How Food Lovers United to Bring the Museum of Food and Drink to Life
In New York City, it would appear there’s nothing in this world too trivial or bizarre to eventually find its way inside a glass display case.
Manhattan’s Flatiron district alone boasts both a Museum of Sex (MoSex) and a Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) — the latter located directly across the street from the former, should any MoSex patrons require the educational equivalent of a cold shower after their visit.
So it’s somewhat surprising to discover it wasn’t until 2004 that someone came up with the idea of a museum dedicated to something as basic and universal as the stuff that we eat and drink.
But cooking up a museum from scratch required years of patience, a lot of unpaid labor, and the launching of one of the most uniquely successful Kickstarter campaigns of all time.
This is the story of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD).
Preheating an Idea
“If you said the name ‘Dave Arnold’ to anybody in the food world [in 2004], they would have just sort of scratched their head,” says MOFAD executive director Peter Kim of the museum’s founder. “But he had this sort of ‘ah-ha’ moment that there really ought to be a museum of food and drink, just given how centrally important it is to who we are as human beings, and given the far-reaching consequences of the kind of food choices we make.”
So Arnold founded and chartered the Museum of Food and Drink in 2005. But he was tapped to start the Culinary Technology Department at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) the same year, and the demands of his new job pushed plans for MOFAD on the back burner.
It wasn’t until March of 2011 that Arnold hosted the museum’s inaugural fundraiser, where he met a young lawyer named Peter Kim. At the time, Kim was an attorney working in international dispute resolutions, but his passion for food inspired him to study at the French Culinary Institute.
“So I was on the lookout for food events, and I heard about this fundraiser for the ‘Museum of Food and Drink,’” Kim recalls, “I enthusiastically purchased my tickets based solely on the name alone. I was sort of captivated by the concept.”
Kim told Arnold how enthralled he was by the idea of the museum, and enthusiastically offered his pro bono services as an attorney — then quickly found out just how badly they were needed.
Out of the Frying Pan…
“When I asked [Arnold] to show me everything that had been done for the museum, it turned out that it was still very much, let’s say, in its nascent stages,” Kim explains.
As his lawyer, Kim helped Arnold with necessary administrative tasks like setting up a board and applying for 501(c)(3) status. Still, a year into their partnership, little else had actually been accomplished.
Kim realized to get the Museum of Food and Drink off the ground, they needed someone working full-time. In March of 2012, he told the staff at his law firm that he was leaving to start a food museum.
“They were all pretty shocked by the idea of it, because it was still a museum that had no funding, no team… nothing really, just a dream and a vision.
“So I started as the director of this imaginary museum in May 2012.”
Kim admits there was “a lot of trepidation” involved in leaving his well-paying position at a successful law firm in order to become the director of an “imaginary museum” — further exacerbated by the fact that his hard-working immigrant parents thought their son was throwing away the perfect job to chase a pipe dream.
“I had to assess how long I could go without earning a dime before I would be in financial trouble,” Kim says of his decision-making process. “I guess, for better or for worse, I was wildly optimistic about how quickly I could get the museum going. I sort of figured, ‘Oh, within six months, we’re going to be off to the races, it’s going to be no problem.’
“And I was horribly wrong,” he laughs. “But I think my naïve optimism helped me get me over that initial trepidation.”
Kim held a small cocktail party fundraiser that allowed him to get a few supplies and a small office in the East Village, where he worked without pay. The lack of dough wasn’t just a problem for Kim’s personal finances, but for MOFAD’s funding, as well.
“If you dig deep on the founding story of pretty much any midsize and up museum, you’ll see that the founding team also had the funding to get it off the ground,” Kim explains. “And that’s something, incidentally, that we did not have.”
Kicking It Up a Notch
In June of 2013, MOFAD launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its first exhibit, “BOOM! The Puffing Gun and the Rise of Cereal,” a mobile display featuring the type of 1930s-era cereal puffing gun that was once used to make breakfast staples like Cheerios and Kix.
Kim says that although there was little to no precedent for using Kickstarter to fund cultural institutions, several aspects of the crowdfunding platform appealed to him.
Vet Your Idea
“First of all, it’s a referendum on the idea,” Kim says. “So, if the idea is not compelling to people, it will not be funded, so that’s useful information to have.”
