Dave Arnold discusses cooking eggs with Jonny Hunter.
Dave Arnold was distracted. The microphone had a crinkly connection, and he was rambling while it was fiddled with; on his Internet radio show/podcast Cooking Issues, he is notorious for rambling.
"I don't even know where I was," he remarked, getting back on track early in his lecture at the UW Memorial Union's Shannon Hall Wednesday night. He could just as easily have been referring to the old ways of cooking that he grew up with.
"The intuitions I had about cooking growing up were wrong," he would say later, and most of his talk -- the second of this fall's Distinguished Lecture series -- hinged on that idea, that excellence in cooking comes not from acceptance of old rules, but from direct experience, constant observation and the willingness to challenge preconceived notions.
As an owner of New York's Booker and Dax bar, Arnold isn't exactly a chef, but he's way more than a bartender. He's an author now, at least, with his first book, Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, hot off the presses and about to go on sale. The Wisconsin Union's blurb calls him a "food innovator," and that's pretty apt.
He's an exemplar of the generation of chefs after the one that grew up watching Julia Child. Arnold's generation was raised on Mister Wizard's World; he was born the year the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film was released in 1971. With shaggy hair and a rumpled, vinous brown corduroy jacket, he was the perfect amalgam of these figures: brilliant, a little mad, and conspiratorially engaged with the audience.
Arnold made dragon's beard candy -- thin wispy strands of pulled sugar, like a taffy-cotton candy hybrid -- and shared it with the crowd. He froze a marshmallow in liquid nitrogen and had Jonny Hunter of Madison's Underground Food Collective eat it, puffing out blasts of visible, wintry breath. He even had a young woman from the crowd come onto the stage, inviting her to hold her hands for as long as she was comfortable in immersion circulator-heated tubs. One was filled with water and the other oil, and the test was to show the two liquids' vastly different heat conduction capacities.
"I'm not saying to hurt yourself," Arnold reminded her in an exaggerated tone of caution.
Arnold's demonstrations on Wednesday highlighted the ways a practitioner of "modernist cuisine" -- don't call it "molecular gastronomy," not around Arnold -- can demonstrate food safety and culinary excellence thanks to technology like immersion circulators and vacuum boxes. His lineup of whole eggs cooked to different precise temperatures was particularly illustrative of the capabilities of low temperature/long duration cooking. (It also made me realize, sadly, how far Wednesday is from brunch.)
The old way of thinking, Arnold argued, is narrow -- that cooking is strictly a function of time, or that boiling is all about temperature. He demonstrated the latter by boiling room temperature water, and then liquid nitrogen, inside the vacuum box.
"Eat a lot, and cook a lot," he exhorted the audience. "Just cook, and cook, and cook, but observe while you cook."
His tech might be new-fangled to some, but Arnold expressed an appreciation for the combination of modern culinary science and older food practices. "People are returning to doing things like fermentation and curing meats," Arnold explained following an introduction from Hunter, who recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign intended to democratize the verification of food safety practices. "We have to prove that they're safe."
Fans of Arnold may also be taking the plunge for a ticket to a Thursday night fundraiser for the Museum of Food and Drink, Arnold's New York City labor of love. The event will be held at the site of Underground's forthcoming Middlewest restaurant on Williamson Street. Tickets are $100, but in addition to cocktails from Arnold himself, the food comes courtesy of Hunter, as well as James Beard award winners Tory Miller of L'Etoile and Justin Aprahamian of Milwaukee's Sanford.
For a guy a who often arrives late to his show's broadcast sessions and regularly deviates from discussion topics, Arnold managed to wrap up his talk within a few minutes of the scheduled one hour duration, fielding a long line of his book's earliest buyers waiting for an autograph.
Sure, his Q&A session at the end featured tangents on legendary deep fryer accidents, tragicomic Canadian PSA videos, and a very brief mention of his Searzall cooking tool, but as one young man said in the lobby after the talk, "It was more sciencey than anything else" -- though the candy was pretty good, too.