Philip Preston: Molecular Gastronomy for the Masses
Once pigeonholed as a here-today-gone-tomorrow trend, molecular gastronomy has shockingly stuck around. No, we're not all donning goggles at dinner while the server douses squid ink in liquid nitrogen. But we are regularly consuming meat in restaurants that has been cooked sous vide. And now products like the immersion circulator (for cooking sous vide) and the Smoking Gun, which smokes foods without applying heat, are selling to home cooks at Williams-Sonoma. The man behind it all? A middle-aged, bespectacled scientist named Philip Preston.
In the paved-over prairielands of greater Chicago, Preston initially had a business making lab equipment with his company, PolyScience. Then came a call from a chef at Charlie Trotter's, asking him to rig up a custom immersion circulator. Preston complied, creating a one-off. By the time WD-50's Wylie Dufresne approached Preston to make an immersion circulator that he wouldn't be embarrassed to deploy on Iron Chef (Dufresne had been scoring used lab circulators on eBay), Preston had decided to start mass-producing the item through a new wing of PolyScience called Cuisine Technology. Other food-focused inventions followed.
Preston putters around on evenings and weekends in his sprawling man-cave (he calls it the "garage mahal"), building kitchen gadgets with precision workings. Besides the immersion circulator and the Smoking Gun, his greatest hits have included the Anti-Griddle (it flash-freezes food on its "cooking" surface, leaving a liquid center) and the Sonicprep, which uses high-powered ultrasonic waves to make infusions—Preston says he can make his own Calvados apple brandy in two minutes, rather than the two years or so it takes with traditional barrel-aging.
"I'm very fortunate," Preston says. "I have a successful laboratory business that gives me the luxury of producing things that I think are fun." Every field has its gearhead. —J.B.
Do you see yourself as the Thomas Edison of molecular gastronomy?
I have to say I dislike that term, molecular gastronomy. I look at this like, really, it's not a fad or a trend, it's just a matter of bringing a much higher level of precision to cooking. If I could get the same result in my oven, I would. The shortfall of an oven is that the temperature is plus or minus maybe 5 degrees, but I need plus or minus .1 degree. I love to make 17-hour skirt steak in an immersion circulator; in an oven that's what they call jerky.
You're a champion of superfuturistic methods of cooking, but the foods you talk about cooking with them are very traditional.
My mom is native Belgian; she's a fabulous cook, and every night she would make a great meal. I was in high school before I even knew there was store-bought mayonnaise, and there was nothing frozen, ever. It's sort of a funny thing: Sous vide is this cutting-edge approach, and yet in another way it really isn't. A thousand years ago some guy wrapped a piece of meat in a banana leaf and cooked it under the rocks—that's your sous vide. The difference is he only got it right 5 out of 10 times. With my equipment, you get it right 10 out of 10.