It was around this time that he discovered WD-50, Wylie Dufresne´s acclaimed experimental restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Arnold quickly became a regular. He asked Dufresne for a kitchen tour, the two hit it off, and before long, they became friends. (It didn´t hurt that Dufresne had become interested in Arnold´s sister-in-law Maile Carpenter, who he had met in her capacity then as Time Out New York´s food editor; the two are now engaged.)
"He was the one who said, "You can take your tech and machine knowledge and your cooking knowledge and bring them together," Arnold says. Dufresne was (and still is) interested in sous vide and other methods of cooking food slowly in liquids, at low temperatures, until the exact moment it is done. Early in his work with Arnold, he complained that doing so with traditional equipment was too difficult. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to keep water at a constant, very low temperature for hours and hours on a stovetop. Dufresne asked Arnold if he could find him an immersion circulator, a thermostated water bath common to the most rudimentary chemist´s workshop. Arnold replied, "Well, I don´t know what one is, but I guarantee I can get it." He took Dufresne´s money and started scouring eBay. A collaboration was born.
I recently toured WD-50´s kitchen to get a look at the arsenal of tools that Arnold has made or modified and that have become essential to Dufresne´s cutting-edge cuisine. Observing that fish proteins coagulate at 125 to 135 degrees ("That´s when the muscle begins to contract and squeeze out that white, milky stuff, and that´s when fish begins to dry out"), Dufresne told Arnold that he wanted to cook fish very slowly in a moist environment until the precise moment it reached those temperatures, in a much lower-temperature environment than the 212 degrees necessary to create steam. Arnold took parts from a humidifier, which converts water to vapor with sonic pulses rather than heat, added a heating coil to produce the moderate temperatures Dufresne was after, and, in effect, built him what is now called a vapor oven years before they were widely available. "And so," Dufresne says, "we´re able to cook a moister piece of fish."
Nearby, sous-chef Jeffrey Fisher is experimenting with a vacuum fryer, modified by Arnold with a condenser and hoses to remove water vapor. The vacuum permits liquids to boil at much lower temperatures, a property that Fisher is exploring to fry chips of apple, garlic and potato in oil without browning them. "The goal is, green things stay green, white fruit chips stay white, that sort of thing," Fisher says. Unfortunately, he notes, the fryer is still retaining too much moisture-you can see droplets condensing on the underside of the clear lid-and as such, the chips are coming out squishy. Arnold took one look at the problem and announced that the lid should be dome-shaped rather than flat, so that water droplets would slide to the edge rather than falling on the food.
Not long after he began tinkering with Dufresne´s equipment, Arnold was working up a proposal for a food museum and writing stories for Food Arts magazine. Editor Michael Batterbury noticed his interest in technology and tapped Arnold to write equipment reviews. Then, two years ago, administrators at the French Culinary Institute (Dufresne´s alma mater) decided to create a new department focused on molecular gastronomy and went looking for a department head. Batterbury recommended Arnold for the job. "You don´t want a chef to do this position," Arnold says. "You want someone who can figure out what the chef really wants, talk to the science and tech people, and be the liaison between the two. That´s what I do here."
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