I spill a dribble of liquid nitrogen onto the bar as I try to pour it from a steel vat into a coffee thermos for Dave Arnold, in a scene that vaguely reminds me of this image of Jesus turning water into wine, except that the splash turns into smoke and tiny beads, which skitter across the bar like insects.
This is not good, because interrupting the steady supply of liquid nitrogen to the rotary evaporator Arnold’s tending to — which practically sits on top of a cash register — means I’ll have single-handedly screwed up that night’s supply of horseradish distillate, destined for a drink called the ‘Lady of the Night’. Fortunately, I don’t. After nearly 20 minutes, a half kilo stalk of horseradish is transmogrified into a vial of pure horseradish flavour. It’s the best vial he’s made yet.
“Molecular gastronomy” is a dirty word. At least around the very culinary geniuses that are held up as the pinnacle of state-of-the-art cooking. Geniuses like Dave Arnold, the head of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute, and one of two Daves behind Booker & Dax, a quiet little revolution in imbibing that’s tucked behind David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar. So I know not to breathe a syllable of it when I step inside, even as the first thing my eyes lock onto is the 1500-degree hot poker that transforms frigid concoctions into piping hot cocktails by literally setting them on fire.
There’s a good reason for that, though. The phrase is a little bit like the word hipster, in that there is a certain irony to its application: Most of the newer chefs who tell you they practise molecular gastronomy aren’t very good at it, in the same way that anybody who tells you that they are a hipster is probably not. Conversely, most anybody who is good at applying technology to cooking, like Dave Arnold’s friend and occasional co-conspirator, wd-50′s Wylie Dufresne, disavows the term: it cheapens their art, reducing it to chemistry set parlor tricks. The thing is, the technology isn’t the point. The point is to “find our own path to deliciousness,” as Arnold puts it.
Booker & Dax is the path that he’s been seemingly working toward for the last several years, if you glance at any of the several profiles written about his work — a platonic gin & tonic here, a habanero vodka there. The path at Booker & Dax is totally littered with technology, though: a centrifuge that Arnold picked up for $US150 on eBay; the aforementioned rotovap, powered by a vacuum system of Arnold’s own design; the also aforementioned hot poker, again designed by Arnold; a new a la minute carbonation system I’m not allowed to tell you about; oh, and buckets and buckets of liquid nitrogen, used for everything from chilling every single glass in the bar to bottling Manhattans to muddling herbs for the most refreshing daiquiri you’ve ever had (and they’re working on a julep version).
But if you glance at the menu, you might think it looks like any other relatively fashionable cocktail bar: sections for bubbles, stirred, shaken, on the rock and red hot poker (“because we didn’t know what the hell else to call it”), with simple lists of ingredients.
It doesn’t tell you, for instance, that the banana justino — “the simplest drink in the world,” according to Arnold, and listed merely as rum and bananas — is made with rum and bananas that have been blended with the enzymes chitosan and kieselsol, and spun in a centrifuge at thousands of times the force of gravity, producing an ultra-clarified, clear banana potion. The resulting drink is remarkably pure, like drinking the platonic ideal of sitting on a beach in the Carribbean, even though it’s 22 degrees and miserable outside because you’re in New York in the middle of February. Which is the whole point. Magic and taste, not physics.
You could maybe say all of this started with seltzer. Just carbonated water. “I was going through case after case after case of the stuff and I used to hate when a friend would come over and crack up a full liter of seltzer and they’d take a swig out of the bottle, and now it’s ruined for me.” So “I’ve had a commercial carbonation system in house for 12 or 13 years,” explains Arnold. This was before SodaStream, obviously.
Or maybe you could go back further. “Tech is in the blood. I was supposed to be a science guy, but I got sucked in by the liberal arts, by my general kind of laziness.” And throughout the day I don’t think Arnold beams as much as when he talks about his dad, an electrical engineer. “For the new equipment company, I hope some day to hire my dad to build something because he’s really good. Really good. One of the last old school people who’s trained in full, real, analogue double E.”
While B&D seemingly rejects much of the pre-Prohibition recipe rennaissance that has been so very much in vogue at your average excellent cocktail bar, perhaps its most famous implement, the red hot poker, actually has fairly historic roots, going back to the pre-Civil War era: See the flip, a drink made by mixing a high proof spirit with a beer or ale, then sticking a poker from the fire into it. That was how you made a hot drink.
Arnold worked on the poker for years at the FCI, experimenting with heating different materials, like copper (too acidic), iron (gag) and stainless steel (“not enough of a wallop” before he hit on the idea of a self-heating element using a cartridge heater like this one. It’s not about the pyrotechnics, though: Because it burns off alcohol, “it allows us to use more base spirit in our drink” which delivers a stronger flavour without an overpowering alcohol sensation, explains Arnold. “The flame makes a slightly better drink, so what am I going to do?”
You are probably not going to walk into your local bar tomorrow and find the bartender tossing limes into a centrifuge, looking to divine the perfect clarified lime juice for a miraculous gin cocktail. For one, Arnold knows of a single bar — one — that has a centrifuge that isn’t attached a restaurant. Even perhaps the most accessible technique, liquid nitrogen muddling, which Arnold says any bar can do tomorrow without any special training or technique — just a supply of liquid nitrogen — probably isn’t going to storm into the local watering hole in the immediate future. “But even the knife was a new technology at one point.”
Videos: Woody Allen Jang