All About Dave Arnold: Part Barman, Part Culinary Wizard & Serial Overachiever
On Wednesday, April 17, Dave Arnold is visiting Houston to host a cocktail takeover at UB Preserv from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. as part of the inaugural Southern Smoke Spring event series, which is raising funds for the Southern Smoke Foundation. It is Arnold’s first appearance in Houston — and hopefully not the last. Arnold is one of the most interesting and accomplished food and beverage professionals in the United States. For most of his professional career, he’s worked to develop groundbreaking technical advances in food and beverage preparations and share that knowledge with industry professionals and laypeople alike.
Hospitality professionals usually pick a role and work their way up the career ladder from there: from cook to chef, bartender to bar manager, teacher’s assistant to culinary instructor and the like. However, Arnold, a co-owner of Existing Conditions bar in New York City, manages to keep one foot planted firmly in mixed beverage territory and another in the food world. The New York Times called him an “avant-garde cocktail master”. Esquire said he was an “enabler” of “chefs who rely on science to push the boundaries of cooking.” Neither description is incorrect.
In addition to owning a bar, Arnold invents kitchen devices, hosts the podcast Cooking Issues, is the author of a James Beard Award-winning book and, oh, by the way, curates a museum of food and drink, too. (Is anyone else feeling a little inadequate right now?)
That said, his path to becoming a respected bar owner and culinary expert initially meandered through several other disciplines. After graduating with a bachelor’s in philosophy from Yale University and a master of fine arts in Performance Sculpture from Columbia, he worked as a paralegal, performance artist and pizza delivery guy. Then, he had the notion of opening a food and drink museum — the first step on a path that led to success in many aspects of the culinary world.
“I was in the Natural History Museum in New York and it all of a sudden hit me that no one had a museum like this for food,” he said. “I wanted to transition into food, but anyone who knows me knows that I go off on tangents and I’m hard to pin down from a scheduling standpoint. I’m kind of all over the place. I knew at that point in my life, there was no way I wanted to be a chef or have a traditional role. I knew I could [start a museum] because I had an MFA and an art background.”
Thus the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) was born. To this day, it “brings the world of food to life with exhibits you can taste, touch, and smell. We inspire public curiosity about food, what it means, and how it connects with the world around us.”
It also led Arnold to some new opportunities. He’d been experimenting with culinary technology and writing about it for Food Arts magazine (which, sadly, shuttered in 2014 after a 25-year publishing run). One of the owners recommended he look into the new technology program at French Culinary Institute, which is now the International Culinary Center. While there, Arnold and David Chang of Momofuku struck up a friendship, which led to a mutual endeavor called Booker & Dax. While many knew it as a bar in New York, Booker & Dax started as an equipment company for developing and selling two kitchen devices: the Searzall and the Spinzall.
Anyone who has ever applied a blowtorch to a dish that benefits from a finishing sear, such as crème brûlée, knows the kind of careful finessing it takes to evenly brown a surface. Arnold developed the Searzall as an affordable device to make such tasks easier, even for home cooks.
Arnold’s interests in cocktails led to the Spinzall, a centrifuge geared for home and bar use. Centrifuges rotate ingredients at high speeds, separating solids from liquids. A common culinary use is to create clear lime juice with nary a trace of pulp for cocktails. (One of the more mind-blowing things people can do with a centrifuge is make clear tomato juice, aka “tomato water,” then use it for a Bloody Mary-like cocktail that preserves the taste, but without the thick texture).
The bar, Booker & Dax, came about as a real-world proof of concept for the cocktail applications of the Spinzall and Searzall. “We’d done so many techniques for the bar — which weren’t really being used — and I was doing lecturing on the bar circuit, so we opened Booker & Dax,” Arnold explained. The cocktail bar, located in the back of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, became not only a New York hotspot but one beloved by critics and industry professionals who were intrigued — and hopefully learning from — the drink wizardry on display.
As is the professional pattern for Arnold, one thing led to a related yet totally different type of work at which he was also wildly successful. If opening Booker & Dax didn’t already cause most people to think of him as a “cocktail guy,” the next accomplishment certainly did. “I wrote Liquid Intelligence, a cocktail book, because no one had written about that subject before whereas there were books like Modernist Cuisine on new techniques in cooking. No one had written about that for cocktails,” he explained. “The combination of Booker & Dax and Liquid Intelligence kind of cemented me in the cocktail world.”
Liquid Intelligence won a James Beard Award in 2015. At some point, Arnold plans a food-related follow-up. “I’m hoping by the time I finally write my next book that people will still want it, even though it’s not about cocktails,” said Arnold with a laugh.
Booker & Dax closed in 2016, seemingly a casualty of Ssäm Bar’s expansion. The equipment business with the same name lives on as a website.
Fortunately, Arnold, along with partners Don Lee of PDT and Greg Boehm of Cocktail Kingdom debuted a new bar, Existing Conditions, in 2018. Like Booker & Dax, at Existing Conditions there is an exacting approach to how cocktails are made. Arnold still believes in clarifying juices, temperature control and the like. That said, visitors are going to find Existing Conditions to be a surprisingly relaxed and unfussy place. “If you come to our bar, you’re going to find we’re a friendly neighborhood bar,” he said. “We’re a non-pretentious bar where you can have a good time without genuflecting at the feet of the cocktail gods. The motto is, ‘We’re not trying to change the way you drink. We’re just trying to change the way we make the drinks.’ It’s not about crazy presentations or weird flavors.” (By the way: one of Existing Conditions coolest (and most Instagrammable) features is the cocktail vending machines.)
Arnold was inspired to participate in Southern Smoke Spring in Houston in part because he is a longtime friend of Nick Wong, chef de cuisine of UB Preserv. “Nick is one of my favorite people in the industry,” he said. “I first met him when he was at the French Culinary Institute while I was the director of culinary technology. He was one of our technology interns and I sent him to a job with Dave Chang [of Momofuku]. We kept in touch after he moved [to Houston] and I’d been looking for an excuse to go visit and do something fun. I’ve never been to Houston, so I’m excited! People tell me it’s super-happening. I’m more embarrassed that I haven’t been. I usually only get to travel on business so I’ve been to San Antonio, El Paso and Austin but never Houston, which is completely bone-headed on my part.”
The drink list is still being developed, but those who manage to score a seat at Arnold’s takeover at UB Preserv are going to see some of the cocktail techniques he’s developed on display. “We’re still talking about it [with spirits director Westin Galleymore]. I’m doing most of the stuff around the Spinzall, so it’s all going to be something that’s had some clarification done to it.” Some of the other cocktail techniques that Arnold has developed or perfected (which may or may not be on display at UB Preserv) include carbonation, liquid nitrogen chilling, red-hot pokers (to caramelize sugars in hot drinks, such as hot buttered rum), aeration using differently sized ice cubes and rapid infusions.
“I encourage people to come out, first of all because it’s for charity,” said Arnold. “They should come out if they haven’t been to UB Preserv before. Obviously, I haven’t either but because I’ve known Nick Wong for many years, I know he doesn’t do anything that is not excellent. Also, if they’ve never had a drink made using one of these techniques, I want people to see the technology. We’re going to focus on making delicious, fun cocktails that people want to drink that are a little bit different than what people have had before. I encourage them to come try that.”
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.