McDonald’s or Burger King is going to be what they always are. They’re all about that consistency thing. And that’s valuable to people. And if you sort of forget that that consistency thing is valuable, you look at the world in a way that it isn’t. Our attraction to big national brands for things is because consistency in what that brand means in that makes sense to us.
Meb: A good example, so my single favorite recipe from your “Modernist Cuisine” book was the macaroni and cheese. The macaroni and cheese, you put in, I think it’s sodium citrate and it just has such a, like, cheesy, chewy macaroni and cheese, and I think I made this for my mom and she was like, “Are you joking, Meb?” And I said, “What?” And she goes, “There was a moment in your childhood where I spent a lovingly amount of time making homemade macaroni and cheese and brought it out to you and,” she’s like, “you refused to eat it.” And I said, you know, “Why?” “And you said, ‘What is this? What is this? This isn’t mac and cheese,’” because I was referring to Kraft mac and cheese, like that was mac and cheese, like whatever this homemade craft, artisanal mac and cheese is garbage. So, right? There was like an element of nostalgia, I think too.
But the funny thing about the debate is I was, sort of, erring on the side as like a business owner, as someone who just thinks about this to where I sit in this world of knowledge and automation, which you almost touched on, this shouldn’t exist as much. And so here’s the punch line. We go to the game and I will get some, like, beer and peanuts and my son and wife are like, “I want pizza.” So I go get some. And because of COVID, like, half the restaurants were closed so I come back with like $40 worth of one pizza, and it’s probably the worst pizza in the world. Well, here I am as the consumer, after directly having this debate, consuming a bunch of terrible pizza, and I’m not going to call it the pizza name. It was so bad. We ate it, of course. We ate it. It’s pizza. So even bad pizza is okay. So she just kind of smiled at the irony.
Dr. Myhrvold: Convenience is the issue. You’re there at the game. You’re not going to comparison shop all across town. You’re only going to buy something there, and crassly, they don’t have to be any better to sell a lot of pizzas, and there’s probably someone who prefers them. With pizza, in particular, in our book, when we would occasionally…We travelled to 300 pizzerias around the world to try what the pizza was, and we’d get things where we might be critical of some pizza and someone who grew up on it says, “Oh, but I love this. I grew up on it.” And eventually, my answer became, “Well then, keep growing up.” If you give a kid a jalapeño pepper or you give a kid tonic water, they’re going to think you poison them. They don’t like the super spicy stuff, usually. They don’t like the super bitter stuff like tonic water, but I promise you, there will be a billion gin and tonics poured today somewhere on our planet.
So as we go from being kids with a very safe set of food ideas, we eventually say, “I like the hot sauce,” or, “I like gin, which has got this weird burning sensation and so forth, and I like tonic water.” Why? Well, in this combination, it makes sense to me, and it’s actually thirst-quenching and good and whatever. The trouble is we have very strong food memories and those food memories of something that was in our childhood, the nostalgia part can easily overwhelm the more critical part and say, you know, “Yay, this is the way I have always had it. This was the way I want it,” as opposed to something that actually tastes better.
In the case of that mac and cheese, the reason ours tastes better is really simple. The sodium citrate that is added helps the cheese emulsify and stay as a nice buoy sauce, not separate. In ordinary mac and cheese, you put a bunch of flour in to do that and that flour, the starch coats your tongue and it dulls the taste and it doesn’t taste as cheesy. So if you like the cheese part, it’s way better. Now, if you love Kraft mac and cheese, I’m never going to tell you, “Oh, you shouldn’t love Kraft mac and cheese.” If that’s what you’re committed to love, that’s great. But at the same token, I don’t feel constrained to go and say all mac and cheese has to be the way you remember it as you grew up. I can try to make the ultimate version. And some people will approach it from a culinary open mind and say, “Goddamn, this is better,” and others will approach it from a closed mind, for a very good reason, and say, “Oh, this is not the mac and cheese of my childhood that I dream of.”
Meb: Before we hop over to pizza, were there any recipes that truly stand out from, like, consumers or chefs that read the book and were like, “Oh, my God, your short rib or your whatever, this one recipe just, like, knocked my socks off?” And there’s a restaurant down the street that was, like, a defining restaurant that opened in L.A. from a chef, and he had this menu of great offerings, but the thing that they become known for that was like an afterthought they made for the employees when they did the dinner was bacon cheddar biscuits. And he’s like, “We never even intended to put that on the menu,” and that’s what they’re known for now. Anything in the book that really stood out?
