Conversation with a Museum Founder
Dave Arnold, Man Behind Museum of Food and Drink, Says a Gristmill Was His Rosebud
“We are here to change the way Americans think about food.”
Dave Arnold is the author of Liquid Intelligence (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014) and founder and president of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in New York.
He was an early player in the modernist food movement (which emphasizes science in contemporary cooking) as an educator, writer, blogger, and inventor, and headed the first Culinary Technology Department at the French Culinary Institute (since renamed the International Culinary Center).
He is host of the radio program Cooking Issues on the Heritage Radio Network and is a designer of equipment for modernist cooking methods. After several years of masterminding pop-up exhibits around the city, in 2015, Arnold saw his lifelong fascination with how cooking works, where food comes from, and how food and drink have shaped human culture culminate in the opening of MOFAD, an exciting new museum space with an ambitious charter: to begin collecting, organizing and displaying the science, history, and culture of food and drink.
CR: You’ve said that during your grade-school years in the ’70s, your mother was very busy in medical school, and her own family had never been big on cooking. Who were your early food influences?
DA: My mom, even though she was going to school, was extremely interested and adventurous when it came to food. At the time, an early Renaissance cookbook, Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Cosman, came out, and my mom did medieval feasts from that—not that she had the time. So I got interested. We were cooking all the time, and when I was about nine, I used to cook unattended—looking back, really not smart. We had a really crappy electric oven and I remember lighting my jacket on fire by leaning against the element; it was one of these puffy, 1970s highly flammable jackets. I put out the flames with my hands. When I was in elementary school, I would deep-fry by myself. I made beignets.
CR: You made beignets in elementary school? With a yeast dough!?
DA: No, I used the Café du Monde mix—there are limits. I used to make this pancake mix in a sack, Pillsbury Panshakes. In the late ’70s we were going through a paper-bag thing, so once a week I would make my paper-bag chicken: rub the butter on the chicken, salt, and I would add curry powder—that was my signature spice. I added curry powder to everything. Then I had a run with garlic salt. I made garlic bread constantly, and once I dumped a whole bunch of the garlic salt on the bread and ate it. My dad made me sit in the back of the ’76 Torino; I wasn’t allowed anywhere near him.
CR: How did your interest in food first extend beyond the enjoyment of cooking and eating?
DA: We went to Tarrytown, to Philipsburg Manor, and I used to love that gristmill. I would go at least once a year. At the time, they still had some fifth-generation miller. I take my kids now, but I miss that guy and the gristmill. They really only do cornmeal now. One of my life dreams is to own a gristmill. Maybe the museum will. I love gristmills.
CR: At college you started out in physics but switched to liberal arts, and your graduate work was in fine arts. How did you end up in food science?
DA: At Yale there was no such thing as food studies, and at that time 99 percent of the people who did food science didn’t really like food. That’s something that has changed over the past couple of decades. Most people who are getting into it now care about food—a huge positive change and something that goes relatively unrecognized outside the business. I did not ever lose my faculties for observation. In art school I studied sculpture. Most of my stuff was mechanical, machine-based, engineering-based. I built mechanical equipment, or I would do microprocessor development. In 1997, my wife bought me Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking because I spoke that language. We had moved into this illegal loft and I started buying used restaurant equipment at auction and trying to work some of it into the sculpture I was doing, and cook on it. I bought a half-size Blodgett and cut it open and put in double insulated glass to film inside the oven, so I could light it from all directions. I ended up just baking a lot of cookies in it.
CR: When did you get the idea to establish a museum?
Food is good way to learn about culture, science, history, history of economics, and social issues—a lens that you can see a lot of things through. I realized that an institution like this didn’t exist.
