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Culinary chemist Dave Arnold hosts an All-Star fundraiser for ambitious Museum of Food and Drink

Dave Arnold has a mind that moves at approximately a million miles an hour. Any conversation you have with him will have you manically Googling all the technical terms, back tracks, asides and names he fires off at you. Arnold's insatiable curiosity and child-like enthusiasm have compelled him to consistently push the boundaries of modern cooking and cocktails, combining an artist's vision, a chef's palette and a chemist's technical expertise.

Travis Huggett
Wylie Dufresne drops science with Nils Noren © Travis Huggett

He is constantly trying to create something new out of what is already familiar - but only if it improves upon the thing. Arnold has an endless supply of energy and no shortage of ideas and uses his home base at the French Culinary Institute and the related blog that he hosts with partner Nils Noren as a launching pad for transforming food and drinks through technology.  

In order to make an idea like the Museum of Food and Drink work, you need the outsized personality and scatter-shot imagination of a person like Dave Arnold. Let's face it: a perfectly grown tomato in a glass case isn't going to draw a crowd of patrons or investors. To pull off an endeavor as ambitious as this, you also need someone who's a little nuts. Arnold envisions MOFAD existing on the scale of other New York City landmarks like The Met or The Museum of Natural History, with a rotating assortment of gourmet street food vendors inside the museum. For all Arnold's passion for high-tech preparation, he's equally fascinated by the historical processes and traditional practices that have moved food to where it is today - and he's prepared to build a museum showcasing just that.

Dave Arnold
Dave Arnold hard at work. © Travis Huggett

Dave Arnold also happens to be the kind of guy who can convince friends like Mark Ladner of Del Posto to donate his staff and downstairs banquet space to host his fundraiser, or gather a hand-picked Dream Team of chefs and bartenders to execute museum quality food.

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© Travis Huggett

To say that the thoughtfulness of each dish and accompanying cocktail was impressive would be an understatement. For each restrained theme of time or place, each chef and bartender considered the ingredients that would have been available, the processes used at the time and the kind of tools needed to execute. Some took the challenge literally, while others used the restrictions simply as an inspiration. There were a broad range of dishes that highlighted each participant's individual talent and imagination.

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David Chang commissioned a farmer to grow a batch of super oysters that he served simply with acorns and berries, all the while voicing his frustration that we know more about dinosaurs' diets than the eating habits of Native Americans. Arnold challenged partner Nils Noren to tackle fad diets, something he says he'd like to see the museum take on: "Kind of like nutrition vs. false nutrition." Noren responded with a deconstructed Cuban sandwich and caramelized cabbage soup for what he called The Real South Beach Diet. Wylie Dufresne revealed that his nickname in college was Early Man, so it turned out to be fitting that he served his version of Cave Man Food, another of Arnold's personal challenges.

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© Travis Huggett

Indeed, Wylie's playful, yet complex dish of potato, bone marrow, scallops, beets and Enoki mushrooms was the highlight of the evening for many. Prime Meats's cocktail specialist Damon Boelte's Martell and Oranges was an exercise in restraint and refinement, while resident chef Mark Ladner offered up Big Bird, a highly dramatic dish. Two full-grown ostriches from a New Jersey farm were used - one in the dish, and the other in scene-stealing presentation.

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© Travis Huggett

Not to be outdone, Arnold's own dishes included an amuse bouche of medicinal mummy powder and rhubarb, as well as Heavenly Manna, little biscuits soaked in cognac and served in a brandy snifter. Midway through the event, he also served as auctioneer, his frenetic energy driving up the generosity in the room. The unique prizes offered included a private session with Del Posto's pastry chef Brooks Headley, dinner for two at The James Beard House and a night of cocktails at New York's reservations-only cocktail bar, Milk & Honey.

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The complicated, 9-course event, organized by Nastassia Lopez, turned out to be a well-orchestrated success enjoyed by contributors and diners alike. When I asked David Chang for his thoughts on the event and MOFAD, he simply said, "America's lucky to have Dave Arnold."

© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
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© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
© Travis Huggett
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Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article - an interview with Dave Arnold himself.

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