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One of the biggest openings of the year in the food world just landed in Brooklyn and it's not a restaurant.
The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) has unveiled its first brick-and-mortar space, the product of a decade of rumblings and a hugely successful Kickstarter by its mad scientist-y culinary multihyphenate founder Dave Arnold. Arnold's endurance inspires as much awe as his expertise (in fields like searing and bartending)—Pete Wells reported the seed of this idea back in 2006 for Food & Wine.
After raising more than $100,000 through crowdfunding, Arnold started to fulfill his dream with a mobile exhibit called BOOM!, which featured a gigantic commercial grain-puffing gun. He went on tour, erupting cereal for enthralled crowds and demonstrating what MOFAD could do. Now there's MOFAD Lab, the organization's first proper museum and laboratory for the group's super-interactive, sense-overloading educational showcases.
The opening exhibit, Flavor: Making It and Faking It, focuses on the science, history and future of the flavor industry. It tells the story of the first isolated flavor compound, vanillin (found not just in vanilla beans but also in pine bark and paper pulp), the evolution of MSG (from packaged food savior to nutritional pariah) and how people use technology to create new flavors today. You’ll leave the museum with a new appreciation for (or suspicion of) the flavors you taste in food every day. Here, four more things that will happen when you visit the MOFAD Lab.
1. You'll Taste Umami in Its Purest Form
Part of the exhibit focuses on monosodium glutamate and how its umami-enhancing powers became the processed food industry's secret weapon. The MOFAD playbook dictates that in this lesson, you're going to taste some MSG. But when executive director Peter Kim set out to create a proprietary chunk of pure MSG flavor for guests to pop in their mouths, he hit a roadblock: None of the candy companies he called knew how to make a blank-slate tablet for a savory flavor. After many failed attempts with a hand-cranked tablet press he bought from eBay (“like people use to make ecstasy pills at home,” he says. "It was like Breaking Bad in the lab."), he discovered that potato starch was the key. Also available for tasting: tablets packed with naturally occurring umami flavors, like tomato and mushroom.
2. You'll Conduct an Aroma Orchestra
Arnold's newest invention is the Smell Synth, a Seussian-looking machine that pumps out aromas. In the exhibit, you'll find individual scent stations that demonstrate how the food industry combines chemicals to create smells like strawberry and concord grape. In the back, resembling a church's pipe organ, you'll find the master Smell Synth, which features 19 different scents ranging from coconut to "boozy" to nail polish remover. Kim recommends combining this experience with an MSG tab. “I’m on a popcorn kick right now,” he says. “I take an MSG tablet and smell popcorn and cheese and butter and the pill suddenly tastes pretty good.”
3. You'll Make Your Own Sauerkraut, or Perhaps Chat with Harold McGee
The museum just released a schedule of very awesome-sounding events. There's a class on cooking science with Arnold, a flavor creation demonstration with chemist Jack Fastag (in which you get to invent your own flavor), a free fermentation workshop that includes a jar of DIY sauerkraut and a conversation with renowned food genius Harold McGee. Tickets for all events are on sale now.
4. You'll Finally Get the Edible Chemistry Set You’ve Always Wanted
You'll want to exit through the gift shop, because the store at this museum features much more than MOFAD-branded gear. There's the museum’s favorite fish sauce and Worcestershire sauce, spritzable flavor essences like black pepper (great for adding complexity to dishes or cocktails) and edible chemistry kits. And according to Kim, custom-made products are in the works. What could they be? Mini Searzalls? Hand-held puffing cannons? Perhaps! But as much as we pried, Kim didn’t spill the details.