When the world's best chefs want something that defies the laws of physics, they come to one man: Dave Arnold, the DIY guru of high-tech cooking
by John B. Carnett
See Ted Allen and your favorite Popular Science editors on “Food Detectives” every Tuesday night.
Dave Arnold would like to fix you a gin and tonic. Sound good? It will be. It will be very, very good. It will be like no gin and tonic you have ever seen or tasted in your life. It will also be considerably more involved, shall we say, than cracking open the Tanqueray and Schweppes.
First, Arnold believes, he must clarify the lime juice. Why? Because his uncompromising conception of culinary perfection requires that gin and tonics be completely, crystalline clear, that´s why. And so, from a closet in the back of a teaching kitchen at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, behind a door labeled Caution: Nitrous Oxide in Use, Arnold wheels out a cart piled high with laboratory equipment-a rotary evaporator (rotovap) that he salvaged from Eli Lilly on eBay, cheap, and that he has jerry-rigged for just this sort of thing. At his side, FCI chef and V.P. Nils Noren supports a somewhat wobbly condenser as Arnold pours a liter of freshly squeezed lime juice, pale green and cloudy with pulp, into a teardrop-shaped Pyrex vessel. Because heat would destroy the flavors and aromas of the elixir, Arnold brings the vessel just above room temperature by partially submerging it in a bath of precisely regulated warm water. He then connects it to a vacuum so that the juice will vaporize at low temperatures.
Arnold flips the switch. The machine gurgles and hums, the vessel spins merrily, the lime vapor drifts up into the condenser, and an absolutely clear liquid begins dripping into a beaker. The result smells like lime, but it’s lost much of its punchy flavor in distillation. So Arnold works to bring his clarified juice back into balance. From a series of plastic bottles, he adds 4.5 percent powdered citric acid, 1.5 percent malic acid and 0.1 percent succenic acid to the solution, places the beaker atop an electromagnetic stirrer, drops in a little Teflon-coated magnetic bar, and flips the switch. Instantly, the bar begins spinning, whipping up the liquid and dissolving the powders. Voil ! Clearlime, Arnold calls it. A touch of quinine powder and some simple syrup (2:1 sugar and water), some water, and, after a couple hours of labor, he’s halfway there.
Now he custom-makes his own “gin”, really just a neutral spirit infused with whatever aromatics are catching Arnold’s fancy and then distilled (the latter part of which is, in fact, illegal-but hey, it’s all in the name of science). Today it will be two cucumbers, celery ribs, roasted orange slices, and one bunch each of cilantro and Thai basil, all coarsely chopped and added to a fifth of Absolut vodka. Everything goes into the vessel and back onboard the rotovap, and another beaker is filled.
The two liquids are combined about 1:1, heavily carbonated with a healthy injection of CO2 (Arnold loves carbonation), and chilled for 20 minutes to a blistering cold in a freezer (he hates it when ice melts in his drinks). And so, sans rocks, sans garnish, Arnold pours the concoction into champagne flutes and serves it.
“I like my drinks stiff,” he notes, and he is not kidding. This take on the G&T is, literally and figuratively, a distillation of the classic’s flavors. It’s a pure, Platonic ideal of the G&T, strong as a martini. The sensation is not so much of drinking something as it is of breathing it, the effervescence unusually intense and refreshing, the flavors and aromas magnified, permeating the palate and nose with a sharp, aggressive, limey crispness, underscored with soft notes of cilantro, roasted orange and cuke. And it only took three hours.
“It’s a crazy level of things you have to do to get the product I want,” Arnold says, “but here’s what happens when you do everything possible to get something the way you want it. Yeah, sure, it’s ridiculous, but. . .
You should see how he cooks a steak.
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.
by John B. Carnett
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-cafe. 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.”
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.
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.”
**Magic Meat Glue
Perhaps the most fun to be had with experimental cooking comes from the magic potions known as hydrocolloids, a class of ingredients familiar to anyone who´s perused the labels of processed foods-cellulose, xanthan gum, agar, alginate, carrageenan, gelatin-but that, until recently (with the exception of gelatin), were not a fine cook´s ingredients. Generally, hydrocolloids are used to thicken, gel, or stabilize liquids; they can also be used to great effect to change texture, enabling a chef to produce a foam that won´t collapse or, in Arnold´s case, to make a “sponge cake” with methyl cellulose that can be shot from a compressed whipped-cream canister onto a plate without requiring baking.
