This better be some damn good horseradish juice. And I have major doubts, since I tried horseradish juice for the first time just moments ago, and it was more about coughing and eye-watering than deliciousness. Nevertheless, I am crouched behind a chair for cover from potential glass-and-horseradish shrapnel as Dave Arnold drops some soon-to-be-clarified juice from test tubes into his newest kitchen appliance: a centrifuge from the 1950s. Smoke immediately wafts from the cord, and a horrible whirring sound builds. "We should probably have safety goggles on, huh?" he asks before the grinding of metal-on-metal gets so loud, he feels compelled to unplug the machine. When the noise subsides, he looks at me and smiles. "Stuff you shouldn't get, you can get on eBay," he says.
The food world must have had mad scientists before--whoever decided to bring fire inside the house, the guy who thought it would be a good idea to yank on a cow's udder and drink whatever came out--but none of them could have played the part better than Arnold, 36, does. With slicked-back hair, a gap-toothed smile and an energy that would exhaust most meth addicts, he's become the gadget guy for top New York City chefs, as well as a teacher at the French Culinary Institute. In his Manhattan classroom, he trolls the Web for old medical equipment that he can rig into appliances chefs don't even know they need yet: rotary evaporators, vacuum pumps, thermal circulators. His cooking shelves look like a pharmacy, filled with bottles of powder: guar gum, calcium lactate, sodium alginate. Until recently, he carried 20 ft. (6 m) of rope with him at all times, just in case he needed to MacGyver something.
Arnold's insane-looking contraptions are mostly an attempt to remedy simple engineering inefficiencies we've come to accept. Why shouldn't we have foot pedals on our kitchen sinks so our dirty hands don't touch the fixtures? Wouldn't a scale that converts metric measurements like grams into more familiar ones like ounces be far more accurate and less messy?
The invention of new kitchen equipment became Arnold's consuming quest after he graduated from Yale and got a master's in art at Columbia University and was living illegally in an artist's studio in Manhattan. Arnold loved to cook but had only a hidden dorm fridge and a hot plate. When he didn't get caught by the landlord, he amped it up, adding a meat slicer and a deli case. "But nothing is like having a commercial deep fryer," he says. "That's a life changer."
But acquiring culinary gadgetry was easy compared with creating it, and Arnold quickly proved himself a gifted inventor. There was his immersion blender with an 18-volt battery and a trigger borrowed from a DeWalt high-speed drill, for starters. He began writing about equipment and technology for Food Arts magazine, and one night, while eating at the restaurant wd~50, Arnold chatted up chef Wylie Dufresne, a man so gadget-happy, he has deep-fried mayonnaise. Dufresne, like most people, came away from his first meeting with Arnold just a little dizzy. "He's probably a little ADD," says Dufresne. "He knows a lot about computers, he absorbs scientific texts, he has a photographic memory, and he's an expert on American hams." Arnold became Dufresne's gadgetry consultant, and before long he was working at the French Culinary Institute, filling the newly created position of director of culinary technology.
It's not just hardware that fascinates Arnold but also the software--which is to say, the food and, especially, the drink. Cocktails have become his latest obsession. He likes them carbonated with small, even bubbles, which means distilling or spinning out all the little pulpy bits from the juice so the bubbles don't stick to them, which means losing a lot of the acids that give juice its taste, which means figuring out a blend of powdered acids to add back in. That's a lot of effort to solve a problem that didn't exist before Arnold decided that the bubbles needed work, but Nils Norén, the school's vice president of culinary arts, insists that Arnold is doing more than just fixing things that he himself has broken. "These were things I always wanted to do but didn't know how to," Norén says.
Despite all his equipment and powders, Arnold isn't interested in creating crazy new flavors. One of his favorite mixes is bourbon and apple, which sounds straightforward enough until he tells you how he distills the Maker's Mark, removing the oaky bitterness so it won't overpower the juice, which, by the way, he presses from an obscure line of British apples developed in the 18th century.
But for every good idea, there's a failure. The horseradish juice still sucked. The test tubes alongside it, however, contained fennel juice. And the fennel-lemon-gin drink he made with it was the best cocktail I've ever had. "That is sexy!" Arnold yelled, smiling gap-toothedly at the test tube of clear liquid. "That's some sexy fennel juice!"