“The problem with doing low temperature alcohol distillations,” begins Dave Arnold, looking like a lab technician in his chef’s whites as he examines a blown glass flask, “is that it’s technically illegal to do without a license.”
Why would an instructor at The French Culinary Institute—one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the world—need to distill alcohol? “Most flavors extract better in alcohol than in water,” he explains as he connects the flask to a Rotovap—a $7,500 piece of laboratory equipment that applies a vacuum to liquids, allowing one to distill and extract flavors without the need to apply heat. “By distilling cold, you get much purer flavor extraction. Normally, you just run this until it’s done, and hope it tastes good. We’ve modified this one in-house to drip into a collection flask as you go—so you can sample the flavor as it develops until you get it just right.”
As Director of Technology at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan’s Chinatown since 2005, Dave’s job is “to communicate with the chefs here at the institute to come up with new ideas, research, and technology to advance the goals of cooking.” It’s what some would refer to as “molecular gastronomy,” although Dave disdains the term. “I mean, hasn’t cooking always been about manipulating molecules?”
Dodging street vendors and traffic in the hectic tangle outside the Institute is good exercise for what’s to come. “I hope you don’t mind the stairs,” says Dave, already halfway down the first flight. “I don’t have the patience for elevators.” His movements are as quick and jumpy as his mind. Interviewing him requires furious note-taking interspersed with jogs up and down hallways with bags of carefully labeled vacuum-sealed bags of colored liquids or delicate laboratory glass.
“The first thing I teach my students is that technology is only here to help us achieve flavor goals. Technology for technology’s sake is just a gimmick,” he explains. His laboratory—lined in a tangle of aquarium tubing, wire-thin thermometers, reclaimed laboratory equipment, bottles of hydrocolloid thickeners, and recipes scrawled in short hand directly onto the glass cupboards—is a food geek’s paradise. “All this stuff is just tools. Ferran’s genius isn’t in his chemicals or equipment,” he says, referring to Ferran Adría, the well-known, technology-inspired chef at Spain’s El Bullí. “It’s in his palate, and in his willingness to look outside of the typical high-end kitchen for inspiration.”
Despite this assertion, technology has always moved Dave. “I was born to be a scientist,” he says, although he ended up attaining a philosophy degree from Yale because he “couldn’t handle the early morning physics classes.” After completing an M.F.A at Columbia University, he went on to become an artist specializing in mechanical sculpture. “Building stuff, figuring out how things work,” and the juxtaposition of science, machines, and art have been running themes in his life—themes that he now applies to food.
His experience in machining and welding has proven invaluable in a field so esoteric that often the only way to get the tools required for the job is to build them himself. He shows me a long metal rod with distinct weld marks on it. “It’s got a heating element in the tip that gets up to several thousand degrees and makes a huge whoosh as soon as you stick it into a drink.” He created the tool for a bartender who wanted to get the flavor-altering effects of flambéing a drink without using an actual flame. “It’s really cool, but dangerous,” he adds. “This is the third one we’ve gone through.”
Unlike the other instructors on staff, Professor Arnold has no formal culinary training. Prior to his arrival, he fostered his burgeoning interest in food by conducting his own research at home and collaborating with his brother-in-law, Chef Wylie Dufresne of WD-50. “I got Wylie his first circulators before anyone in the city was using them,” he says about the temperature-controlled water baths that are now de rigeur for cooking proteins precisely in every high-end restaurant in Manhattan.
“Back then [in the early aughts], the only equipment you could get was used, from bio labs, on eBay.” According to Dave, the Internet essentially created molecular gastronomy (or whatever he’d prefer to call it). Aside from the tools, it provided “an exchange of free knowledge” that allowed chefs who were exploring techniques like water baths or centrifuging to learn from each others’ mistakes.
“I’ve always loved food, and I wanted to figure out a way to make a career out of it without having to become a chef.” The FCI has proved to be the perfect place for that. “They didn’t care that I don’t have formal training. I speak the language of chefs, and I speak the language of engineers.” That vital bridge between the two—between the artistic and the technical—puts Dave in a unique position to advance the field.
Chefs, with rare exception, don’t have the technical background, to say nothing of the time, to experiment with new technologies. Scientists, on the other hand, lack sound culinary judgment. “Scientists can create a machine to measure a pea,” calculating the force required to puncture the outer skin, the elasticity of it’s hull, or the viscosity of its interior after various cooking methods, “but at the end, all you need to do is eat the darn thing!” The last stage of nearly every one of his experiments is the same: a rigorously controlled blind tasting.
“My only goal is to figure out what’s good, and find ways to get there better,” says Dave, as he examines a homemade-locking mechanism that allows bartenders to carbonate drinks right in the shaker. (It never worked). “The chefs help me decide what ‘good’ is, because with my background, I’m not really sure that my own idea is quite normal.”
Photo credit: www.jeffelkinsphoto.com