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Margaret Sutherlin/MEDILL

Philip Preston, owner and president of Poly Science, is an avid home cook and has taken his background in the sciences and applied it to culinary technology.


From lab to table: Niles-based Poly Science changing culinary technology

by Margaret Sutherlin
Dec 06, 2012


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Courtesy of PolyScience/MEDILL

The Smoking Gun is a hand-held smoker that allows chefs to flavor dishes that would otherwise be destroyed by the heat of a traditional smoker.

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PolyScience/Medill

In a collaboration with chef Grant Achatz, Preston helped develop the Anti-Griddle, a cooktop with a minus-30 degrees surface.

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PolyScience/MEDILL

Sous vide is a technique of cooking developed in the 1960s where food is sealed in plastic bags and cooked in hot water.  The circulating water evenly heats the food, sealing in natural flavors of foods and maintaining a precise texture. 

At his Northfield home, Philip Preston--entrepreneur, culinary enthusiast and president of laboratory equipment company Poly Science--has a lot of different projects going at once.

His immaculate garage is full of classic cars he has restored by hand (he’s finished a 1964 Cadillac El Dorado, a 1965 Dodge 426 Coronet Convertible and kept up the 1965 Corvette he bought at 19), and he finds and restores antique pool tables. He collects cartoon cells, wine, and loves to cook. He also has three active young kids.

Just beyond the garage and the chicken coop where the four “Dixie Chicks”--as Preston calls them--reside, and past a small but thriving fruit tree orchard and garden where the leeks are just about ready for harvest, is an acre of completely undeveloped land.

The grass is dormant now so the closest thing to green is the new John Deere tractor sitting in the middle of the acre next to a pile of sticks and leaves Preston has cleared away. The ground is still damp; the dirt has the sweet earthy smell that usually is only present just before the winter freeze. Among the leafless shrubs and brown grass, Preston sees potential.

The potential is for literal farm-to-table dining, where truly fresh food combines with the high-technology cooking equipment produced by Niles-based Poly Science.

“I’d like to think I’m a forward thinker--but it might be a reach for me to say--but I think this is the direction the culinary world is going,” says Preston. He laughs then adds, “But I’ve made mistakes on things before. I remember saying to someone that ‘I’m on the cutting edge here: Surf music is coming back!’”

Preston has a knack for finding the next thing with potential, which led his small company into the forefront of cutting-edge culinary technology.

“I think the funny thing is that quite often when you talk about technology and cooking people have this assumption that ‘This is bringing an unhealthy element’, referring to preservatives and processing and things like that,” says Preston. “That isn’t a component of this technology. This is about technology as it brings precision to the temperature and cooking process for precise results. And equally as important are the fresh, raw materials.”

Describing his cooking as a “strong hobby”, Preston’s opportunity to transform his family-owned business company came about 10 years ago. He was approached by nationally recognized chef Mathias Merges, who was chef du cuisine for Charlie Trotter for decades. Trotter and Merges were working to bring an off-the-radar cooking method into the kitchen. And they needed Poly Science’s technology to make it happen.

“Chefs are always looking to develop their cuisines and refine cooking, and you can only go so far with touch and experience with food,” says Merges. “The ability to…keep things consistent is a huge advantage for us. Sous vide made that possible. We could set a temperature and never denature the food we were cooking.”

Using Poly Science’s technology, Preston took an immersion circulator used to keep samples in a lab cold and redesigned it to keep things hot instead. In vacuum-sealed bags, which act as a second skin for the food, anything—vegetables, fruits, chicken or lamb--can be cooked at a precise temperature, concentrating flavor and creating the melt-in-your-mouth foods. The technique is known as sous vide.

Ever since then, Preston’s enthusiasm and search for the next culinary problem to tackle has led him and his company into a new field where he counts world-class chefs such as Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne and Thomas Keller as not only clients, but friends and collaborators.

Founded in 1963 by Preston’s father, Poly Science started as an importer of laboratory tools. Since Preston took over in 1982, Poly Science has specialized in producing equipment used in analytical labs with a special focus on precise temperature control devices. Temperature control touches most people’s lives in ways they don’t typically think about says Preston. Any liquid that is being manufactured, from paint to shampoo, has to be carefully temperature controlled to achieve the right consistency.

“If you look at the shampoo I washed my hair with this morning, it needed temperature control,” says Preston. “I pick up my phone and the phone was injected into a mold that required liquid temperature control. And then I go to dinner and eat my steak cooked by liquid temperature control.”

The technology also is used for DNA amplification and sequencing in laboratories across the country. Poly Science built the machine that tested the glove from the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Today, laboratory and industrial products still account for around 80 percent of the business, while the culinary side of Poly Science is around 20 percent.

Sometimes a chef presents the ideas the company develops. At other times the inventions are a result of Preston’s tinkering around in the kitchen and relentless curiosity. But ultimately he’s always interested in what his clients create.

