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The Food Avant-Garde's Enabler

Gadget-obsessed inventor Dave Arnold may be just the kind of helper experimental cooks need.

Dave Arnold has an idea: build a giant microwave oven the size of a room, put a dinner table inside it, set the table and put raw food on the plates. Press start and watch the whole room spin, wait until the oven shuts off—Ding!—open the door, walk in, sit down and eat.

That probably won't happen, which is okay, because Dave Arnold has another idea: open a food-and-drink museum and mount an exhibition about breakfast cereal. You could have grains of corn inside pressurized chambers and you'd release the pressure all of a sudden—Boom! Boom! Sugar Pops! And there would be steel rollers—Tzzt! Tzzt! Tzzt!—shooting out Corn Flakes. "Breakfast cereal," he says, "is amazing."

Arnold actually has a provisional charter for the museum but doubts it will get built anytime soon, so in the meantime he's working on a totally different idea: a 21st-century cocktail shaker. It would be transparent and equipped with a custom nozzle that could be hooked up to a carbon dioxide tank to add fizz without adding seltzer, "because seltzer just dilutes the drink, right?"

Spend an hour with Dave Arnold and the ideas just whiz by like this, one after another, and pretty soon you can't keep track of which ones he's already done, which ones he's in the middle of doing and which ones he probably won't ever do. So when he mentions his plans for a high-tech food lab, it takes a few moments before you realize that, yes, this is actually happening. Last year Arnold was hired to invent and run a program on food technology at the French Culinary Institute, a professional cooking school in Manhattan. The FCI will outfit a laboratory with shiny, high-tech gadgets that might one day turn out to have some application in the kitchen. Or they might be totally useless. The only way to find out is through trial and error, and this is what the lab will do when it opens in October: give chefs a chance to fool around with expensive toys to see if they're worth the investment. Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the FCI's founder, calls the lab "a chefs' playpen."

Students at the FCI wear white jackets and toques, call their instructors "chef" and are drilled in the age-old repertoire of French technique. That such a traditional school is placing an enormous bet on a 35-year-old guy like Dave Arnold says a lot about the current moment in food. The culinary avant-garde—led by such chefs as Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal, Grant Achatz, Joan Roca, Wylie Dufresne, José Andrés, Homaro Cantu and a few others—is founded on the idea that fine dining will stride into the future through the aid of science. Dave Arnold isn't a scientist. He isn't a chef, either. It's not exactly clear what he is. Before the FCI found him, he hadn't held a full-time job in a decade and his most relevant professional experience was working the fry station in a restaurant nobody's ever heard of in Mount Kisco, New York.

But Arnold, the son of an engineer, has always had a knack for machines—building them, taking them apart, fixing them, figuring out new ways to use them. If you're the kind of chef who employs science and technology to do things in the kitchen that nobody has ever seen before, then Dave Arnold might turn out to be much more useful to you than the guy in the toque carving tomato roses.

Michael Batterberry, who sits on the FCI board, sold the school on Arnold's qualifications, which weren't immediately obvious. "Until you know Dave, the seeming randomness of his CV would not make you identify him as a director of technology," he says. Batterberry is the editor in chief of Food Arts, where Dave is a contributor, and he marvels at Arnold's "scope of knowledge."

"It's not just his technical and scientific knowledge; he has a grasp of food history that is unusually strong," Batterberry says. "He understands the underpinnings, which gives him the license to go wild with speculation and then follow up with hard science."

In many ways, the FCI has found the ideal representative of the avant-garde in food. Like many of the postmodern chefs, Arnold seems to know all there is to know about the physics and chemistry of cooking. And like them, he's always asking if there's another way to do things. At times he seems like a visionary, paradigm-shifting artist—a Duchamp, a Charlie Kaufman—set loose in the kitchen and at other times like an unsupervised 10-year-old boy, and either of those descriptions would fit a number of the experimental chefs as well. It's no coincidence, I think, that most leading avant-gardists are men; if they weren't zapping crème brûlée with lasers, they'd be turbo-charging the engine on a '69 Chevy Nova.

One chef who's found Arnold very handy to have around is Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York. After having dinner there about two and a half years ago, Arnold got himself a kitchen tour and introduced himself to Dufresne. After several more meetings, he began asking Dufresne if he had this cool gadget or that cool gadget. Dufresne, who knows as much about gadgets as any chef in the country, had absolutely no idea what Arnold was talking about. Dufresne had started cooking much of WD-50's meat and fish sous-vide—vacuum-sealed in a pouch that was immersed in boiling water. He'd heard about something called a thermal circulator, a piece of laboratory equipment that allows scientists to keep liquid at a very even and precise temperature. Arnold offered to get him a few, "because I was the king of buying things on eBay," but the circulators he found were used and broke down quickly, so Arnold repaired them. Soon he was the unofficial technical adviser for WD-50, tinkering around with custom-rigged machines that no other kitchen had. "If I could afford to put him on staff, I definitely would," Dufresne says. "I would say he's forgotten more than I'll ever remember, but he doesn't forget things. He reads something and he remembers it. He'll ask me about some esoteric Malaysian cooking technique and I'll say, 'Dave, I don't even know what that is!'"

