Technology-obsessed chef Dave Arnold devotes himself to making delectable cocktails using whiz-bang devices like centrifuges, red-hot pokers and tanks of liquid nitrogen at his new Manhattan bar, Booker & Dax. So it was fitting that there were moments during Arnold’s demonstration at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, Calif., last week when the audience gasped audibly.
After telling some cautionary tales about how using liquid nitrogen improperly can yield grisly results — from frostbite to explosions that can cost people their hands — Arnold intentionally poured a little of the vaporous stuff on the kitchen counter facing the audience.
“It’s incredibly mesmerizing,” said Arnold, the New York-based director of culinary technology for the International Culinary Center. The super-cold nitrogen flowed like smoky water over the counter’s edge and hit the floor with an icy clatter before disappearing. “Many, many things we use in the kitchen are incredibly dangerous — it’s just a question as to whether you’ve been trained.”
Arnold is a leader in what’s called “modernist cuisine” or “molecular gastronomy,” cooking techniques that experiment with foods’ chemical reactions, sometimes aided by equipment such as vacuum-sealers and centrifuges or by additives that can turn vegetables and fruits into gels or foams.
Arnold said he doesn’t use either term that much. “I’ve always been a gear head and a food guy,” he told a student who asked what inspired him to apply technology to food.
In an interview earlier in the week, Arnold, 41, said he loves using centrifuges and pokers and the like in his cooking, because it allows him to create things in new ways. He can centrifuge nectarines, for example, to get great fresh juice for cocktails.
“I enjoy working on new techniques; it’s what kind of gets me out of bed in the morning,” he said. But the point of those techniques should be meals and drinks that taste good, he said, not tech-infused pedigrees for their own sake.
“My goal is to try to make things as delicious as possible,” said Arnold, who also appeared at the SF Chefs culinary event last weekend. At the International Culinary Center workshop, Arnold did a little “nitro-muddling” for a drink he calls a Bangkok daiquiri. Using liquid nitrogen, he flash froze Thai basil leaves — he loves them for their mild licorice flavor — then crunched the brittle leaves with the end of a wooden rolling pin. Combined with white rum, simple syrup and lime juice, the basil produced a tangy cocktail.
“You see that? It’s bright green,” he said, sipping it. “It needs more lime.”
He ignited Jaegermeister (remember that stuff from college?) with a 500-watt hot poker he made himself, then combined it with lemon juice and water for a tealike cocktail he invented for a recent appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (who seemed to really like Jaegermeister).
And he drew gasps and groans early in the demo for a decidedly low-tech but high-priced cooking maneuver: Arnold dumped an entire bottle of 15-year-old Glenlivet whiskey — about $50 worth of booze — into a pan to reduce it into flavoring for a scotch ice cream he planned to make toward the end of his demo.
“This is a rather spendy way to do this, “ he admitted, the whiskey sending foot-high flames shooting into the air as it warmed.
Then again, Manhattan is a place where some people are always keen to spend money, he noted. At Booker & Dax — the bar within David Chang’s Momofuku Sam Bar — most cocktails cost $14.
In addition to making two cocktails and the ice cream, Arnold dispensed various bits of advice to students—“There’s no reason you should ever use old lime juice!”—as well as safety tips such as always wear goggles when using liquid nitrogen.
And he made sure to underline his point that cooks and bartenders should only care about using vacuum-sealers and centrifuges if they’re making things that are yummy.
“We’re not about being a cocktail palace. You’re not coming to genuflect at the technology altar,” he said. “You’re coming to have a drink.”
TOP 5 FAVORITE INGREDIENTS FROM CHEF DAVE ARNOLD
Chef Dave Arnold, technology director for the International Culinary Center and the mixology mastermind behind Booker and Dax, his cocktail bar within Momofuku Sam Bar in New York City, says these are among his current favorite ingredients to include in cocktails, in some form or another:
1. Thai basil
2. Apples (his favorite is Ashmead's Kernel, a drab-looking but flavorful English variety)
4. Nectarines and other stone fruit
5. Onions may be coming soon, too — Arnold said he’s working on a cocktail with pressure-cooked onion juice, “but I haven’t gotten there yet.”
But don't try...
Arnold says experimenting with new techniques means making lots of mistakes along the way. Among those mistakes:
1. “I tried to distill wasabi once. That was horrible.”
2. “I've never made a good coffee distillate that I really liked. Distilling coffee is horrible.”
3. “Many hydrocolloid experiments go horribly wrong.” Hydrocolloid “gums” thicken ingredients or render them as gels or liquids, but things don’t always go smoothly. “When you're working on a new gum system ... you fail quite often,” Arnold said.