Photo courtesy Flickr user Edsel Little

Dave Arnold never stops. The fortysomething owner of Manhattan cocktail bar Booker & Dax is exactly the kind of madman inventor that we need to push the food world forward, and lucky for us, he’s always working on a cool project. Even luckier, he always wants to tell you all about it.

Arnold is also the director of the Museum of Food & Drink in New York City, the host of Heritage Radio Network show Cooking Issues, and the author of Liquid Intelligence: The Art & Science of the Perfect Cocktail. He’s inspired an entire generation of chefs to innovate with technology in their search for ever better food and drinks, with wacky inventions like the Searzall blow torch for your steaks and milk-washed spirits for your cocktails. (And he’s working on a centrifuge for restaurant and home use!)

We sat down with Arnold a few weeks ago to talk shop about the future of food and technology. Here’s an abbreviated version of our conversation.

TheSpoon: Do you see a difference between technology for professional kitchens versus for home kitchens?

Dave: One-hundred percent. It can go both ways. In a professional kitchen, if something’s accepted, people will learn how to use it, because they have to. People in professional kitchens put up with things that you’re not allowed to sell to people at home, things that are very hot or very large or take a lot of energy.

The problem with restaurants is that chefs are extraordinarily busy, and they don’t trust that every one of their employees is a rocket scientist. So stuff in a restaurant has to be fairly intuitive to use and bulletproof. It has to withstand intense abuse. That’s why if you take off the label that says Vitamix and put on one that says Vitaprep, the price goes way up and the warranty goes way down, because everyone knows that in a commercial establishment, people beat the heck out of things. Commercial equipment needs to have a level of robustness and intuitive use that is not necessary for home equipment.

But home equipment — it depends on who you’re shooting at. When you’re shooting at people who aren’t avid cooks or who don’t cook that much, it has to be intuitive at home in a different way. It has to have a lot more convenience and bells and whistles on it. It has to polish out nicely, to tell you when your breakfast is done. Also, most home equipment is built around maximizing kitchen space, which is super important commercially as well, but typically home people don’t have to put out as much product out of a particular square footage. You’re maximizing a different problem.

Where it can get interesting is, you can have something that home people can experiment with because maybe you can’t make that much of it, so it’s hard to do in service because the product takes too long or maybe it’s a little too complicated to train everyone on. So things that I can do at home better than in a commercial kitchen? Rotary evaporation. It’s illegal to do rotary evaporation in a commercial kitchen because you’re doing distillation. But at home you’re dealing with a tinkerer. Someone who sees themselves as a learner, a hobbyist. There’s a weird sweet spot there for home people to do interesting things that are difficult to do in most commercial restaurant environments. Because as much as commercial restaurant environments are creativity driven, it’s business, and it’s hard to justify the cost of building in super-high levels of creativity.

Molecular Cocktails from Booker & Dax with Kate Krader and Dave Arnold
Molecular cocktails from Booker & Dax with Kate Krader and Dave Arnold; photo courtesy Flickr user Meng He

TheSpoon: Let’s talk about that creativity.

Dave: In the wake of the popularity of the Spanish style at El Bullí, there were a bunch of people who had positions in higher-end restaurants as research chefs. Not the way Chipotle would have a research chef; it was specifically for fine dining. I don’t really know how that trend is doing now, but it’s hard: Customers’ interest in visibly creative stuff goes up and down. Everyone always wants something to be different and new, but sometimes they want it to be different and new in a way that doesn’t look like people have been hypercreative with it, and sometimes they want hypercreative.

Look at the mid 2000s , with WD50, Alinea, Moto: All over the country a lot of the new techniques were being used and pioneered by restaurants that weren’t advertising that that’s what they were going to do. Modernist Cuisine is fairly good at documenting where a lot of these recipes came from. You can treat it as a library of where these ideas came from.

Even Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernadin was using hydrocolloids a lot. Dominique Ansel at Daniel, Greg Brainin at Jean-Georges. All the cooks who went there were smart people interested in these new techniques because they knew it would allow them to achieve something different, new and good. None of those folks were using it in very obvious ways that said to the customer, “This is using a new technique.” That’s what I mean by the hypercreativity isn’t always obvious.