One recent night Arnold invited me to his apartment to run some experiments. He'd told me on the phone that he hadn't made dinner for his wife yet, even though it was after nine, and I felt like I might be intruding on their domestic scene, so I picked up a bottle of Riesling on my way over. Arnold glanced at it and said, "Oh, good, we can carbonate this. Is that okay? It wasn't superexpensive?" Then he decanted some of the wine into a plastic bottle, which he hooked up to the kind of carbon dioxide tank you'd see at a soda fountain. (Arnold uses it to make his own seltzer, which shoots from a tap next to his kitchen sink.) Arnold agitated the bottle for 60 seconds ("my standard shake") and poured the result into a wineglass. It looked and tasted something like Prosecco and was thoroughly delicious. I wondered if at some restaurant in the future, after I'd chosen a bottle from the wine list, the sommelier might say, "Excellent choice, sir. And would you like that carbonated?"

While he was running some port through a homemade vacuum evaporator, Arnold plopped two corn dogs into the professional deep-fryer next to his six-burner Garland range. When they were golden, he served them to his wife, Jennifer Carpenter, with a glass of carbonated Pinot Blanc. Arnold said something I didn't catch, which caused Carpenter to observe, "Dave doesn't believe in nutrition."

"That's not true," Arnold said.

"He doesn't think we should limit Booker's bacon eating at all," Carpenter said. Booker is their four-year-old.

"All I said was that bacon isn't evil."

"No, you said that bacon and water are the same."

"Well, three slices of bacon is nothing. It's like air."

"See?" Carpenter said, turning to me. "It's like air!"

On the wall behind a couch made by Carpenter, a furniture designer and architect, was a series of spooky photographs that date from Arnold's days as an artist. He has a master's in fine arts from Columbia University and, for a while, most of his ideas came out in the form of technology-based art. He gained brief notoriety when the New York papers got word that he was making simple machines by attaching frog muscles to pieces of steel—through an electrical stimulus, he could contract the muscles and make these Frankenstein contraptions move. A few of his projects involved edible materials, like the room-size microwave (never built) along with a miniature Nagasaki he constructed out of gingerbread houses and then blew up with homemade air cannons. Eventually, he says, this art "transmogrified into a full-time food frenzy."

Arnold started talking about microwaves and why nobody uses them for anything except reheating leftovers. "The question is, What can you do in a microwave that you wouldn't want done any other way?" Arnold said. "And nobody's ever answered that." He hopped on the Internet ("the greatest kitchen tool in the world") and Googled microwaves.

"I love any sort of microwave experiment," he said. "Let's see—exploding egg, done that. Done that. Done that. Done that. Done that. Done that. Here, these people have just ripped apart a microwave. It's so dangerous. Look at this—'technical information removed from site after September 11, 2001.'"

Arnold sent me away that night with homework. I was supposed to come up with a cooking challenge that he would solve. I called him a few days later and said, "I've been thinking about hot buttered rum."

The phone was silent for a few seconds, and then Arnold said, "The butter floats on top, right?" That was exactly correct. Hot buttered rum sounds terrific, but in practice, the butter pools up in a nasty oil slick. Was there a way to mix the butter and the rum so they wouldn't separate right away? "Yeah, I think we can do something about that," Arnold replied.

That Friday we met in an empty kitchen at the FCI. Arnold was wearing a T-shirt with the logo of a defunct asbestos company. He had been playing around lately with a sonic dismembrator, a device that scientists use to break down tissue in cell cultures. So far he hasn't found anything the dismembrator can do that a high-speed Vita-Mix blender can't, which makes it hard to justify the $2,500 price tag. He fit a long needle-nose extension onto the sonic dismembrator and stuck it into a test tube filled with a teaspoon or two of butter and some Everclear grain alcohol. The dismembrator sounded the way I imagine those ultrasonic pest control devices must sound, the ones that emit a high-pitched whine that drives gophers insane. When he turned it off, the butter and alcohol were bound together in a milky emulsion. I filled two glasses with rum and water, dropped a cinnamon stick and a couple cloves in each and zapped them in a microwave. Then Arnold poured in his butter emulsion, hit the mixture with the dismembrator again and took a sip.

