MOFAD: New York's First Museum of Food & Drink

Photo by Lili Sams/Mashable.

Photo by Lili Sams/Mashable.

Brooklyn's food scene is unstoppable. First Smorgasburg, a hit food festival in the area's trendiest neighborhoods, and now New York’s first museum devoted to food.

The Museum of Food and Drink, or MOFAD, will open the doors to its first exhibit on Tuesday. Mashable got a sneak peek at Flavor: Making It and Faking it.

The exhibit blends high-tech and old school gadgets to present an interactive flavor experience, through smell, taste and touch.

The brainchild of restaurateur and culinary innovator Dave Arnold, MOFAD started in in 2005 when he helped launch a Kickstarter campaign (titled Boom!) to create a cereal-puffing gun.

The campaign raised over $100,000, which they used to build a 3,200-pound machine that “explosively puffs cereal.”

The contraption, which made the rounds as a pop-up exhibit in 2013, playfully jabs at the American industrialization of food and our favorite boxed treat.

Years of fundraising later, Arnold is kneeling on a cement floor in an industrial garage located kitty corner from McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In front of him a mouse strings out from a laptop. His eyes scan rows of Python code as he attempts to get Smell Machine 100 back online.

MOFAD Lab, as the team refers to this first museum iteration, is a test kitchen of sorts.

Rather than launch a full-size museum, the founder and his team of dedicated foodies are starting smaller. “It’s an opportunity to see how people respond to what works and what doesn’t,” Arnold says. Eventually, he hopes to have a full exhibit that can travel the country.

Peter Kim, the executive director, describes the “rough around the edges” building as perfect for the team's needs. “With only 3,000 square feet of exhibit space, it needed to be a focused topic. It was important to us that this first exhibit encapsulates the deep dive MOFAD wants to do, and the multidisciplinary approach,” says Kim.

Thus, the Flavor exhibit was born. It aims to tell the story of two iconic flavors in our food system: vanilla and umami — vanilla because it was the first flavor to be reproduced in a lab, and the first to become commercially successful. Umami, the savory element in our food, is often referred to as our fifth taste, after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It’s the one that makes us salivate. Discovered by a Japanese scientist, the rise of umami occurred at the same time as the rise in the food processing industry.

“There are very deep philosophical questions: What does natural mean, and how do we define the space between natural and artificial?” says Kim. To get this message across the museum has integrated a blend of new tech and old school.

To understand how natural and synthetic flavors have come to share space in our olfactory system, the museum uses signage, displays and interactive gadgets.

You can press a menu of buttons to smell green bananas, pancakes and nail polish. You can also taste a variety of umami flavors, such as kombu, porcini, tomato and parmesan.

Candy-like pellets issued from gumball machines took some tinkering to get right. Most candy uses maltodextrin, which is an excellent binding agent that also tastes a little sweet. Not wanting to use a chemical compound, the team struggled to solve the issue of an edible binding agent, which candy makers said would be impossible. Eventually Kim found the solution inside a box of Manischewitz Potato Starch.

Meanwhile, Arnold devised an interactive way to experience smell.

He used an air compressor, plastic jars, valves, tubes and thousands of lines of code. The smell machines gives museum goers a chance to smell both naturally produced and synthetic scents derived from chemicals that are, in essence, the same compound you smell from the original food itself.

“I liken the MOFAD approach to The Simpsons — any age can appreciate it. Adults can watch and pick up things; there’s a lot that kids can get out of it: understanding how flavor works, and the notion of how to adjust flavor in food,” says Kim.

Once their proof of concept is nailed, MOFAD plans to move to a bigger space.

In the meantime, this first approach will include a rotating list of programs and a small-curated bookstore with items you can’t find anywhere else, such as rare fish sauce.

Advance tickets are recommended since only 50 people will be allowed in at a time.

Written and published for Mashable.