Deemed “the mad scientist of food” by his alma mater, Yale University, Dave Arnold has long been regarded as one of industry’s most progressive (and occasionally obsessive) thinkers. With his focus on the in-depth science of drinks, he opened the much-acclaimed Booker & Dax in 2012; two years later, he authored the oft-referenced, James Beard Award-winning Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail.
Still, Arnold had an unlikely introduction to the industry. After getting his bachelors degree in philosophy at Yale, and his masters in performance sculpture at Columbia University, he began writing about food and restaurant innovation. Having long been fascinated with kitchen equipment and technology, he went on to become the first Director of Culinary Technology at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), starting in 2005, where he introduced a generation of students to the likes of the centrifuge, rotary evaporator and immersion circulator. It’s this type of high-tech thinking that went on to inform the cutting-edge program at Booker & Dax, by all accounts an inventive “bar lab,” created under David Chang’s Momofuku umbrella.
These days, he’s partnered with Don Lee, another Momofuku alum, to open the much-anticipated Existing Conditions. As might be expected, the pair haven’t run out of tricks: reportedly, the bar’s offerings will include the likes of a cocktail designed to taste like a liquid waffle, a pair of antique, drink-dispensing vending machines and a housemade sparkling water that’s not just carbonated, but nitrogenated, too, for softer bubbles.
So, what does Arnold do when he’s not experimenting with culinary equipment or refining his cocktail-making technique? Here, he tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share the weirdest drink request he’s ever gotten, his strangest hobby and his go-to drink in a dive. —Frances Yackel
Existing Conditions, owner/barback. Museum of Food and Drink, founder. Booker & Dax, owner/inventor. Author. “Cooking Issues,” host.
What do want to be when you grow up?
Best thing you ever drank:
I don’t have a nirvana drink. Any time I taste something really new or different, I get the same feeling of excitement.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Worst thing I ever finished or tasted? I’ve tasted some pretty gnarly things. I’m too old to finish something just to be polite. If you’ve ever had to clear your pipes out for medical reasons, you’ve pounded some Phospho soda—that’s pretty nasty.
First time you ever got drunk:
I can’t really remember. I can remember some rough nights, but not which was the first.
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
James Brown, Star Time box set. At least I’d know my funk motor wouldn’t break.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Trying to learn bagpipes.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Don’t assume that other people can tolerate the same amount of craziness that you can.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Hot dog vodka. Not my idea but I went along with it. Terrible.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Hanging out with my family. I also like walking in the woods.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Make a drink that tastes like a burrito. Unfortunately, it ended up tasting like a Subway Italian BMT instead.
Your favorite bar:
Too hard to choose a favorite cocktail bar. My favorite dive bar—where I used to be a regular but haven’t gone in years—is the Holland Bar near Port Authority in New York. My bartender Mike was the first person who knew my wife was pregnant—’cause she didn’t order her usual. Great people, great jukebox. It was the only place I’ve been that actually smelled worse after the smoking ban went into effect in New York. That is saying a lot, considering we used to have special clothes we would wear there just because we could never get the smoke out of them. It was the kind of place you just slapped your money on the bar and kept ordering until the money was gone.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
Years ago my wife and I were very young and went to Peck in Milan. We had no idea it was a high end restaurant. I was unshaven and looking quite ragged. For some reason they treated us like rock stars. We had no money at the time. It quickly became apparent to us that this was going to cost more than we could afford, but the service was so good, and we felt so special that we didn’t care. I remember saying, “I don’t care how much this costs.” If you knew how cheap I am, this would mean a lot. The food was very good—but the service and the company of my wife is what sticks with me.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Bartender’s choice (I hate choosing things).
Wine—duh. Which I order depends on my mood. I’ll order something good, but rarely what I actually want because I don’t have that kind of cash yet.
In a dive bar?
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Don’t get that drunk in the first place. Once you are hosed, you are hosed, and you just have to take your punishment.
The last text message you sent:
“Who is that.”