"Mad scientist" is not a term to be used lightly, but in Dave Arnold's case it almost fits. The Director of Culinary Technology at the International Culinary Center's French Culinary Institute, Arnold spends his days fiddling with high-tech devices like rotary evaporators and conducting experiments with everything from puffed beaver tails to transglutaminase ("meat glue") to hand-pulled cotton candy.
Arnold is a co-author of the blog Cooking Issues. Lately, he has also been raising money to start the Museum of Food and Drink, which he hopes will become "the country's best food educator--an establishment that encourages a well-rounded understanding of what we eat and why we eat it." Here, he discusses the revolutionary potential of low-temperature cooking, his dislike of the phrase "molecular gastronomy," and an old-school badass French chef.
What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"
I usually say "high-tech cooking"; if people want more I add "I teach new technologies and techniques to chefs, often involving new equipment and ingredients. I cook with liquid nitrogen, rotary evaporators, centrifuges, and other non-traditional kitchen equipment." But technology is only part of my job--I am just as interested in discovering new techniques that don't involve expensive equipment. The most accurate description of what I do: I try to cook the best possible food regardless of the absurdity of effort involved.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about food or cooking?
Low-temperature cooking is the most revolutionary cooking technique to emerge since commercial refrigeration in the mid-1800s. In low-temperature cooking, the temperature you cook with is also the temperature you cook to. Example: a typically prepared steak might be cooked at 375 to 450 degrees F to reach an internal temperature of 130. A low-temperature steak would be cooked at exactly 130 F until the center reached 130 F. This type of cooking became possible with the advent of inexpensive accurate temperature control in the past decade. The benefits of low temperature are many: enhanced textures, very even cooking, piece-to-piece and day-to-day consistency, lower cooking losses, and almost no risk of overcooking. Some low temperature cooking truths--like the fact that you can cook a piece of meat for three days straight without overcooking it (in fact, it gets more tender)--are so counter-intuitive that you have to taste to believe.
What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?
People think high-tech cooking is about gimmicks and gimcracks. They think new techniques are reserved for bizarre and unfriendly foods. Not true. Properly used, new techniques make food better, not weirder. Every single four-star restaurant I know of uses some of these new techniques.
What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the food world?
Energy-efficient kitchens. The average kitchen today wastes a tremendous amount of energy--mostly needlessly. More and more manufacturers are paying attention and fixing the problems. Energy waste in kitchens is typically compound waste. We waste gas with inefficient burners, which isn't in itself expensive, but it increases our venting needs and air-conditioning costs--both expensive.
What's a food trend that you wish would go away?
Molecular gastronomy--the phrase, that is. It sounds disgusting and gives an inaccurate impression of the work done by the people who are labeled with it. Either we all work with molecules or none of us do. I also don't like Dippin' Dots. They have poor flavor release.
What's a recipe or technique you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?
This question is difficult because I am almost always off-track. I do my best work as I'm driving off-track. I can find almost anything enormously interesting for at least a short amount of time, and I can also spend years on a project that goes nowhere and still find the journey useful.
Who are three people you'd put in a food Hall of Fame?
1 and 2. Michael and Ariane Batterberry. They founded Food & Wine and Food Arts magazine and worked tirelessly for decades to elevate the profession of cooking, furthering the food careers of countless others without taking credit for themselves. Many of the most famous chefs and food journalists in the country owe a debt to the Batterberrys.
3. André Soltner. Old-school badass. His restaurant Lutece was the best in NYC for decades, and he worked there practically every day for over 30 years. If the restaurant was open (which it almost always was, lunch and dinner) he was in the kitchen. And he is a complete gentleman. They don't make them like that any more.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
I tried my hand at being an artist before I got involved in the food world. I'd like to go get a PhD in chemistry--but who has the time?
What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?
Google Books and http://www.mcmaster.com. I can buy almost anything I need to make anything (of course they charge an arm and a leg)--and it comes overnight at ground shipping rates.
What song's been stuck in your head lately?
The theme song from the Fall Guy. Lee Majors, classic.
Image: Courtesy of the French Culinary Institute