Dr. Myhrvold: A lot of people love our mac and cheese. There’s a caramelized carrot soup made in a pressure cooker that is a pretty unique recipe. It depends on who you are as to what thing resonates with you. With some people, it’s the better version of mac and cheese. With other chefs, it’s something that’s way more esoteric, but it’s something that just particularly solves a problem they have in the kitchen or scratches an itch they have in terms of what kind of food they wanted to eat.
Meb: Well, good. Let’s hop over to pizza. I’m glad you didn’t stop at Shakey’s, which is where…It sounds like you grew up eating pizza which…I don’t think I’ve ever been to in L.A.
Dr. Myhrvold: No, they’re gone in L.A. now. Shakey’s as a chain still exists but mostly in Asia, but it was the first chain food of any kind. There was a franchised…Shakey’s franchised pizza started in Sacramento in 1953, which was before McDonald’s or fried chicken or any of the other staples of American fast food.
Meb: So pizza is, sort of, having its at-home renaissance, you know, over the past few years. More and more friends buying these outdoor ovens or working…I’ve always been, I feel like, a little reluctant to try pizza because it’s a little more effort and involves the dough. Usually, if you make your own dough, it’s a little more of an effort. So walk us through, sort of, the book in general. I mean my favorite part is you start out talking about cookbooks in Italy 1,500 years ago. By the way, Italian food wasn’t Italian food. It looked more like I think you said Thai or Asian food or something. So give us a little overview tour of the new books.
Dr. Myhrvold: Well, we start off with history. History is particularly problematic in pizza because individual pizzerias will often market themselves on this story about how they were the first one or they’ve had a recipe in their family for 300 years because it’s sort of an appeal to say that I have a secret from the past. And that resonates with the food world, resonates surprisingly well, frankly, in the food world. You know, if you went to the Ferrari dealership and they said, “We only use techniques from Italy from 500 years ago,” you’d say, “I’m sorry. I wanted a fast sports car that’s state-of-the-art.” For Italian cooking, this idea of the passive … So we’ve got a big topic on that. We have a bunch on science.
For example, pizza ovens are generally very hot, and because they’re hot, they do almost all of their cooking with light, which is to say radiant heat. So it’s like a broiler. Most professional pizza ovens have an open door. If you cared about the temperature of the air, you’d never leave your door open. It turns out the reason to leave the door open is they don’t give a damn about the air temperature. What they care about is the radiant heat that comes. And so, we did a bunch of experiments to show that to people. Well, that’s important because then when you were manipulating a pizza, very few pizza ovens, unfortunately, are very even. So if you put your pizza into the oven, whether it’s a professional oven or…An electric and a deck oven are different, but if you put it into a wood-burning oven or a gas-burning oven, it’s not even and you’ve got to use the peel, which is a big shovel-like thing used to move the pizza around, you’ve got to use that to turn the pizza, otherwise it’ll burn on one side and be raw on the other. I like thinking of these things from a very first principles reason.
So the edge of a pizza is usually puffy and it’s taller than the dough in the center of the pizza. Why is that? The usually answers people will give is they’ll say, “Oh, well, because you leave the dough thicker at the edge.” Turns out no, that’s not true. Then people say, “Oh, well, it’s because of the weight of the stuff that you put in the middle.” You know, you put all this cheese and other stuff and that weighs it down. Turns out that’s not it either. It all comes down to the fact you put sauce on it and the sauce is wet. And the wet sauce in that hot oven is going to evaporate like crazy, but the sauce can never get more than the boiling point of water. And so we did a bunch of experiments to prove that to people, which was interesting because we had lots of pizzaiolos, that’s the Italian word for a pizza maker, who didn’t believe what we were saying. We would cover the pizza with sand the same weight as the sauce and the cheese, for example, and would just puff up and push the stuff aside.
