“Mad scientist and mixologist” Dave Arnold works on a cocktail
I watched as Dave Arnold, mad scientist and mixologist, combined an equal quantity of alcohol with water. The result was bizarre: the volume of the two liquids contracted and the temperature rose. Why? Arnold waved his hands about as the scientists in the room scribbled equations. “It’s too fricking complicated!” Arnold lectures Harvard undergraduates as a visiting chef for the heavily over-subscribed “Science and Cooking” class. This year, he also gave a public lecture. Talking a mile a minute, all hopped-up energy, dancing around a lab bench with beakers and thermometers and vacuum sucking machines and blowtorches, Arnold held the audience rapt.
Arnold stirred marshmallows with liquid nitrogen and tossed them into the audience: strange frozen icebergs that calved shards and squeaked when you bit them. The woman sitting next to me carefully wrapped hers in a twist of notepaper to take home; I didn’t have the heart to point out to her the principles of heat exchange. A volunteer was asked to plunge his hands into two beakers, one of oil, the other of water, each set at 60 degrees Celsius. In a second he snatched his hand out of the hot water, but said his other hand, submerged in the oil, was perfectly comfortable. It turns out that oil is a very bad conductor of heat—how weird is that? The science of cooking is mysterious alchemy. Scientific explanations are only just catching up with what cooks have long known through experience. It turns out, for example, that no one knows at what temperature sugar melts. (No wonder I can’t figure out how to make caramel).
Arnold has a bar in New York, Booker and Dax, named after his sons, and while half his time is spent building Heath Robinson machines for chefs to play with, the rest is spent in the pursuit of cocktails. He has been perfecting the gin and tonic for eight years. “It’s a very easy drink, but they always suck,” he explained to a group of us after the lecture. He deconstructed it: gin. That should be Tanqueray, according to Arnold. Tonic water made from citric acid, a sweetener and quinine sulphate he dismissed as fake and sweet and…