Dave Arnold is the guy who first had the idea to open a museum devoted to food and drink. (He's now MOFAD's founder and president.) In 2004, then a paralegal with a Yale philosophy degree and a Columbia MFA in performance sculpture, he was inspired on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, when he realized an exhibit on Vietnam didn't include anything about food. At the time, he was already fascinated by food science, and contributing articles on it to Food Arts magazine. Then in 2005, thanks to his editor there, that led to the French Culinary Institute hiring him, to create and run a food-technology program.
The FCI gig kept him busy, as did Cooking Issues, a weekly show he starting hosting in 2010 on Heritage Radio Network, as did founding both a food-tech lab and planning a cocktail bar — Booker & Dax, which opened in the East Village in 2012 — with Momofuku chef David Chang. But he still kept the museum idea on a back burner, and finally, in 2011, things really got moving.
That's when he met Peter Kim, a lawyer and food enthusiast who was looking for an entrepreneurial challenge. Kim, now MOFAD's executive director, came to a fundraising lunch Arnold organized that year. His "inner food nerd," as he puts it, nurtured through years spent traveling in Africa, Asia, and Europe, was pushing him to make a career change. Inspired by the lunch, he promptly offered Arnold exactly what he needed: pro bono legal services. A year later, determined to help make MOFAD a reality, he quit his firm and signed on spearhead the project.
Now the pair run the museum together. Arnold is the ideas man, brainstorming future exhibits, mapping out current ones, and figuring out how to present them in weird new, interactive ways — like with flavor tablets or smell generators. Kim is the administrator. "I have 20 Post-it notes on the wall by my desk of things I need to think about every day," he says, from tweaking odor compounds to editing copy to pitching potential donors. "I see the incredible impact this could have," he says. "A museum of food and drink could easily be on the scale of the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
Emma Boast will play a key role in making that happen. Now MOFAD's program director, she got involved in the project in 2012, responding to an ad looking for a volunteer. She'd just returned to the United States after a year and a half in Japan, where she'd kept a blog about Japanese food culture while working as a medical writer at a hospital. She realized MOFAD "would be a way to create a food culture in the U.S. like there is in Japan, interested not just in expensive restaurants but in the high and the low and where our food comes from," she says. She met with other people who'd started museums and researched the first, pop-up exhibit, the cereal-making puffing gun. Now she's also in charge of developing programs like the ongoing MOFAD Roundtable series, where experts debate the food issues of the moment.
She gets insights from people like Harold McGee, who's on MOFAD's advisory board. In 2004, when Dave Arnold was still a paralegal with a sideline as a Food Arts freelancer, he was assigned to write a profile of McGee, author of the seminal On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Arnold mentioned his museum idea to the food science icon then, and the two reconnected when Arnold landed the job at FCI, where McGee taught a three-day lecture series for many years. Arnold quickly ended up co-lecturing with McGee, the two became friends, and McGee soon signed on as an official advisor to MOFAD, providing the valuable perspective of, as he puts it, "someone who's been trying to explain food science to the public for decades."
Of course, opening a museum requires more than just deciding what will be in it. You also have to decide what that stuff — and the website and everything else — looks and sounds like. Ryan Dunn and Wyeth Hansen, partners in the Brooklyn-based creative office Labour, handle MOFAD's creative direction and design. Their agency offers "do-it-all" design services to the museum, from branding to the logo to the website to, eventually, designing its home. For MOFAD Lab, they've worked on exhibit design, not only making sure everything looks and sounds like MOFAD but also helping condense a mountain of history and science into a handful of clear, not-boring exhibits on flavor.
Emma Boast's Roundtable series yielded MOFAD's most recent hire, Catherine Piccoli. Working at a food startup last year, Piccoli got tickets from her boss to one of the debates. Immediately after, she signed up as a volunteer. In August, as work was ramping up for MOFAD Lab, she was hired as program associate, assisting Boast with research and programming — a perfect job for someone with degrees in both food studies and social and cultural history. "Food effects change," she says. "Wars are fought, people live and die over food. And now we're at a watershed moment when food is on people's minds. It's important, when people are interested in something, to say ‘Come, learn more about it.'"