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!”
In a sense, Preston is a unique link between chefs and scientists. His company, PolyScience, is a leader in the field of constant-temperature-control equipment, supplying its products to everything from factories to police labs; restaurants account for only five percent of the company’s sales. But that niche is what Preston enjoys most. His interest in food is long-term: He took cooking classes in his twenties, he’s had a subscription to Food & Wine since 1980 and he’s an Iron Chef addict. And that meant that three years ago, when Wylie Dufresne of Manhattan’s WD-50 called, desperate for a few immersion circulators, Preston knew just who he was.
An immersion circulator is a metal coil that circulates a constant-temperature water bath in anything from a steel laboratory tank to a 20-quart stockpot. Immersion circulators are ideal for sous-vide cooking, which involves vacuum-sealing food in a plastic bag, then cooking it in a water bath at a constant low temperature. As it turned out, Dufresne’s desperate request was also Preston’s aha moment when it came to combining his scientific background with cooking. “Wylie had contacted a competitor of mine, but they didn’t get what he was trying to do. It was easy for me to connect the dots and say, ‘I know what you do, I watch Iron Chef, I’m on board.’ ”
In a lot of ways, Preston is like the 10th-grade science teacher I wish I’d had. He explains complex ideas in everyday terms and calls his inventions “a kick” or “neat.” A case in point is his Smoking Gun, a battery-powered computer-keyboard cleaner that he modified to blow an aromatic stream of smoke from wood chip shavings. “I made 50 of them for fun,” Preston said. “It was a gag. Then word got out, and I had to go into production.” He has since sold 500 and is about to introduce a new model.
Preston cheerfully admits his inventiveness is purely technological. Whereas he uses his Smoking Gun to prepare, say, salmon, Dufresne smoked lettuce. “Then he wrapped a raw oyster in it,” he said with a shrug.
Preston made dinner for us that night in the Garage Mahal (where, in addition to his PolyScience gadgets, he also keeps his collections of antique cars, vintage motorcycles, and wooden golf clubs). The menu wasn’t one that would appear at WD-50—it was classic surf-and-turf, skirt steak and lobster tails. After checking with a draft of Under Pressure, a Thomas Keller cookbook due out later this year that he consulted on, Preston set one immersion circulator to 145.4 degrees for the lobster, and another to 134 degrees, the temperature of a medium-rare steak. Food cooked sous-vide can never rise above the temperature of the water, so it’s impossible to overcook anything, whether you leave it in for 40 minutes or three hours. The only unusual dish was baby spinach pressurized in a vacuum sealer so that the raw leaves turn bright green. “Joël Robuchon taught me that trick,” Preston said. “Isn’t that neat?”
While the steak and lobster bubbled away, Preston played show-and-tell, carbonating strawberries and pressure- pickling cucumber spears. He pulled out his Smoking Gun and smoked some water. It tasted odd but fascinating. Then he smoked some hard cider. This, too, was fascinating—but it tasted terrible.
Preston had the most fun that night supercooling water. He chilled a bottle of water down to 19.4 degrees in a device called a refrigerated circulator, and explained that when undisturbed, the water would remain liquid, but once agitated, it would become ice. Sure enough, when he poured the water into a glass, it solidified as soon as it hit the bottom.
Later, Preston referred to our dinner as “just a little something I cooked in some plastic bags in the garage.” Soon, he might actually make dinner in the kitchen: He’s designing a new immersion circulator for the home that he hopes will be available this summer.
“Maybe I’m nuts, but I look at a kitchen sink, and I think, I could cook my whole dinner sous-vide in that,” Preston said, describing a prototype sink with a built-in immersion circulator that has the capability to both heat and cool. “Then I could hit a button and cool Champagne in it without any ice,” he added.
But even if Preston makes dinner in the wet bar, he’ll still tinker in the garage. •
Oliver Schwaner-Albright, a former professional cool, writes about food and culture for The New York Times and Travel + Leisure.