Poised with a lance and wearing a welding jacket, his wife at the ready with her camera, Dave Arnold is preparing to face off with a dragon. Actually, with a snow blower. A snow blower that he has mounted on a tripod and rigged to spray flaming kerosene vapor. At himself.
This is during art school, you´ll understand.
"The idea was that if I could jam the lance into where the blower was going, I could stop the blower and I would win," he explains. Instead, the dragon won, and Arnold was engulfed in flames. "I learned that what happens when you catch on fire is you don´t "stop, drop, and roll,´ " Arnold says. "You start running around to try to get away from yourself. Luckily, I had a bunch of friends there who tackled me. I ended up having to go to the hospital."
Arnold´s typical projects, though no less extreme, aren´t always quite so hazardous. Harold McGee, author of the seminal 1984 classic on the science of the kitchen, On Food and Cooking, recalls a long day spent with Arnold trolling exotic markets all over Manhattan, solely because Arnold insisted that McGee experience an ingredient he had just discovered: giant-water-bug essence from Thailand. "It smells like a combination of really strong pear aroma with a little bit of nail polish in the background," McGee says. "He just wants to find everything and experience everything."
That kind of fearless curiosity came early. Growing up as an only child (until the age of 15) in the New York area, Arnold says, "I ate everything." He also took up culinary experimentation early. Aside from his childhood specialty, chicken cooked in parchment with his own proprietary spice mix, he was the self-styled "breakfast king," getting up early on weekends to make breakfast in bed for his parents. Among his more ambitious adventures: deep-fried beignets. "Looking back," he notes, "I don´t think fifth graders should deep-fry by themselves while their parents are asleep."
Arnold has tech in his genes: His mother is a doctor and his father an engineer, as were both of his grandfathers. He had always imagined an academic career in science. But at Yale, he went with liberal-arts coursework, attributing the decision to boredom and "a little bit of A.D.D." As a junior, he started dating the woman who is now his wife-Jennifer Carpenter, then an architecture student interning with Cesar Pelli-and thought it might be smart to dabble in coursework related to her field "because then I would have something else to talk to her about." So he signed up for a sculpting class. "They taught me how to weld, and I was like, "This is amazing.´ I was like, "What? I can make big things from metal that move and spin?´ "
He fell in love with building machinery. He also decided to go to art school. While at Columbia, food occasionally found its way into his work-one performance piece he contemplated was fashioning a model of the city Nagasaki from gingerbread and blowing it to pieces.
As it happens, the work with arc welders and flaming snow blowers proved to be useful training. In the late 1990s, he and Carpenter moved into an illegal loft on 38th Street that lacked a kitchen. Using a dorm fridge, a hotplate and a utility sink from Home Depot, he created a rollaway kitchen that could be hidden in case the landlord came sniffing around. When Arnold and Carpenter noticed that the landlord never actually did come around, they became emboldened-and Arnold discovered restaurant-equipment auctions.
"The first thing I bought was a double-glass sliding-door deli case" for $65, he recalls. "That thing changed my life. You could see all the food in it. I had a party once-and this was before I had a soft-serve machine-and I had something like eight cases of soft-serve, five cases of beer, three cases of champagne, a ham, a turkey and all the noshes for everything, and the thing wasn´t even full." Soon thereafter, he bought a four-gallon commercial deep fryer from a shuttered Mexican joint in the financial district and rolled it home on a hand truck-in the snow. Then he got a commercial broiler, known in the trade as a salamander. Then a convection oven. He also began customizing his equipment, starting when the salvaged convection oven didn´t perform to his liking.
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