Dave Arnold is the man behind the curtain of today's hottest movement in cooking, molecular gastronomy. He´s the Q to James Bond as embodied by esteemed mad-scientist chef Wylie Dufresne. A former paralegal, performance artist and, briefly, Domino´s Pizza driver, Arnold has become the go-to gearhead for machines and techniques to help chefs realize their wildest culinary fantasies. And wild they are: Carbonated watermelon. Gelatin spheres with liquid centers that pop in your mouth. Broths and sauces whipped into foams. Shrimp flesh extruded into "noodles." Hot-center desserts with exteriors flash-frozen by liquid nitrogen. Vanilla beans sizzled tableside with lasers. (It should be noted that Arnold disapproves of sizzling things tableside with lasers, because of safety concerns-which, for reasons that will soon become clear, is funny.)
All those culinary pyrotechnics can´t happen without a lot of R&D. That´s Arnold´s specialty. The 36-year-old, salt-and-pepper haired, wildly enthusiastic food lover is part artist, part scientist, part self-taught machinist and, of course, exuberant cook. Armed with a B.A. in philosophy from Yale and an MFA from Columbia but largely self-taught in the areas of cooking and engineering, he was hired at FCI in 2005 as director of culinary technology, a new department augmenting the school´s traditional instruction with scientific techniques, tools and rigor. He instantly became one of the most popular instructors there.
Perhaps that popularity has something to do with his unbridled excitement at the power of technology to create deliciousness. Take, for example, how he goes about improving the immersion blender-the handheld blender "stick" that allows cooks to puree foods in saucepots and bowls. For Arnold´s purposes, the blenders on the market are far too weak, so he rigged one together using an 18-volt battery and the motor from a DeWalt cordless drill, resulting in a stick blender as strong as a commercial milkshake machine. "Just unbelievably powerful," he says. "I get such a huge vortex, I can make stuff as smooth as you can in a Vita-Mix."
Or consider his take on the humble corn dog. "The problem with them is, one, you don´t get that high-heat, cooked flavor in the sausage, and two, the batter is never cooked right next to the sausage." His vision, inspired by a classic German cake called baumkuchen, which is baked in layers on a rotating spit: Skewer the dogs on a rotisserie, get a little char on them, and then apply batter in thin coats so that each one is perfectly cooked.
It´s this kind of ingenuity that has propelled him into the kitchens of the most celebrated chefs cooking today. On a given afternoon, he could be showing David Chang how to carbonate sake at one of Chang´s Momofuku restaurants in New York, or creating a syringe for Johnny Iuzzini, the pastry chef at Jean-Georges, also in New York, to layer a hot flavored gelatin atop a cold one for a modern take on the pousse-café. Or ripping apart his espresso machine and modifying it to mimic a hand-pulled shot. "He´s nothing shy of a genius," says chef Charlie Trotter, of the legendary Chicago restaurant that bears his name, who met Arnold at a fusion-cooking conference in Madrid last year. "He´s helping chefs take their food to the next level."
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