"Wow, that's delicious," he said. "Maybe a slight addition of xanthan gum to stabilize it and you're done."

"Could you get the same effect with a blender?" I asked.

"Maybe," he said. "You could probably get the same effect if you put alcohol and butter in a test tube and—Thhhhhp!—shook it up." The killer app for the sonic dismembrator remained elusive.

Arnold wanted to make me sous-vide steak for lunch, so he sealed two rib steaks in plastic bags and dropped them in a pan of water with a circulator. The steak would be served with a port reduction beurre blanc, but Arnold wanted the port to taste fresh, not cooked, so he ran it through a vacuum evaporator he'd MacGyvered out of a vacuum pump and a circulator that chills liquids instead of heating them. The steaks only needed about 45 minutes, but the bottle of port took hours. I was starting to see stars. Arnold was happily inventing a cocktail made with gin and nitrous oxide.

At around three in the afternoon, Harold McGee walked in. McGee wrote the classic reference book on kitchen science, On Food and Cooking, and the avant-garde chefs have adopted him as their spiritual godfather. Arnold wants him to give some lectures with Dufresne at the FCI, which was what he'd come to talk about today. McGee looked around at the thermal circulator, the sonic dismembrator and a countertop spread with an assortment of supplies: two kinds of salt, vinegar powder, fried red onions from Thailand, a copy of The Poky Little Puppy ("Booker must have put that in there"), cryogenically powdered cocoa butter, an onion, a laser thermometer, a potato ricer, a wooden spoon, a spatula, a jar of petroleum jelly, a tiny cocktail shaker, a whisk, pine needle oil, malt extract, a head of garlic, a pepper grinder and a hypodermic temperature probe.

"I've never seen David cook before, but this is pretty much the way I pictured it," McGee remarked genially.

A long time after that, the three of us sat down to lunch. The steak was precisely medium-rare, which is the point of the circulator: Because you set the food's final temperature, it is never overcooked or underdone. Arnold has a circulator at home and believes that, in the future, the rest of us will, too. As Arnold says, "You get a dead perfect steak every single time." However, the technique has a few drawbacks. To begin with, no official safety standards exist yet, leading to a recent health-department crackdown on sous-vide cooking in New York City restaurants. Another issue is that food cooked sous-vide comes out looking raw; and so after extracting the steak from its plastic bag, Arnold had to quickly sear it in a skillet. This also helped to develop "Maillard reactions." McGee explained that these are changes in food that generally take place at high temperature and lead to many of the nutty, complex "brown" flavors we expect in, say, a rib steak. To get those flavors, Arnold had added caramelized meat juices, which he made by slicing a pound of hanger steak into strips, searing them in a cast-iron skillet, sealing them in a bag with a clove of garlic, boiling the bag for 20 minutes and wringing out the meat like a mop.

In other words, he made one bag of food to augment a second bag of food. I remember boil-in-a-bag meals from my childhood and from trips to the camping supply store. These were supposed to make life easier through meals that were, if not flavor-saving, at least labor-saving. When chefs cook food in bags today, it takes much longer and they end up doing extra work to recapture the flavor of a simple grilled T-bone. They've found a way to use technology to make their lives more difficult.

After lunch we walked to WD-50 so Arnold could show me his latest project. Dufresne had asked him to design a machine that could place a liquid inside a gelatinous skin. Arnold's invention used two Flojet beverage pumps, several feet of plastic tubing and an electronic control board. After much experimentation, they had succeeded in wrapping a coffee-flavored membrane around sweetened milk: café con leche. It was like a tiny, edible water balloon and, as far as anybody knew, it had never been done for a restaurant before. Dufresne looked proud as he passed around a bowl of the cranberry-sized spheres. Arnold picked one up with his fingers.

"We can use a spoon, Dave," Dufresne said. "We use utensils and we walk upright."

Arnold ate three off a tablespoon and chewed. He seemed pleased.

"This is a big step," Dufresne said. "We've been chasing this one a long, long time."

Arnold called me three days later for a postmortem, and then he began to talk about a new idea. "What I want to do is build an espresso maker that uses nitrous oxide as a pressurizer instead of a rotary pump or piston. Why? you ask. Because I can get a very constant pressure—and you can get a creamier mouthfeel and you wouldn't need as much sugar, because nitrous is sweet."

He paused for breath, which was unusual, and it gave me a chance to wonder if I knew what he was talking about. "What do you think?" he asked me. "Think it would work?"

Pete Wells is a contributing editor to Food & Wine. E-mail comments to him at pete.is.hungry@gmail.com.

Published June 2006
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