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From Philip Preston’s lab to the kitchens of boundary-pushing chefs

Philip Prestpresident Niles-based Polyscience holds Smoking Gun portable food smoker. It sells for around $100. (Al Podgorski~Sun-Times)

Philip Preston, president of Niles-based Polyscience, holds the Smoking Gun, a portable food smoker. It sells for around $100. (Al Podgorski~Sun-Times)

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Updated: August 31, 2011 12:38AM

It’s rare that when someone describes meat as “melt-in-your-mouth,” it actually does. But the turkey I ate a few Sundays back came pretty close. Same for the flank steak and short ribs, cuts not typically known for their tenderness. For dessert, there were made-on-the-fly frozen creme anglaise lollipops with just-picked rosemary sprigs stepping in for the sticks.

Philip Preston, the creator of this delicious afternoon “snack” as he referred to it, is not a chef. But he does test recipes and he spends so much time in restaurant kitchens that culinary trendsetters, including Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller and Wylie Dufresne, have him on speed dial.

Preston is, among many other things (more on those later), president of Niles-based PolyScience, a company that creates and supplies the country’s most innovative restaurants with high-tech equipment, some of which were used to create the meal I ate and the reason why I was at his Winnetka home.

I first met Preston six years ago when I stumbled upon his tiny booth at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago. I was hooked immediately, not only by his cool gadgets but also his passion and gee-whiz attitude.

Each year since, I’ve stopped by his booth, which has grown steadily in size and range of equipment.

“Everything about the preparation of food involves science,” he told me at our first meeting. “Even the Italian grandmother who’s been creating wonderful meals has been practicing science, perhaps without even knowing it.”

Chefs came calling

Preston and PolyScience haven’t always been so interested in what goes on in restaurant kitchens. Founded in 1963, the company was originally an importer of German laboratory equipment.

In the early ’70s, PolyScience started manufacturing its own temperature-control equipment, which is used to help create liquid products ranging from motor oil to paint and also is used in DNA labs. (PolyScience built the unit that tested O.J. Simpson’s glove.)

“Temperature control is touching you everywhere,” Preston says.

That’s probably where the company would have stayed if it hadn’t been for a phone call eight years ago from Matthias Merges, then the chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s. The Lincoln Park restaurant was interested in using their immersion circulators for sous vide cooking, a gentle, low-temperature technique in which vacuum-sealed ingredients are cooked slowly in water.

“It all started with Charlie Trotter,” says Preston.

Following Trotter was New York chef Dufresne of wd-50, who was in need of sous vide equipment for an upcoming “Iron Chef” episode.

“He had some beat-up circulators that he bought on eBay but was embarrassed to put those on TV,” Preston recalls.

He got a good chuckle when Dufresne told him that when he first contacted one of PolyScience’s competitors about using their lab equipment, the puzzled regional manager’s response was, “Yeah, we sold one of our units to some laundry in Northern California that’s going to use it to cook with, too.”

An avid home cook, Preston knew right away that the “laundry” was actually one of the country’s best restaurants, the French Laundry, owned by Keller.

Next up: Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas. They weren’t only interested in PolyScience’s sous vide equipment for their soon-to-open Chicago restaurant Alinea, but had other ideas up their sleeves.

Taking a concept from Achatz, Preston created the Anti-Griddle, a cooktop with a minus-30-degree surface that can be used to quickly freeze anything, including the aforementioned creme anglaise lollipops.

Achatz and Preston have since collaborated on other pieces, including a low-temperature bath used to make the egg-shaped ice cube in the much-talked-about Old Fashioned cocktail at the Aviary, Achatz’s new bar.

Garage workshop

While Preston often works with chefs in their restaurant kitchens — he recently came back from the French Laundry, where he brainstormed with Keller on ways to make sous vide more approachable — it’s in his home garage where the majority of experimenting takes place.

“I can’t learn things from reading,” he says. “I have to learn things by doing.” (Preston may have the James Bond theme song ringtone on his cell phone because it’s “fun,” but I can’t help think of the film’s gadget-creating character Q.)

Even before entering his workshop, or “Garage Mahal” as Preston has dubbed it, it’s clear he’s a man of many interests.

In the lush backyard, steps away from the open fire pit and Big Green Egg barbecue, there’s an expansive, well-manicured vegetable and herb garden. Not far away is a mini-orchard of apple, peach, pear and plum trees. And next to that, the chicken coop he rigged himself.

Preston also did the initial design of the 4,000-square-foot house he shares with his wife and three children.

In the immaculately kept garage, there is a 1965 Dodge Coronet convertible, a ’65 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, a ’65 Corvette roaster and four Norton motorcycles, all painstakingly restored by Preston. The five years he spent on a car racing pit crew clearly comes in handy.

On the walls are various cartoon cells, one of Preston’s many collections, which also include vintage slot machines and pool tables.

Preston keeps the kitchen equipment he’s tinkering with in the back of the garage. There’s a still-in-the-works contraption that he hopes one day will make edible snow. He did manage to make one bowl of strawberry-flavored snow that he and his wife shared.

The Sonicprep, one of his newest pieces — think of it as a stick blender on steroids, says Preston — emulsifies liquids using sound waves. It will retail for $4,000.

The 3-year-old Rotary Vacuum Evaporator, inspired by a similar piece of equipment he heard about in Spain, is a low-temperature distillation unit that Alinea has used to extract herb aromas like basil.

The Smoking Gun is a handheld contraption that adds smoky aromas to food without heat. Preston originally made 50 of them and gave them to chefs, including Dufresne, to play around with. He’s since sold 20,000 of the $100 gizmos.

“I originally thought I was just making something cool for a couple of friends,” he says.

Also in the garage are a few of his Sous Vide Professional units (the unit, which can fit into a drawer, is available at Williams- Sonoma for $800), in which our lunch has been cooking slowly at 160 degrees for the last 24 hours.

Trial and error

Preston credits his appreciation for cooking to his Belgian mother and the two-year French culinary course he took in his 20s.

But while he knows his way around a kitchen, learning to cook sous vide was a trial-and-error process.

“I’d find you can’t work with chefs and have them tell you everything about a technique unless you do it yourself,” he says. “So I just started to cook stuff.”

His first dish, lamb shank, was a disaster — an inedible, excessively gamey thyme bomb of a lamb shank.

“Sous vide can really accentuate flavors, and lamb shank can have a gamey characteristic,” says Preston.

He also didn’t realize that you need only use 20 percent of the herbs and spices you normally would since everything cooks together under seal.

His second attempt? “Rubber chicken,” he says.

But with guidance from chefs like Merges and Achatz, Preston hit his stride. For curious cooks, there is now a PolyScience channel on YouTube loaded with how-to videos that were shot in Preston’s home kitchen.

Before sitting down to our meal, we head back to that kitchen, where Preston seasons the sous-vide turkey legs, short ribs and flank steak with a subtle truffle salt and then sears them in duck fat in a cast iron skillet to create a nice, crusty exterior. He often takes this “hybrid approach” when cooking.

“I don’t use every tool all the time, but I like having all of them,” he says. “I get the best of both worlds.”

Chefs continue to inspire him.

“It’s almost as if I tee up the ball for them and let their creativity take the swing,” he says. “A lot of times I can throw a couple of things out there, and then their creativity takes it to a level I would have never imagined.”

Lisa Shames is the food/dining
editor of Chicago Social magazine.

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