Get Publicity Along With Funds
“Another point is that it doubles as both a fundraising campaign and a marketing campaign, so it’s a great model for generating visibility for an idea.”
If you’re carting a 3,200-pound puffing cannon around New York City for live demonstrations of rice being exploded into cereal, you’re going to end up getting noticed. And Kim credits the exposure from the Kickstarter-funded BOOM! with propelling MOFAD forward.
“A lot of it is building one brick at a time,” Kim says. “The puffing gun gets us a video piece by the New Yorker, the video piece by the New Yorker gets us a person who is interested in getting involved, and then we end up being able to bring on high-profile advisors… like [Roots drummer] Questlove.”
Create Your Superfans
“And thirdly, a fundraising campaign is a great way to engage a broad audience at a wide variety of levels,” Kim explains. “I think it is a really great way to get a project started … because not only do you get funding to really make your project a reality, but you also have, like I said, a community of people who are now supporting you.”
And that they did — the campaign ended up raising over $100,000 from more than 830 backers, representing the most money ever raised by a museum on Kickstarter.
Kim reflects, “Many of our current members at MOFAD Lab and people who attend our programming and who are some of our most dedicated supporters are people who date all the way back to the puffing gun Kickstarter.”
After a year of bouncing around the city to host various MOFAD Roundtable discussions tackling controversial food policy issues, MOFAD finally did what many young up-and-comers in NYC do, and found a cool warehouse space in Brooklyn.
Exhibiting Good Taste
Arnold’s initial kernel of an idea would eventually turn into the Museum of Food and Drink, which in 2015 found its first home with “MOFAD Lab,” a 5,000-square-foot experimental space in Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood.
The Lab doubles as both a fun and delicious learning experience, as well as a “test kitchen” for what a still-larger MOFAD may look like in the future.
The MOFAD Lab debuted with the exhibition “Flavor: Making It and Faking It”, an interactive look at the science of flavor that included the museum’s own patented “smell synths,” devices allowing guests to sniff and combine various individual natural and artificial scents, ranging from cheese and alcohol to vomit.
Lab’s second exhibit, “CHOW: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” traced the nearly 170-year history of Chinese food in the United States, and featured vintage restaurant menus from across America, a working fortune cookie machine, and delicious samples cooked fresh by Lab’s in-house chefs.
Kim says the “CHOW” exhibit, which focused on the history of a particular cuisine, was chosen as a direct foil to “Flavor,” which emphasized the scientific aspect of food.
“Of course, one of the biggest and most important facets of food is cultural importance,” Kim explains. “So we knew we wanted to tell a cultural story with the second exhibition, and I think we all had a hunch that immigrant food cultures was an area where we’d find some of the most compelling stories.”
Chinese-American cuisine in particular proved to be the perfect vessel for that goal, as the tale behind the takeout is one of immigrants who had to overcome hardships and racism in order to create a unique genre of food.
Additionally, the ubiquity and uniformity of Chinese restaurants across the American landscape makes the exhibit relatable to almost every visitor, no matter what part of the country they’re coming from.
“People recognize egg drop soup, lo mein, kung pao chicken — all of these dishes,” Kim says. “It’s a cuisine that really is all-American.”
Get Ready for the Next Course
Though MOFAD has come a long way from being the “imaginary museum” Peter Kim quit his job for, they’re still looking to grow.
“Our goal is to scale up,” Kim says. “So Lab is meant to be a demonstration space to enable us to do that. I’d say, we’re still a few steps away from launching our capital campaign, but the eventual goal is to launch a capital campaign to open up what we would consider to be the full-scale Museum of Food and Drink.”
The ultimate dream is still to one day open a Smithsonian-scale museum that would catalogue the entire world of food and drink. While Kim admits such an institution is quite a way down the road, he’s also ambitious about the potential of a full-size museum.
“I think that the next step for us is a museum where people can really feel like they’re able to taste and smell their way through the world of food and drink,” he says. “It might not be encyclopedic, but I think it will be comprehensive.”
Though it may take many years for that dream to come to fruition, no one should doubt the museum’s potential. It’s clear the folks at MOFAD have uncovered a recipe for success — even if it is one that requires a lot of prep time.
Patrick Grieve is a writer and takeout enthusiast living in Chicago. His visit to MOFAD’s Chinese Restaurant exhibit led him to conclude that more museums should offer free fortune cookies at the end.