Tech: It’s What’s For Dinner

todd maulTodd Maul brings the heat and keeps it cool behind the Cafe ArtScience bar. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

Café ArtScience has drinking and dining down to… well, a science.

On any given night, the Café ArtScience bar is bubbling—and often, vaporizing or smoking—with one-of-a-kind concoctions.

In their Kendall Square restaurant, inventor and scientist David Edwards and bar director Todd Maul put technological gadgetry to gastronomical use for an altogether more delicious dining experience.

Inspired by Modernist Cuisine, Maul started toying with centrifuges and blast freezers on the beverage menu at the critically-acclaimed Clio in Boston before partnering with Edwards. It sounds Wonka-esque, but the rise of the machines is rooted in practical progress. “I started looking at tech,” Maul explains, “and saying, ‘How can we integrate it into an antiquated trade like bartending to make it more consistent, more sustainable and more efficient—time- and material-wise?’” Café ArtScience opened in October 2014, and today, Maul and new executive chef Brandon Baltzley test the limits of cocktail and culinary arts, challenging the bar and restaurant status quo.

Of all the tools at his disposal, Maul says the centrifuge is his favorite, and he credits it with unlocking new levels of cocktail creativity.

“I really think that centrifuges will be integrated, in some way, shape, or form, into bartending,” Maul says of the future. “It’s the next step, because of the ability to repurpose materials from the financial side of it, from the carbon footprint side of it, and really, from the imagination side of it.”

Consider, for example, a bar staple like lime juice. The bartenders at your favorite local haunt are squeezing fresh lime juice every day. But squeeze too much, and the citrus just goes bad, which is no good for a restaurant’s bottom line and bad for the planet.

Maul says he found that clarifying the juice by spinning it out in a centrifuge nearly triples its shelf life and presents a new flavor profile, stripping away the low acid note so that rather than holding the lowest note in a drink, the clarified lime juice holds the highest one. It’s not unusual to hear Maul describe drinks in such musical terms. As a former furniture maker, English major and self-described “really bad guitar player,” he’s always been creative beyond the bar, and he applies cross-disciplinary thinking to his methods behind it. He compares drink ingredients to different types of wood, literary themes or musical movements. His scientifically-minded cocktails are rooted in chemistry and physics, but it’s this ability to find inspiration in the arts that elevates them to something truly beautiful.

In a recent collaboration with Edwards’ neighboring culture lab, Le Laboratoire, Maul was tasked with pairing a beverage with a piece of music. “I thought about the idea of moveable scales and moveable chords. Would the flavor notes be in the same key?” he asks. “Could I move that piece from here to there?” A playful approach to form shakes up stuffy bartending conventions. “There comes a point in any system when the system becomes weirdly concrete, and systems are meant to be fluid—all puns intended with bartending,” he jokes. “You have to think, how can I overcome the historical barriers applied to a system through technology?”

Take a cocktail like the Whaftiki, for which Maul employs an Edwards invention to breathe new life into Tiki tradition. Using a vaporizer known as Le Whaf, the bar team changes liquid cachaça into a fog that acts on the taste buds like an intangible garnish. Here’s how it works: The vapor floats over ice cubes crafted from almonds, amaretto, mango juice, orange juice and pineapple juice, which is clarified in the centrifuge and formed in a blast freezer. A sugar and bitters chip seals the snifter of vapor and ice cubes. Guests pop the chip themselves and inhale the vapor, which stimulates the palate to salivate, so that when the glass is filled with a blend of rums, the first sip tastes sweeter than expected. As the ice cubes melt, the cocktail actually changes, revealing more layers of Tiki flavor.

“I wanted to create a starting point before you actually interact with the liquid,” Maul explains, “and have the drink itself tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.”

Thoughtful appreciation for the scientific properties of ingredients informs the Café ArtScience process. In order to maintain a drink’s precise temperature and dilution rate until the last sip, your bartender will use ice that’s been frozen to negative 40 degrees in every cocktail served on the rocks. Wood and spices like oak and cinnamon are asphyxiated inside glasses for drinks like “Flying Blind” and “The Ardbeg Drink,” coating the surface with aromatic oils.

“We smoke things,” Maul says. “We compress flavors and scents into garnishes so that when you hold your face closer to the drink, your olfactory sense is engaged. It’s purposeful. The aesthetic is part of the actual design.”

And that prismatic, multi-sensory style characterizes the overall Café ArtScience philosophy, both in front and back of house. Chef Baltzley joined the team in December, bringing his own personal sense of adventure to the kitchen. With passport stamps from Scandinavia to Scotland, Baltzley is pulling from his travel experiences to create a menu with global sensibilities. He rattles off his worldly inspirations—“Asian elements, Scottish elements, sausage-making, Nordic philosophy, a focus on simplicity, fermentations, miso-making, natural pickles and natural vinegars” are just a few of the ideas for upcoming dishes. He aims to match Maul’s approach with inventive bar bites, like bergamot and black tea fried chicken served with a buttermilk dipping sauce and fresh herbs.

“It’s a good place to fall down the rabbit hole of flavor combinations,” Baltzley says of the restaurant, “to abandon culinary dogma and see what we can make happen without pre-set rules.”

The bar and kitchen push at staid boundaries of their trades, but Café ArtScience remains dedicated to good, old-fashioned hospitality. The restaurant is, in many ways, a neighborhood spot—though of course, it draws guests from nearby pharma and tech offices for after-work cocktails, many of whom are scientists themselves. But often, those who come to the creative café venture over the river from Boston and beyond.

When hiring bar staffers, Maul looks for inquisitive, genial folks. “You can teach anyone to tend bar, but you also need the hospitality end of it,” Maul says. “In the last five years, there was this sense of these leather-clad hipster guys talking at you with these really fantastic mustaches. Most people that come in don’t want a recitation on drinking; they just want a cool drink.”

At Café ArtScience, that’s exactly what they’ll get—down to the very degree.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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