Then we talk a lot about different styles of pizza. Pizza is known uniformly around the world. Almost every country on earth has pizza. We actually checked and we called a bunch of embassies and missions to the UN. I think we found there was 3 or 4 countries that don’t seem to currently have a pizzeria, but only 3 or 4 out of 170 countries, something like that. And it was funny when we would contact their embassy and we’d say, “Hey, is there any pizza in your country?” Even on ones where we’d not been able to find a record of it, we almost always got them saying, “Oh, yes, you go to this place,” and they knew about it.
So, anyway, we discuss how styles change. And mostly in pizza, what style is, is people would change the recipe. For example, you have a crust. Well, there are some pizzas that have insanely thin crust. There are some that have insanely thick crust. It’s almost like a bread, it’s 2 inches tall and there’s a whole pie in the middle. Well, then there’s how much toppings do you put on? Well, that also varies. There’s people who have a thin crust but put it in a deep dish and then they fill it up like a pie. That’s a Chicago-style pizza. There’s other pizzas that’s almost like a cracker that had a little bit of seasoning or cheese put on top of it. So we wanted to try to explain both how that occurred and what some of the differences are around the world when we go into how to make pizzas.
Meb: I was familiar with most of these. I think most listeners would be familiar with, hey, we got thin crust, we got sort of the Chicago or maybe Detroit-style. I had never heard of Brazilian pizza as a main…I think there was maybe about six main, kind of, ballpark types of pizza you guys cover. And Brazilian was one of those. Can you tell listeners what that is? Because I had never heard of it.
Dr. Myhrvold: The reason we have pizza in the United States is very simple. We got Italian immigrants in the United States, and that started around 1870 when Italy became a country and there’s lots of economic and political turmoil. Two million people left Naples and moved to some other place. Well, a bunch of them, people from Naples moved to the U.S. but a bunch went to South America. And as a result, Brazil has had its own unique pizza culture from the 19th century onward. It’s just as old as ours, yet it’s also developed its own unique way. So it’s kind of interesting to see how…it’s one of these paths not travelled things of…
In Sao Paulo, which is a city of 10 million people, ginormous, it’s got a very large Italian ethnic background, pizza is a white tablecloth fancy food. It is never served at lunch. There was a pizzeria that opened up just before we went on our trip that was open at lunch and it both horrified, shocked, and delighted people in Brazil. I had lunch there with a Brazilian food writer for one of their newspapers and she said, “Oh, my God. Pizza lunch is like a dream. Where have you been?” But it turns out they have their own unique style of pizza. So does Buenos Aires. Argentina got a lot. And the pizza culture in Argentina and the pizza culture in Sao Paulo really didn’t mix very much. I mean, it’s different languages, different countries, hundreds of miles. So we thought that was also quite interesting.
Meb: I mean, you look at it, that kind of like completes the circle. Tomatoes, originally, I think so many people think of Italy and tomatoes is like the defining food ingredient and tomatoes, originally South American, right?
Dr. Myhrvold: Absolutely. So tomatoes don’t come to the new world until the third Columbus expedition in 1493. They are widely mistrusted and it’s for a reason that is kind of funny because it echoes food phobias today. People had correctly identified from the shape of the leaves that the tomato is part of a broad family that includes a plant called deadly nightshade. And so, they were afraid that tomatoes were poisonous. And ironically, the last part of Europe to accept the tomato was Italy, which is truly crazy given how much Italian food, certainly in the American view but even in Italy, how much they rely on it today.
Meb: It’s made it until 2021. I mean, Tom Brady famously was on a diet that didn’t include tomatoes because his wife was for some of these reasons about inflammation or something else, right?
Dr. Myhrvold: Oh, yeah. There are people that are still freaked out about tomatoes. Like, there’s a lot of worse shit for you in the world than tomatoes. These things all came together to make what we have a concept of pizza as, and if pizza had not left Naples with all of these immigrants, it probably would be a niche food product that you only find in one city, in Naples. Italy has got that…all over Italy, you can go to a village and that village will make something, a pasta, a sauce, whatever, that no one else makes. And it’s just a characteristic of the hyper-hyper-local phenomenon. And so, pizza could have been that. And I say that because pizza tried to expand out of Naples in the 20th century within Italy. Hardly got any traction. Even today, there’s a version of pizza called pizza frita, which is sort of like a deep-fried calzone. America loves deep-fried food. We love it. We love pizza. So surely, we have fried pizza here, and the answer is no we don’t. There’s maybe a couple of places in the U.S. that make it but it’s a weird niche little thing, and in the city of Naples, there’s a couple of places that make it, but by and large, throughout Italy, you can’t find it.