“We just create the tools and bring them to market. We give just a few inspirations about how these things can give you new opportunities in the kitchen, but really then the creative side of the chefs that we’re working with kicks in and they take it to a level we’ve never considered,” Preston says.

A few years back, famed chef Achatz, who owns top Chicago restaurant Alinea, came to Preston for a precise flash-freezer for his food. The Anti-Griddle, a cooktop that instantly freezes foods at 30-degrees below zero, was the result of the collaboration and has become a staple product for Poly Science.

The Smoking Gun was a project Preston took on himself with the aim of finding ways to smoke foods that would be destroyed by the heat of a traditional smoker. Using wood chips in a compact “gun” with a tube used to direct the flavorful smoke, Preston is able to smoke things such as butter, spinach for a salad, and barbeque sauce.

“My favorite though? Put water in a blender and smoke it, then freeze it for ice cubes in bourbon,” he says.

Preston is also still tinkering with machines that will make edible and flavored snow as well as a rotary vacuum evaporator, which was on display at the Star Chef’s Congress in New York City earlier this year. The Poly Science team successfully made a perfectly clear Bloody Mary. Even better were the delicious remnants: Bloody Mary ketchup. Preston says it paired rather nicely with a neighboring booth’s French fries.

It’s the kind of accidental finds that also makes the invention process interesting. Preston says that for him, a priority is always solving a challenge and finding something that is “fun” or needs to be answered. “I’m more interested in the creation,” he says. “Some of our products aren’t as profitable as others, but when others are reasonably profitable it affords us the luxury to do the fun ones.”

Walking into Preston’s home, it’s easy to see the kitchen is the center of activity. Fragrant citrus trees from a greenhouse nearby perfume the whole first floor and the fairly traditional kitchen is decorated with Preston’s kids’ artwork and toys.

Preston designed much of his home himself, and the roomy kitchen is definitely an indication that food is a lot more than a serious hobby now. The complete series of "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" by Nathan Myhrvold makes up a good portion of the cookbooks. And where most families keep a blender or toaster, Preston keeps the sous vide set up, an Anti-Griddle signed by Grant Achatz, a Smoking Gun, and other kitchen equipment he’s invented. Right outside is the garden, where Preston says he has the water boiling before he ever picks the asparagus when he’s cooking during the summer.

One of the challenges with the “toys” from the kitchen of the big-name chefs is really as simple as making them available to the little ones too. Through national retailers, such as Williams Sonoma, Poly Science sells many of its culinary items. Though doesn’t always mean the science and technique is accessible.

“[Philip] definitely has a lot of different ideas, but maybe the most amazing has been his ability to cross the bridge into home cooking. He has had the connection and really helped to facilitate and articulate the benefits of this technology for the home cook, and really helped people gain an appreciation for it,” says Merges. “I think soon circulating baths could be an everyday accessory for the house, like a crock pot.”

One of the ways Poly Science has also reached new consumers has been by lowering the price of some of the sous vide equipment. The Sous Vide is still a whopping $499, but that is down from the first edition, which sold for around $1,200. The Smoking Gun, which runs just under $100 at Williams Sonoma, is a bit more accessible.

Poly Science is making the technology more accessible by getting the equipment in the hands of young chefs earlier. The company partners with many national and Chicago-area culinary schools to teach the help beginner cooks become comfortable right away with sous vide and other equipment.

This past fall, Kendall College’s cooking program launched a sous vide class for students and at home chefs, to a substantial degree of popularity. The program also uses Poly Science equipment.

“This is a technology more and more restaurants are using, and for a lot of different reasons,” says Renee Zonka, dean of the school of culinary arts at Kendall. “It’s cost effective because less of the product is lost during the cooking process, and it takes up less real estate in the kitchen. You also have this flavor that just goes up and get this really succulent food if it’s done right.”

While the technology has enabled chefs to be creative, the tools ultimately are just tools. “We’ve never tried to showcase the technology,” said Merges. “It’s always about the end product…We have preparation that is so spectacular but so is the final product. What is different with Philip’s technology is how he has a great food and cuisines sense. He’s a great cook and understands the advantages of the technology.”

So among beakers and coils and evaporators and immersion circulators, Preston also now finds himself surrounded by vegetables and chickens with a big plan for an empty plot of land.

He’s been through seed catalogues and plans to start growing varietals of everything: carrots, parsnips, potatoes, and beans, all with the focus on fresh food combined with technology.

“When you pick a peach off a tree, it’s a dramatically different experience,” says Preston. “I think the other part of it is a little bit of a learning experience for my kids, where they can see where food comes from and what all the different foods are.”

But he says it’s also a venture in fresh food, pure tasting food, and ultimately the next challenge, getting these fresh foods and varietals in the hands of everyone.

“I need to figure out a better food storage and preservation system. How I can get fresh apples from Michigan in the December and how we can use it at home,” he says. “That’s my next project.”