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The Man Behind the Magic: MOFAD’s Main Crusader

If there's one thing culinary master Dave Arnold is good at, it's getting people excited about the history and future of food. As such, Arnold has been nurturing a brainchild: the non-profit Museum of Food and Drink, "dedicated to educating its visitors about the history, culture, production, commerce and science of food." When the MINI Space Team first met him, it was at a fundraiser lunch for the museum's development--one taste of Dave Arnold's world was all we needed to develop a regular hunger for his insider tidbits. A tête-à-tête was clearly in order.

Dave Arnold, the subject of our interview
© Travis Huggett

We know that your educational background is in art as a sculptor, so how did you start to make the transition towards food?

Yeah, my MFA is in Fine Arts but like everyone else, I eat 3 times a day and I've always been interested in cooking since I was a kid. When my parents weren't around I would go downstairs and start making stuff in the kitchen even though I made a horrible mess. So I've been interested in cooking my whole life just not professionally. Even in college, I bought one of those little Westinghouse turkey ovens from a thrift shop for like 2 bucks and was making bread in my dorm room illegally. So it's not like it's out of the blue. And even though I'm an art guy my art was always very machine- and technically-oriented. As I started going outside of the art world, I felt like I wanted to make food my career, but I wasn't really sure how to do that because I didn't necessarily want to be a chef. So I was trying to figure out what to do and the first thing that sparked my interest and fit in with my love of history, my love of technologies in terms of equipment and building, and also my art background was to have a museum centered around food and drink. So to get that started I was trying to increase my profile in the food world and I got in touch with Mike Batterberry and his wife Ariane who run Food Arts magazine, which is the leading trade-only chef magazine. I got a job at French Culinary Institute as their technology guy because I'm good at that stuff. So unfortunately I didn't get to work on the museum a lot because I was so busy with all this other stuff. But when Mike Batterberry died last year I got together with Patrick Martins who runs Heritage Foods and we were like, we really need to make this happen. We know this is a big project so we just want to get the ball rolling so we can hire a real fundraiser. Hopefully we can get a place somewhere in Manhattan in the next 5 years.

Just to back up for a minute, it's a little unusual that the French Culinary Institute would just open up a technology arm. How did you convince them to do that?

Well, 5 years ago French Culinary was going through a major renovation. They had taken on a lot of extra space in the building where they were. They used to only have 2 floors but now we have space spread over 5 floors. When they went through this renovation they wanted to be forward-looking so they wanted to include technology and they were interested in what was going on at wd~50 with Wylie Dufresne (who is my brother-in-law, by the way, and is also one of their graduates). At that time the chefs that were really well known for doing that kind of work were literally in the kitchen doing that kind of work. So I said to them, "you don't really want a chef doing this and you don't want to hire a straight-up scientist," because typically the scientists can't speak the language of the chefs and the chefs can't necessarily speak the language of the scientists. You need someone like me who isn't a chef but hangs out with chefs and knows what they're dealing with, and also hangs out with scientists and knows what their needs are and how they think, to basically be a developer and facilitator in between those two worlds.

Dave Arnold with Wylie Dufresne
Dave Arnold and Wylie Dufresne talk shop. © Travis Huggett

You mentioned your relationship with Wylie. Is he a kind of co-conspirator?

Well, I don't get to work with him as much as I'd like because we're both super busy. But I was a technical guy and a food guy and I went to wd~50 very soon after they opened, and I always joke that the only reason he was nice to me was so he could talk to my sister-in-law. They eventually got married. She runs the Food Network magazine now so they've kind of become this weird Food World Power Couple, Wylie and Miley (laughs). When I met him, I don't know how, but he knew that I built machines and I'd already had my house modified with a bunch of restaurant equipment for my own purposes. I had a lot of commercial gear at the loft. I have a commercial deep fryer because that's just the best way to fry foods. I have a modified modular oven that's all glass so I can film inside it. So Wylie said, "can you get me an immersion circulator?" And I said, "well I don't really know what that is but I can pretty much guarantee I can get you one because I've always been a big eBay bandit." So I would get like 5 or 6 at like $40 a pop including shipping. Try to get that deal nowadays - impossible. But that's how our relationship started and helped put me on the road to joining food and technology together.

I know you're into high-tech cooking but a big part of the focus of the event and the museum is going to be on traditional practices right?

In the museum itself, there might be some technology on display, but the technology as far as I'm interested in it, the tinkering, will be more behind the scenes. There will be some old-tech there too like steam pumps and puffing guns - exploding out puff cereal. That kind of stuff. To me, some old-tech is exciting but we want to keep the emphasis on traditional practice and also the development of traditional practice. Everything we do is based on something that at the time was new technology. So the museum has endless possibilities for that. Whether you're looking at the past or the future, there is always opportunity for learning and growing and changing which is really what drives me and what drives the technology itself. You look at people like me or Wylie and the mode is always newness. But it's really just relentless drive for change, improvement and perfection-and I hope the museum will be a reflection of that.

When you and Wylie get together do you guys drive your wives crazy talking about technical stuff?

I try not to because they get bored fairly quickly. Miley, my sister-in-law, is much more interested in the food world than my wife, who is an architect. We try to talk about other things but sometimes it devolves into a debate. We try to stay off those kinds of subjects because in most people's eyes that's for the better.

Related Links:

Dave Arnold and Nils Noren Blog for French Culinary Institute

Dave and Nils on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

Dave and Nils on the past decade of food-related technology

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