Anyway, pizza in the United States is what convinced the world that pizza was a great thing. It eventually reinvaded Europe, actually largely because of American tourists coming and demanding it. And then finally, in the 1990s, people in Naples saw that American pizza was sort of invading the whole world and finally said, “Damn it, we had the original one,” so then they started the second diaspora of pizza around the world where they said, “Make it the authentic, traditional way,” except the authentic, traditional way is neither authentic nor traditional, but it’s very good, so I like it. Anyway, it’s a crazy process the way people got pizza, and there are so many strange pizza culture things. It’s hard to believe.
Meb: Well, the nice thing about your book…and listeners, I’m not going to spoil it, you got to go buy the book and read it. There’s so many little tidbits about, like, the marguerite pizza naming to…I tried to describe the infrared heat story and blocking the pizza and then going on to cook. Every single person I’ve tried to describe it to, I’ve failed, so listeners, pick up the book and you can read a much more scientific discussion about it, but it is fascinating. All right. So let’s say listeners buy the book, they pick it up. I’m a physical person guide. I’m going to go through. You get to volume 3 and it’s got the sort of iconic pizzas to try out, the sort of master recipes. Give me like if I want to do my first three pizzas…My go-to before this was the Nancy Silverton. She had a dough recipe that’s phenomenal. But let’s say I’m going to work my way through, I don’t know, three, four, five of these, what sort of the order? What would you suggest is the style to try first?
Dr. Myhrvold: Part of it depends what your oven is. So for a home oven, the pizzas that come out best are the ones with thicker crust or very thin crust. The Neapolitan pizzas, which are baked in a very hot oven, sometimes 800 or 1,000 degrees, you’re not going to get that in your home oven. Now, we describe how you can simulate it and you can make something like it, but a Detroit-style pizza or a focaccia-style pizza is probably the simplest thing to make. It’s sort of hard to go wrong. Next I would say would be a New York-style pizza. In the book, we try to do two things. We try to say here is what the iconic ones are. So the iconic Neopolitan pizza is margerita, it’s buffalo mozzarella or cow milk mozzarella, and tomatoes, a little oil, and that’s it. It’s very simple. Or, you know, a classic New York pizza is either cheese or cheese and pepperoni.
But we also try to give creative pizzas. And we have probably more than 1,000 recipes in the book that we’ll go into a variety of creative things as either a creative different topping or sauce or a combination. We also have a section on how to adapt your own favorites and make your own pizza. So suppose that you’ve got a recipe for a pasta sauce that you love, we tell you how you can adapt it to make a pizza sauce. Or take a soup recipe that you love, those could be adapted into pizza recipes. I don’t guarantee every soup recipe out there will make a good pizza, but if you’ve got your favorite, there’s no reason not to experiment a bit.
Meb: So I’m going to give you a couple of quick Twitter questions because I had opened this up. I said, “All right, I got a pizza chef on the show.” And by the way, my favorite response was this. As an engineer, you’re going to love this. I had said, “Hey, you got to ask. A guy just wrote a pizza book about question burning in your mind.” And one guy was asking what’s the best way to encourage leoparding from a standard home oven? But then someone else respond, this is Paul B., says, “I don’t know if I would necessarily recommend it, but I have a friend who hacksawed the locking pins off his oven door and cooked all of his pizzas with the oven in self-cleaning mode, so we could get it up to almost 700 degrees.”
Dr. Myhrvold: There are people who do that.
Meb: Which is the most interesting at-home hack I’ve ever heard.
Dr. Myhrvold: If I were doing that, I wouldn’t do it in my home. I might do that, you know, in a fireproof area. It certainly could go wrong. Well, I’ll answer the leoparding question is we like cooking pizza on a metal plate, so something we call a pizza steel. So it’s a plate of metal, aluminum works, the thicker the better, so a quarter-inch is okay, a half-inch is even better, and you get it really hot. And the reason why you want that rather than stone is that stone takes a while to release its heat, and that doesn’t give you that leoparding. The leoparding is about what happens in a very high heat environment where you have these little spots of almost black on your pizza while the rest of it is not that dark. So we like using pizza steel for that.