Despite their negative associations with junk food, most hydrocolloids actually come from natural sources. Agar and carrageenan are derived from seaweed, gelatin from cow and pig bones, and pectin from citrus and apples. Some of these additives, such as agar, a common thickener in Thai cooking, have been around for centuries; others, like transglutaminase (known in the industry as “meat glue”) are newer and can be used for some pretty out-there stuff-attaching chicken skin to a piece of fish, say, or gluing a piece of skate wing to a slab of pork belly. In his appearance on Iron Chef in 2005, Dufresne used transglutaminase to bind pureed fish into “noodles,” which were toothsome and delicious, not to mention clever. (Full disclosure: I served as a judge on that episode. I voted for Dufresne to win, but my colleagues overruled me and gave the nod to Mario Batali.)
“The problem,” Arnold says, “is these [additives] have been used for decades to make products with a longer shelf life, to reduce the fat, to make something that you can freeze, to make something that ships farther, to make something that´s cheaper. And these are all things that, in the end, reduce quality. Chefs have started looking at these ingredients as a quality enhancer, something to be proud of. Most of the top people are using these products, because they make food better. Hardly any of them talk about it, because it sounds gross. There are a couple of people who, like Wylie, they talk about using these things because they love the products and they´re trying to rehabilitate their image. So there´s use of these products for economy, and there´s use for effect, and these chefs are using it for effect.”
“Sometimes it´s just about learning,” Dufresne says. “It´s about understanding. That´s why bringing traditional chefs together with scientists is infinitely interesting, because even if, at the very least, all they do is help explain things, and help us understand what´s happening while we cook, then we´re becoming better cooks.”
The New Ways
When FCI hired Arnold, the plan was to build him a lab, which has yet to happen-he has his closet and a cubicle, and he scavenges most of his equipment used. (“I picked up a really good vacuum controller for cheap because some sucker listed it in the wrong category!”) He´s now in the market for a centrifuge, figuring that it will speed up the juice-clarification process, and he particularly dreams of getting a deal on a 3-D rapid-prototyping machine. Budget is an issue, not to mention the storage constraints of the two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and two young sons on the Lower East Side.
Down the road, Arnold is hatching plans to open the ultimate high-tech cocktail bar with pastry chef Iuzzini, focusing not on the retro, golden-age drinks favored by most mixological temples but on an ultra-modern paradigm: still wines and juices carbonated to order with tongue-tingling intensity; rows of magnetic stirrers merrily whirling people´s drinks in a chilling bath; rotovapping herbs and fruit for intense flavors; bourbon with soft, sweet nitrous-oxide bubbles; extremely cold drinks without the corruption of ice, super-chilled cocktail stirrers. . . . “There are always new things you can do that are really delicious that no one is trying,” Arnold says, “because they´re so hyped up on getting back to some other place.”
To his mind, this kind of problem-solving isn´t any sort of radical culinary departure. “People ask, “Is this a fad?´ I hope that the idea of trying to use everything at your disposal to make something better is never considered a fad, you know?” As Dufresne puts it, “I mean, an oven is technology. At one point, people were throwing sticks at animals and holding them over a spit, and that was a huge breakthrough.”
McGee harkens back to Arnold´s relentless quest for the perfect G&T. “He has this ideal of the french fry, the gin and tonic, so many things, and he´s always trying to get to that ideal,” he says. But ultimately, McGee ventures, he himself would probably prefer the old-fashioned kind: “For me, a gin and tonic is a tall drink that you sip. It´s not a martini; it´s a drink to quench your thirst. So I kind of like the standard one, with some Schweppes. I like the bursts of acidity from those little lime bits.”
Of course, he knows, “if I were having this conversation with Dave, he would be saying, “Well, if you like those little bursts of acidity, we can put some gelatin pearls in there, infused with Clearlime, so that whenever you bite one . . .”
Ted Allen is a frequent judge on Top Chef_ and_ Iron Chef America_, the food and wine expert on_ Queer Eye_, and the author of_ The Food You Want to Eat_._