DA: I had the idea for the museum in 2004. I did an exhibit on American country-style ham, as part of the International Hotel, Motel, and Restaurant Show at the Javits Center during a very dark time for American ham because it was getting pushed as a commodity. That exhibit was my first attempt at the museum idea. The ham exhibit came to the attention of Michael Batterberry at Food Arts, and he brought me in to write on history. He told me to write a review of a biography of Alexis Soyer, a 19th-century chef. In researching it, I went to the New York Public Library and took a picture of every page of the Gastronomic Regenerator because copies of the book, if you could find one, were 400 bucks. Michael realized I was working with Wylie [Dufresne, the chef at WD-50], so he had me write about science and technology, and then Michael forced Dorothy Hamilton [the late founder and CEO of the French Culinary Institute] to hire me for food tech stuff at FCI.
CR: He forced her?
DA: She didn’t know me from a hot rock. That’s the way Michael worked. He picked people he thought were good and then twisted the right arms to get them where they needed to go. The entire time, my idea was to get the museum going. I got hired at FCI in 2005 and stayed until 2011 or ’12. An interesting time. Nils Norén was there, a monster cook, I started a blog called Cooking Issues, started the radio show that I am still doing.
CR: What accounts for the current interest in all things food, and is it a sustainable state?
DA: People who 30 years ago would never have considered being in the food world now are, and that’s got to be the Food Network. Chefs are considered a cool thing to be. Back in the ’80s if someone said they wanted to be a chef, people would say, “Really? Did you just get out of prison?” Michael Batterberry said that one of the things they were fighting for was recognition of chef as a true profession, rather than just a job. Well that’s been successful.
CR: Has modernist cuisine taken off in New York the way it has in Europe?
DA: Every single high-end restaurant in New York uses modernist techniques. They all do, they all use low-temperature cooking, they all use hydrocolloids [thickening agents used for culinary purposes]. Even at very traditional places like Le Bernadin, a lot of that stuff came in through the pastry side. Let’s say you weren’t using hydrocolloids in the main kitchen—well, all of the pastry folks were. If you look at restaurants that you can label modernist, then no, they are not as pervasive here, but that’s just New York style. For a long time WD-50 was the restaurant that was known for these techniques. WD wasn’t just about these [modernist] techniques; it was about this wild ride of creativity, and that is a very specific project. In fact, everyone who is interested in this kind of creativity is interested in new techniques. But not everyone who is interested in using new techniques is interested in you knowing about it.
CR: Why a museum?
DA: Food is something that you need to taste and smell and see, and one of the ways I like to understand other cultures is by seeing how they eat, how they shop, how they break bread. Food is good way to learn about culture, science, history, history of economics, and social issues—a lens that you can see a lot of things through. I realized that an institution like this didn’t exist. Most of the exhibit topics that we are tackling have to hit a number of points: history, science, and economics. We like stories where the deeper you dig, the more there is to grab a hold of.
CR: What do you consider the characteristics of a successful exhibit?
DA: It teaches you something that you can understand; it is compact, kid friendly, maybe with buttons. I have two main tests that I try to put everything through. One: Would people on either side come to the exhibit and say, “You got it right?” We don’t want someone coming in and saying it’s a puff piece for the industry or from the industry saying that’s a leftwing hack job. The second is: Can someone who knows nothing show up and someone who is an expert, and both get something out of it? Is it going to work for a wide range of people with diverse interests, and is it evenhanded enough that we are not seen as taking a side?
CR: What is the future of MOFAD?
DA: We have shown that it works as a museum experience. Now we need money, and we need to get bigger. We’ve proven a brick-and-mortar space is desirable and viable. We need to demonstrate to people that supporting MOFAD isn’t just an act of hedonism because you like food. We are here to change the way Americans think about food, and that is worth support.
The Museum of Food and Drink is located at 62 Bayard Street, Brooklyn. For opening hours and more information, visit the MOFAD website.
Charity Robey is a New York-based journalist and food-writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Suffolk-Times, Edible East End and the Shelter Island Reporter. A former editor of science books at John Wiley and Sons, she is a programming chair for CHNY.
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Dave Arnold, Man Behind Museum of Food and Drink, Says a Gristmill Was His Rosebud