Meb: If you had to eat a frozen pizza, what’s your go-to or what’s the frozen pizza you would pick?
Dr. Myhrvold: I don’t eat frozen pizza. I have in my life, but if I’m at the store, I would not buy it.
Meb: You’ll just skip a meal. All right. Deal. Dough, sauce, toppings, rank order. What’s the most important in the quality of the pizza?
Dr. Myhrvold: That depends on what style of pizza you’re making. If you’re the Brazilian pizza or some of the other super-thin pizzas, the crust is so thin that while it’s got to be well-executed, the toppings are more important. That’s also true in something like the Chicago deep-dish pizza. Well, one set of experiments we had, we called cross-crusting, by tradition, there’s a certain recipe you’d use for Chicago deep-dish crust. There’s a very different recipe you’d use for a Neapolitan pizza, and different again for New York pizza. Well, I wondered, okay, what if you actually use New York dough to make your Chicago pizza or Chicago dough to make your Neapolitan pizza? And so, we tried all the combinations and some of them worked super well. In fact, they’re arguably as good or better than the one that’s supposed to be correct, and others kind of failed. So that’s another way to look at it is if you’ve got dough, there’s a whole bunch of different pizzas you could actually make from it.
You know, sauce is important depending on how much sauce there is on a pizza, right? There are some pizzas that are actually very low amounts of sauce, and then it’s not quite as important. And you better like eating your sauce because it’ll be on your pizza, and sauce on a pizza usually plays the role of being the acidic element that helps balance the fact you’ve got lots of breeze coming out of the cheese, possibly out of sausage or other meat. And so, it really has got to be a little sweet, but also it’s got to have enough tartness that the whole thing holds together.
Meb: How many more years until we get a Myhrvold 2000 pizza-making machine? They can compete with a Domino’s and just send you a pizza on demand. What do you think, 10 years?
Dr. Myhrvold: It’s funny, there are several startups that went after making robotic pizzas. There was one called Zume that was in the Silicon Valley area. There was another that was here in the Seattle area. Zume went bust. They couldn’t make it work, which is unfortunate. Their idea was that you’d have a pizza robot in a truck and the pizza would get made while they’re driving it to you so when it pulls up at your house, it’s literally right out of the oven, and that would be pretty special. At the moment, robotics is not cheap enough that you could make a robot pizza that would work reliably that you really could afford to have at home. But that will be a great day when that’s developed, and it will occur.
Meb: Reminds me of the old “Snow Crash” book, Neal Stephenson, the deliverater pizza. We got about 10 minutes, so I’m going to hop onto a couple of other topics just because I want to pick your brain on a couple of things. Most of this show is focused on investing and you kind of pioneered an idea with your company, Intellectual Ventures, almost 20 years ago now, I think, is that right? Talking about invention as sort of a discreet asset class and how to think about encouraging and innovating, putting money in the hands of people who come up with new ideas in cross-discipline etc., etc. As you look back over the past two decades this, sort of, concept you had, how have things changed? Is there areas you think, as you reflect on, you know, 20 years of creation and invention, do you think about it the same way you did 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or as you look to the future, are there things you should be doing?
Dr. Myhrvold: The basics are the same. Of course, you know, we live in a technological society. New invention is critical to us. We all expect that the next version of the iPhone or the next car that we buy or the next service that we wind up using for whatever is better than the one today, and better usually because someone had some technological idea about it. That’s not changed. We had hoped to get more capital going directly to the invention layer, you know, to the people who have the great ideas, and that’s happened to some extent. I wouldn’t say that it has happened as much as I would have liked or would have thought it could have moved. And that’s because people still like to value companies that are off pursuing an idea, for good reason, and a lot of this depends on how difficult your idea is. If you’ve got a very difficult idea to develop, one that’s time-consuming and expensive, it’s still too hard to get capital I think.
