We Chat With: Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax
"I could never actually be a 'rock person,' because rock people have patience. I do not have this."
For the hour and a half we chat with Dave Arnold at Booker and Dax, the bar adjacent to Momofuku Ssam Bar that showcases Arnold's meticulously crafted cocktails, a centrifuge spins and some sort of extraction machine bubbles away. Tools clink and whirl, and occasionally Arnold puts a refractometer up to his eye. At one point, liquid nitrogen pours across the bar and he smiles at the dry stem of an optimally chilled coupe. Yet Arnold insists what he's doing is not science; "really, it's just cooking".
For someone who claims not to be an expert, he has practically mastered this form of "cooking," exploring it with joyous curiosity. During our time together, Arnold builds some shockingly delicious cocktails, brainstorms with his staff about new ones, and spells out what this whole "modernist cuisine" thing actually means for us serious eaters.
You've created quite a scientific career for yourself, but you didn't get your degree in science. I got a degree in philosophy and my masters in fine arts.
How did that lead to where you are now? When I got out of college I was doing performance sculpture—machines really. I'm a gear-head who understands how equipment works, and if I don't know I like figuring it out. A lot of stuff I was doing was human-versus-machine. Then once I got horribly burnt and my wife told me I wasn't allowed to do that any more. I was always interested in food, and then I met Wylie [Dufresne], who's now my brother-in-law. Wylie asked me to do some things for him; not just pimping out something to make it better, but to a whole new range of things.
What was the perception of this kind of cooking when you started? One of my favorite things I'd say teaching is, "yes, Wylie is very known for using a lot of these things, but every single four-star restaurant's kitchen in this city has been using them". Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernardin, at Daniel, and Johnny [Iuzzini] at Jean-Georges. A lot of that stuff trickled into the pastry departments before they were using it in the main kitchen.
So pastry chefs sort of spearheaded the use of these techniques? In general, yes, but I don't know why, frankly. There's a lot of trite BS that, "well, pastry chefs are used to measuring already."
What's the public perception of what many call "modernist cuisine?"...Tell me what you mean by "modernist cuisine."
Is there something you prefer? Well, I definitely like "modernist cuisine" more than I like "molecular gastronomy." Molecular gastronomy' sounds terrible! It does not sound delicious. "Let's go get some molecular cuisine food?!?" Horrible! And it's false—either we're all using molecules or none of us are using molecules. Modernist cuisine at least is kind of an attempt to just have something be neutral.
Have you observed any negatives result from these techniques? I've told this story a billion times, but I was carbonating all these still wines and I was like, "I'm a genius!" They were all delicious. But which ones were improvements? Only one. And that's the problem when a lot of people start using new techniques; they don't show restraint. And it's not because they're bad people or bad cooks, they're just excited.
A common criticism of this work is that it's a lot of smoke and mirrors, but your menu looks like a basic cocktail menu. Where's the subtlety? If you look at the menu, most of these cocktails are two ingredients, and all dead simple. For example, the Manhattan is a classic Manhattan, we just serve it in a different way: we take a Manhattan out of the freezer, give you a glass chilled from a little liquid nitrogen, and you pour as much as you want from the bottle. You're getting a little bit more because there's nothing sticking to the ice, and it can be chilled a little bit more than you could get it by shaking it with ice without diluting it, so I'm not hurting the flavor of the Manhattan. And you can pour out as much a you want.
You opened in February. How's it been going? I think it's been going well. We've been consistently busy. Though I think we're nowhere near where I'd like to be.
Which is where? I don't know. But if I'm ever happy, kill me, right?
Anything particular to the bar that makes you even a tad happy? What's most gratifying for me is when someone thinks that we're just some sorta flashy tech bar, then realizes this is a friendly place where they can enjoy a drink in an unpretentious environment. Also, a lot of customers hop around the menu because they want to try all the different stuff—and I like that—but it's really gratifying when someone likes what they had the first time so much that they order another one.
Have you intentionally worked against a pretentious image? I want all of our stuff to happen behind the bar. When it shows up at the table and someone says, "oh, peach, how did you get it to be clear?" we say, "we blended it with an enzyme that breaks down the pectin and the hemicellulose, we spin it in a centrifuge at 4,000 times the force of gravity for 15 minutes, strain it off and BOOM." But if they just want a peach drink—"here's your peach drink."
So you're not trying to be showy? Okay, we chill glasses with liquid nitrogen—it happens to be the best way to chill a glass. Yes, the red-hot poker creates giant flames in the bar, but it makes a drink unlike any other and it hearkens back to a technique that was around centuries ago. So to me it's 100% valid. If something makes a drink better, awesome. If it happens to be showy, double awesome.
What's your favorite part of the fun? Any time I or someone I'm working with comes up with a new technique or flavor, that's when, "ahhhh, this is awesome."
You have a lot of equipment in your home kitchen. Is there anything you wouldn't want to live without? My deep fryer. It takes 35 pounds of oil to run that sucker, 90,000 BTUs. It's no joke—it heats up in 5 1/2 minutes. I have a lot of weird gadgets, like a red-hot poker at home.
What do you cook? I don't cook as interesting things as I used to because my kids are extremely picky.
What do your kids eat? Nothing! It's like my kids are punishing me! They just wanna eat hot dogs all the time. But thankfully they like steak, so I do that once a week or so, in an immersion circulator of course. On Sundays I'll do a fried chicken and hyper-complicated French fries.
Wait, how do you make a hyper-complicated French fry? You to cut the potatoes and soak them in an enzyme solution, then give them an initial blanch in salted water, then a steam-out to finish cooking them, then a small dry-down, then your first fry, and then your second fry. There's an optional freezing step between the first and second fry. I was gonna put them on the menu here but it might be difficult for us to have the space.
What are you thinking of putting the menu here? I'm thinking onion rings. I like onion rings.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and alternative baker with a thing for sneaking into other people's kitchens. She can be found at www.thedustybaker.com, and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.