Cool Careers

Dave Arnold, Director of Technology at The French Culinary Institute

By JJ Proville
February 2008

A  food–obsessed techie with a philosophy and fine arts degree, Dave Arnold traded in the Nietzsche and the easels for vacuum sealers and thermal circulators. His studio is now a room jammed with kitchen gadgetry behind the lecture hall at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, where he was hired in 2005 to lead the new Food Technology program.

As Director of Technology, Arnold teaches five classes (open to FCI students as well as the public) whose subjects range from how to use various chemicals to create textures and flavors to the finer points of sous vide cooking. He draws on his talent for translating complex scientific theories into practical guidelines that prepare students for using these new cooking techniques in real kitchens once they graduate.

Arnold is also passionately dedicated to researching new technologies that will make food taste better. A highly energetic free electron, interviewing him involves a surprising amount of exercise — mainly trying to keep up as we race around the stairs and hallways of the FCI while juggling pails of duck fat and camera equipment. StarChefs brought Dave Arnold a duck as an experimental challenge, which he gladly accepted, and in between deboning, sous viding and deep frying, we asked him these questions:

JJ Proville: What made you cross over from art to food?
Dave Arnold: I was really into art, and I’ve always been into food, but I’ve also always been a tech guy. I was customizing restaurant equipment for myself and was interested in technology as it related to cooking but not necessarily new ways of cooking using technology. When I met Wylie Dufresne at wd~50, he helped me realize I could marry my love of science with my love of food. It was Wylie who really introduced me to this whole cooking arena of sous vide and the rest.

JP: You hold two arts degrees from Yale and Columbia. Can you tell us where your food education comes from?
DA: Mostly from personal research and experience. I knew how to cook before I came to the FCI and I’ve done a lot of it. I’ve never been classically trained or worked in a professional kitchen, but I’ve learned an incredible amount from restaurant people and the cooks working at the FCI.

JP: Which courses do you teach at the French Culinary Institute?
DA: I teach Sous Vide Intensive, Sous Vide and Low Temperature Cooking, Hydrocolloids, Transglutaminases, and I also teach in the Harold McGee course.

JP: With what philosophy regarding technological cooking do you want your students to leave your classroom?
DA: I want them to do whatever they can to make their food taste better. If they want to use advanced technology to cook, they should by all means, but they should do it with a focus on food and not just use these techniques as a gimmick.

JP: What are your main sources of inspiration for your dishes and experiments?
DA: Kitchens, farms, markets, books, people…everything. I read a lot on food and on any particular day I might be interested in something new, whether it’s food or drink history. I’m not a huge fan of recipe books, but I am very much into books that teach [new ways of thinking]. For example, one of my favorite books is one called The Pig [pdf], published in 1847. If you’re interested in pigs, you should read that book. It’s the definitive book on pigs.

JP: Do you have any food heroes or mentors?
DA: I’m really just inspired by the people I work with every day, whether it’s Nils Noren (VP of Culinary Arts at the FCI), Wylie or whoever else. Harold McGee was an inspiration for me even before I ever met him. He’s definitely a huge inspiration for all of the chefs that apply technological advances to cooking.

JP: What is the worst aspect of your job?
DA: I don’t know. It’s a pretty good job. The part that I’m worst at is probably the administrative stuff (chuckles).

JP: Are you in the best place for you to be doing what you do? Do you have any side projects?
DA: Oh yeah, I definitely am. Johnny Iuzzini (pastry chef, Jean–Georges) and I are working on starting a bar at some point in the future, but projects like that obviously take time.

JP: You’re a close collaborator with Wylie Dufresne. Can you tell us about some interesting projects that you two have worked on?
DA: Wylie once wanted to have me build a machine based on the principle of co-extrusion which would basically be able to produce shapes made from a certain substance enrobed in a layer of another substance. You could make an artificial blueberry that way, for example. We never got it to a functional stage but it was a lot of fun. The thing is, when you’re on a budget you usually have to make compromises and some projects end up working out and some don’t. Wylie always knows exactly what he wants to do, though.

JP: Do you cook for your family? Has your job affected the way you cook at home?
DA: I’m the only one that cooks at home, and it hasn’t affected the way I cook (although I do have a professional fryer). But cooking at work and in your house have different objectives of course – cooking at home is for yourself, and cooking at the FCI is for chefs.

To learn more about the duck experiment see:
Stuffed Poultry Sous Vide and Deep-Fried Technique

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