One example of that is nuclear. We have a nuclear spin-out company called TerraPower. It’s been quite successful. TerraPower recently announced we have a deal to build a power plant in Wyoming. That’s been a long time coming and it’s not easy. The area where it’s easiest is if you have a new idea for a simple web service, you know, WhatsApp was a pretty straightforward thing and it was building a web version of what texting was and WhatsApp or a variety of other things like it around the world. That wasn’t a super hard idea to labor for 10 years on. You could just immediately turn it into a company, and the people who did and did so quickly did super well.
We’re working on a bunch of very hard ideas, ideas in solid-state physics, you know, like could you make room temperature superconductors? Huge amount of fossil fuels comes from fluid drag. Boats have drag, that’s why we need to have motors to push them through the water. Airplanes have drag. Could we reduce that drag? Well, that’s a pretty big problem and it’s a pretty…We’ve got exciting results. But in these areas where you have to keep laboring on for many years, well, it’s non-trivial to arrange the capital and the expertise and the patience because you aren’t as easy to implement as WhatsApp was.
Meb: I was laughing as you were talking about this because one of y’all’s defining inventions was the vaccine storage for Ebola. And as you talked about WhatsApp, and as, you know, thought about this vaccine storage, I said, “Well, Nathan, here’s the perfect example is you just needed to mass-produce that for beer, and there you have Yeti, and you just made billions of dollars. You just got to focus on the beer drinkers.”
Dr. Myhrvold: But that’s the interesting thing is the Yeti people went with the idea of creating a brand that was around quality in an area, frankly, that has been around low price crap.
Meb: The styrofoam that break. You buy them at 7-Eleven, you put it…a half an hour later, your car is full of water and ice.
Dr. Myhrvold: And yet, for some reason, the world thought that was enough for a long time. So the Yeti guys and girls are to be commended at doing what they did, they didn’t need a new technology. Now, in our case, we invented a vaccine container, which was utterly critical in ending the last two Ebola epidemics. That’s mostly a thing to be proud of. It wasn’t financially a giant success, but hey, at least we got that. You know, sometimes what wins in the market is an idea like in the case of Yeti that the time was come to not have that cheap $1.59 styrofoam thing but actually have something that was quality even if it costs more money. In principle, you could have done that 10 years earlier. You weren’t waiting for some scientific breakthrough, but they did at the right time and my hats off to them. It’s occurred to me…I travel a lot and go to a lot of wild places for my photography, and it’s occurred to me that really the world is right to have a lot better food on the go. So that’s one of the areas we’re quite interested in is how can you have a better food experience?
Meb: Some countries do a great job of, and some don’t. I mean, travelling in Japan, I mean, you go to 7-Eleven and that’s like some of the best food you can find than other countries. You go to 7-Eleven here, you get rotating hotdogs that have been there for six days.
Dr. Myhrvold: Yeah. Exactly. Been there for the last month.
Meb: As we start to wind down, you’ve been very gracious with your time. Like you mentioned, you’ve had a pretty eclectic interest and curiosity over the years. I think you may have more T-Rex finds than anyone in the world, although I don’t see any in the background in your office.
Dr. Myhrvold: No, the T-Rexes are home.
Meb: What are your main curiosities over the next decade as we look to the horizon and we look to the future? We got people blasting off into space. What’s got you most curious and excited today? Are you guys going to do a dessert cookbook?
Dr. Myhrvold: When it comes to cookbooks, we’re certainly going to do a dessert cookbook that has a large important area that we haven’t touched yet. You know, more broadly, I’m interested in how society uses technology. What are the areas going forward that where are we going to make a fundamentally different approach? One example is this COVID pandemic was predictable. I mean, I predicted it. Lots of people predicted it. We didn’t know exactly when, of course, but it happened 100 years ago in 1918, and some kind of pandemic is going to happen now. And it’s obviously going to be worse now because the world is such a small place. People fly in airplanes. You can’t keep it in an area. But the world’s known about coronaviruses and pathogenic ones for a long time. There was a SARS 1 epidemic. There was something called MERS. There was a couple of coronaviruses that caused common cold symptoms.
