How a Mad Scientist and a Restless Lawyer Teamed Up to Create a Museum About Food

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

In the winter of 2004, Dave Arnold — ex-performance artist, self-taught food scientist, tinkerer — visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York. While poking around an exhibit on the changing culture of Vietnam, he found himself looking for the part devoted to the country's food. There wasn't one. This prompted an epiphany.

"There needs to be a museum for food," he thought. "This is ridiculous."

Arnold was just edging into the food world then, employed as a paralegal while writing about culinary technology for Food Arts magazine. But by the next year, that writing had caught the attention of the French Culinary Institute, which took a chance and hired him to start and run a program on food technology.

Arnold is a wild and unstoppable inventor, with an MFA from Columbia in performance sculpture, and the idea for a food museum remained in his mind, swirling amid plans for kitchen machines and avant-garde cooking techniques. By 2006, he had drafted a charter for what would become the Museum of Food and Drink, which is launching its first brick-and-mortar venture in Brooklyn this month, and envisioned an opening exhibit, about the making of breakfast cereal. But he didn't expect anything to happen too soon, as he told Food & Wine at the time. He was, after all, the father of two — and busy planning the high-tech cocktail bar that would become Booker & Dax, which he opened with Momofuku's David Chang in 2011, along with a culinary lab (since closed) on the Lower East Side.

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Peter Kim, at around the same time Arnold first dreamed up his museum, was serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon and cementing a fascination with food. He'd grown up in central Illinois, with Korean-American parents — "my identity is kimchi but it's also, like, Hamburger Helper," he says — and he found that his time in Cameroon also centered around food. "You built friendships in the village through food," he says. "Inviting people over and cooking — and drinking — was sort of the archetypal Peace Corps experience."

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Kim went to law school after the Peace Corps, then picked up another graduate degree in Paris and took a well-paid job at a big New York law firm. But he found himself unsatisfied. "I realized that, while I enjoyed working as an attorney, I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial related to food," he says. So, in 2011, Kim started taking weekend cooking classes at the French Culinary Institute, studying classic French technique. An email soon arrived about a fancy fundraising lunch for something called the Museum of Food and Drink, hosted by Dave Arnold. "I have to be at this thing," Kim remembers thinking. "It was right up my alley, touching on all the cerebral aspects of food."

Arnold spoke about his vision for the museum at the lunch, and, at the afterparty, drinking beers with chefs, he and Kim briefly met. Kim was inspired. He woke up the next day with a nasty hangover — he'd come to the lunch from a redeye, still in the suit he'd worn to a Seattle wedding the night before — and immediately emailed Arnold to offer pro bono legal services. "I didn't want to be intrusive," he remembers thinking. But he heard back immediately. "Yes, we totally need your help," read the email from Arnold's assistant. "Can we meet this week?"

It turned out the museum existed only as a three-page Word document. "I'm organizationally challenged," admits Arnold.

"They came into my office, and I took a look at their papers," Kim says. "The organization didn't have 501(c)3 status" — the IRS designation for a nonprofit — "and didn't have documents. It was just an idea." That was great news for Kim: They actually did need his help.

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That first year, through the spring of 2012, was mostly paperwork and brainstorming. Kim obtained that 501(c)3 status, and the pair decided that an exhibit on cereal, as Arnold had envisioned years ago, would be a great place to start. But after about a year, Kim realized that Arnold wasn't going to be able to launch the museum on his own. He was making good money as a lawyer, but he suggested to Arnold — now a friend — that he'd quit his job to work full time on running the museum.

Arnold thought it was a horrible idea. "I said, 'Absolutely you should not do this,'" Arnold remembers. "'I would feel responsible for you. We don't have money. I can't guarantee when you'll be able to get a salary.'" Kim quit lawyering anyway, and his father stopped talking to him for three years.

"It was a pivotal moment for the museum, and for me," says Kim, who doesn't regret the move. Together, he and Arnold rejiggered the museum's board of advisors — which now includes big names like Mario Batali and David Chang — and began taking meetings with other museum founders.

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June 2013 was when the museum finally started transforming from an idea into something real. For the planned exhibit on cereal, the pair had acquired a one-and-a-half ton puffing gun, a gargantuan mass of metal used by manufacturers in the early 20th century to transform grains like rice and wheat into puffed cereal. When it arrived in Brooklyn from Omaha, Nebraska, Arnold did cartwheels of excitement. It would be their first exhibit; a self-contained, pop-up version of the more elaborate idea Arnold had originally dreamed up, and a great way to show people what MOFAD was all about even without a place for MOFAD to call home.

The plan was to record video of the unusual machine in action, to excite donors into funding a Kickstarter. That money would go toward building Puffy, as Arnold and Kim had named the gun, a sturdy home atop a trailer, on which she could make a public debut.

But that depended on getting Puffy to work. And she'd arrived without an instruction manual.

With advice from a man Arnold and Kim call their "cereal consultant," they gave it a go. Kim, standing atop a scaffolding and recorded by a friend with a camera, waited for the pressure and the heat inside a chamber full of rice to rise. When both were high enough, he would swing a heavy metal bat against a lever to release the pressure, causing the heated water in the rice– which was unable to boil under such pressure –  to instantly boil and vaporize, puffing the grains and blowing them across the room. With the camera recording, he swung, he missed, and he fell, knuckles down, on the now scorching machine, scalding himself and yelping. But he immediately picked himself up, swung again, and hit the mark. Cereal sprayed everywhere. Success.

Two months later, Kickstarter more than fully funded, Puffy was ready to appear at one of New York's summer streets festivals. Nearly 2,000 people showed up that day to watch her blow puffed rice everywhere.

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That pop-up success has now led to a bigger one, as Arnold and Kim get set to open a full blown brick-and-mortar space, theirs for the next five years. On October 28, MOFAD Lab opens to the public, showcasing the Museum of Food and Drink's first multi-part, non-mobile, real deal exhibit, "Flavor: Making It and Faking It."

Arnold, meanwhile, memorialized that first puff of cereal, a signal event in MOFAD's creation, as his cellular ringtone, which to this day goes off with a caterwauling "Ohwoah! Ohwoah! Ohwoah!" It's the sound, on loop, of Kim burning his knuckles.

In partnership with MOFAD and Infiniti USA, Eater is documenting the open of MOFAB Lab. Check back for more coverage of the museum, its goals, and what it takes to launch a new cultural institution

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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