When it is obvious, and people are actively trying creativity that way, there tends to be acceleration of what happens. People push the boundary faster and harder, make more mistakes frankly, so you try 10 things that suck and come up with 1 good thing. If you can do that you’re super winning.

TheSpoon: Right now with connected kitchen appliances it seems like everyone is trying way more than 10 things. How do we move away from gimmicks into useful technology?

Dave: I have a particular opinion on this. Ninety-nine percent of the applications that people are positing today will be the future, are not the future. If they are the future, God help us. It’s so dystopic that would someone would print your meal out. It’s a horror show. Luckily I don’t anticipate you ever pushing a button and it printing whatever paste it has, applying food coloring to it to make it look like a hamburger, and then you eat it.

The current printing technology is either working with liquids (in that case it sucks because you need your viscosity to be right), or you’re dealing with paste that has to be extruded through a very fine nozzle. There’s only so much you can do with current technology.

True, that technology will change and get better. Let’s say someday you could find what you think is going to be the best-tasting pig and then recreate it a million times with a transporter beam where you store the information and keep recreating it over and over again. Or maybe it’s the best meal ever. It would be like a CD player of meals: You could have your favorite chef create it, scan it, and then whenever you want, you could just have it. When you get to that level, sure, print me some food.

The issue isn’t that the current technology sucks (which it does) or that the way people are using the current technology is wrong and bad (which it most certainly is). All that’s important is that you push the technology. Someone will find a good use.

Look at the development of almost anything: Steam engines sucked for a while until someone got one that worked right. You need to have the person who has no idea what’s going to happen in the future just work. They need to work and make stuff and throw stuff against the wall and see what happens: Push technology, create. Eventually someone will do something amazing.

The Searzall in action; photo courtesy Flickr user Arnold Gatilao

We all have to play this game. Well, I don’t tend to play it, but most of us play it, where we pretend that the gimmick idea is reasonable when we all know it’s not. Of course it’s not reasonable!

Remember when they had the first car phones? If you had said, “That’s dopey, who the heck is going to use that?” we’d never have what we have today. Or as I said when I was a teenager in the 80s and somebody showed me email and I was like, “That’s not ever going to go anywhere.” Who knows? That person was wrong about why it was going to be great. The person who showed me had no understanding of how the technology was actually going to change the world, but they just kept at it.

TheSpoon: Are there certain food-tech trends that you’re excited about?

Dave: There’s stuff that I thought was going to have a lot of potential for a long time and never has. If you’d asked me over 10 years ago, I’d say by now almost everything would be completely traceable, RFID and that safety would be on lockdown and that we wouldn’t have recalls and all of this other nonsense. Once everything is traceable that way, I’d assumed we’d already be in a situation where — and we’re getting there — your grocery list would be more integrated with what you’re doing.

I didn’t expect FreshDirect and Peapod and all that to make as big a dent as it did, in the same way that I didn’t understand how the whole retail world was going to get flipped by Amazon the way it did 10 years ago.

Especially because in the late 90s, there was Urbanfetch. I was like, “Oh yeah, this is never going to work. You’re going to be connected on your computer and someone’s going to go show up in half an hour with your ice cream.” I used to mess with them. You weren’t allowed to tip them and they had no minimum order. So I was like, “It’s 4 AM. I’m going to hit this button, and you’re going to deliver me a pack of gum in half an hour?” The guy’s like, “Yes.” And they showed up with the gum and I’m like, “And I’m not allowed to tip you?” He’s like, “Nope.” And every time they were late they’d give you a free pint of ice cream. It’s a crazy business model. They were losing money, but that was back when people thought it was okay to lose money as long as you lost it in very large quantities. That was a sign that wasn’t going to work. That means someone comes along and does it right, like FreshDirect.

Here’s another situation where I was totally wrong. Who’s going to order vegetables off of a website? Turns out everybody, except me.

Most of the time, on these kinds of predictions, I’ve been wrong.

The only time I’ve been right — I predicted low-temperature sous vide cooking is going to grow and it’s here to stay. And that people will be interested in the why of cooking. It’s not a fad. The general trend is toward deliciousness. I think I’ve been proved right on that.

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