If we had just made a vaccine for those things as soon as we found them, we would have been vastly better off. And now there are some proposals that people are making and saying, “Hey, why don’t we just make a damn vaccine ahead of time for every family of viruses?” And it may not be perfect, but at least it gives you something to do when there’s a disaster again so we’re in a better position and we don’t have to kill so many people. Unfortunately, this pandemic will kill millions by the time it’s finally done, and it’s not done yet. The idea of prospectively solving a problem we don’t have yet, that’s really not a medical idea. We’ve also discovered in other areas preventative medicine is just vastly better than trying to fix things. You’d rather prevent the car accident than say, “Oh, here is how the ER fixes broken bones better.” You still want to fix broken bones better because there are some accidents you can’t stop. But I think the whole preventative approach to medicine will be very interesting. I think how we continue to use the world of computing going forward is going to be really fascinating.
A lot of people have developed these weird ideas about AI that AI is going to be a bad thing. I wish it works that well. I’m very interested in seeing how AI relieves us of tedious, boring work. And for the foreseeable future, the work that a computer would take away from a human is work that is probably not that interesting to the human. Automation really is always about what is the lowest hanging fruit to get great productivity? And great productivity means we don’t have to work 80-hour weeks to make ends meet if you’re at the lower part of the socio-economic scale. I mean, my mother…I grew up in a single-family home. My mother was a private school teacher and she would work other jobs and it was super touch and go for us growing up. So that’s why I understand people eating food on the basis of being cheap because I grew up that way. Now, since then, I’ve also learned, hey, as affordable pleasures go, better food can be very affordable, you know. It doesn’t have to be lots of money, $5 for something. A $5 difference can be the difference between something that’s trashed and something that’s wonderful.
Meb: Listeners can’t see it, so if you’re watching this on YouTube, you can. Give us the meaning behind your shirt. The nearly invincible water bear.
Dr. Myhrvold: This is a shirt about an animal called a tardigrade, also called a water bear. This is a very tiny animal. They’re a millimeter or less, so down to a 25th of an inch, a 50th of an inch, so super tiny. Basically, any clump of moss you’ve ever encountered in your life has some water bears on it. There’s also other things, but that’s the simplest is moss, and they have this amazing characteristic that if the moss dries up, they don’t die. They turn into, sort of, a battle-hardened version of themselves called the tun phase, and in the tun phase, you can’t kill them. Heat that would kill any organisms doesn’t bother them. Vacuum doesn’t bother them. Radiation doesn’t bother them. And here we have a water bear and the motto is water bear don’t care.
Meb: I’m always talking to my friends anytime somebody brings up aliens. I say, “Man, things are weird enough here.” This is like a perfect example is like you can’t even imagine an animal like that, and here we are. They’re everywhere in every piece of moss.
Dr. Myhrvold: Look them up online, tardigrade or water bear, and see some pictures. They’re pretty crazy-looking things. No eyes, but they’re also strangely cute, which is…The thing that’s weird about them, most microorganisms, I wouldn’t call cute, but these guys I would.
Meb: Now, I don’t know if I saw a life-size one I would say the same thing. I’d probably…It’s like out of a horror movie nightmare if you will, but they’re cute when they’re small. Last question. Chef Myhrvold has got to pick one slice to eat tonight and one slice only. What’s his favorite?
Dr. Myhrvold: Well, if I’m only having one slice, I should probably go deep-dish. So it’s all of dinner. At most of the deep-dish Chicago places, the one slice weighs a pound, which is just crazy to me. Meanwhile, in Italy, a whole pizza that is Neapolitan-style will typically be 300 grams, so it’s a third of a pound, something like that.
Meb: Some of those Chicago style, they can be like…It’s like eating, like, a whole casserole, very dense and delicious.
Dr. Myhrvold: Some people say, “I don’t like that. I like this other thing.” You have to take it for what it is. And it is a casserole, but it’s a casserole of pizza-related stuff, sausage, garlic, cheese, sauce, and so forth, which can be pretty delicious if the ingredients are delicious and it’s well-made.
Meb: It’s making me hungry. Perfect way to tie a bow on this show. Listeners, check out “Modernist Pizza,” due out this fall. Nathan Myhrvold, well, thanks for joining us today.
Dr. Myhrvold: Okay, well, thank you.
Meb: Podcast listeners, we’ll post show notes to today’s conversation at mebfaber.com/podcast. If you love the show, if you hate it, shoot us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to read the reviews. Please review us on iTunes and subscribe to the show anywhere good podcasts are found. Thanks for listening, friends, and good investing.
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