When I invited myself to dinner at Philip Preston’s house and offered to help cook, I didn’t realize it meant spending the day in the garage. Preston is a tinkerer, or, as he puts it in his friendly Midwestern manner, he is a man with a lot of hobbies. He restores vintage cars and 19th-century music boxes; he makes hard cider and raises chickens; he’s an amateur architect and an enthusiastic boater; and, as the president of PolyScience, a company a short drive north of Chicago, he supplies high-tech gadgets to some of the most innovative restaurants in America, including the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Jean Georges in New York City. Chicago’s Charlie Trotter became his first culinary client about five years ago, and now the numbers of some fairly elusive chefs are on his speed dial. The lab-inspired tools that eventually end up in their kitchens are first tested and refined in Preston’s home garage, a room so comfy and clean that he has nicknamed it the Garage Mahal.
Of course, science has always had a place in the kitchen. From the gas range (invented in the 1820s) to the refrigerator (1870s) to the food processor (early 1970s), at some point, every appliance we now think of as commonplace was once some inventor’s crazy idea. Indeed, much of Preston’s gadgetry has a definite science-fiction feel. Take the Anti-Griddle: A microwave-size box with a stainless steel–coated top, it can flash-freeze whatever is placed on it to –30 degrees almost instantaneously. It is the first device Preston ever designed expressly for the kitchen; he built its prototype for Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Alinea, who put it to work on his restaurant’s opening day in 2005. Yet where Preston saw a great way to make desserts—he has a fondness for frozen crème anglaise—Achatz was more interested in savory dishes, turning olive oil into crunchy wafers.
Other inventions are still in the works, like the canister of liquid CO2 rigged to a Plexiglas tube that Preston showed me when I visited. He said it was a snow machine, and, unscrewing a valve on the canister, released a whirling jet of carbon dioxide chilled to –109 degrees. “I’ll put squeezed and filtered strawberries in an airbrush, atomize them, and blow them into that stream of CO2,” he said in a gee-whiz tone. “Then I’ll have strawberry snow!”