Hot or not? Designer foods of the future

mri-steak-james-king Food, but not as we know it … designer James King’s MRI steak looks like a cross between a chop, a brain and a sea anemoneHave you ever ordered chicken Kiev in a restaurant? You don’t see it on menus much but last week I did and, of course, I ordered it. It came with a bone sticking out, and on the end of the bone was a little paper hat. First-class presentation. Strangely, though, this fine-dining version was blander than the real thing – the real thing being the kind made of reconstituted chicken pumped full of water and powdered pork protein that you find in supermarkets. Thinking about how the (authentic) ready-meal version is produced, I imagined it very much like the manufacture of a gas-assisted injection-moulded plastic chair. The raw material – let’s call it meatstuff – is inserted into a mould and injected with air that forces it into shape, leaving a cavity. The only real difference is that you don’t inject a chair with garlic butter.

It would be deeply unfashionable these days to confess to buying supermarket chicken Kiev. The slow food movement has successfully instilled the idea that eating seasonal, organic produce is the only healthy and ethical way forward. But that may turn out to be a rather romantic notion. We are already staring a global food crisis in the face, and the world’s population is expected to grow by almost 3 billion people by mid-century. In which case, the industrialisation and genetic modification of food will probably only become more widespread.

The idea of food as a design product is not exactly new. Pasta is arguably the first example of a designed foodstuff, manufactured for centuries in hundreds of shapes, each one of which is designed to absorb sauce slightly differently – mass production by a high food culture. Philippe Starck had a go at designing a new pasta shape in the 1980s, as did the legendary Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, but neither novelty caught on. Really, it was the American TV dinner of the 1950s that turned food into a design product – it even came in a box designed to look like a television. Inspired by airline meals, the TV dinner dispensed with the time-consuming and messy process of cooking, and compacted the turkey roast into a neatly packaged commodity. In this country it all began in 1976, when Marks & Spencer launched its first ready meal. You guessed it: chicken Kiev.

We don’t tend to think of food as design and yet we love it when celebrity chefs treat it as such. Even though most of us will never taste them, we are spellbound by the liquid-nitrogen-dipped creations of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, of The Fat Duck and El Bulli respectively. Their “molecular gastronomy” employs fundamental design principles, such as rethinking accepted norms and prioritising the user experience.

In a way it’s surprising that there are not more designers working with food. They certainly exist though. The best known is the Catalan designer Martí Guixé. For more than a decade he has been experimenting with turning food into products, or – perhaps more accurately – experiences. He created the Foodball concept restaurant for shoe brand Camper, where, if it’s not self-explanatory, all the food was ball-shaped. He’s started a restaurant where everything on the menu is ordered from local takeaways, he’s branded organic peas with images of female icons and he’s made cakes that look like pie charts – the icing reveals the percentage of each ingredient in the recipe. He doesn’t claim to know anything about cooking but, rather, is fascinated by the idea of edible objects.

Guixé believes that food is curiously under-designed, that it is an essentially conservative medium. No doubt that has to do with our – occasionally deluded – perception of it as somehow coming straight from nature. However, as the global food shortage starts to precipitate technological solutions, we may become more used to the idea of artificially produced nourishment. Last month, The Royal Society published a collection of papers on the future of food (covered in this newspaper), one of which speculated that artificial meat “grown in vats” was a viable way to meet our future demand for protein. Indeed it argued that “in vitro” meat was healthier and more hygienic than the real thing.

It is a testament to how diverse the design world has become that there are designers – albeit in the extreme fringe – who are already exploring the implications of that. Oron Catts, a former industrial designer who now operates out of a synthetic biology lab at the University of Western Australia, actually grew himself a steak in 2002. He used cells harvested from an unborn sheep. His Petri-dish steak was rather chewier than a real one, but Catts is not aiming for fine dining. His work – which, at the more “designer” end has included growing a “victimless” leather jacket – is intended to focus debate on the ethics of synthetic biology. On the one hand, we get to eat victimless meat, on the other, he argues, we are creating a new “semi-living class” for exploitation.

So where does the design come in? A recent graduate from London’s Royal College of Art took the implications of work by Catts and his partner Ionat Zurr to its logical conclusion. James King, an interaction designer, asked a simple question: if a steak hasn’t actually come from a cow, why should it be steak-shaped? In theory, it could take more aesthetic, abstract forms. He decided, though, to retain some link to the animal, instead using MRI scans of livestock and choosing the most aesthetically pleasing cross-sections. His MRI steak looks like a cross between a chop, a brain and a sea anemone. If you think that the premise of mass-produced chicken Kiev is simply verisimilitude – in other words, this object looks like a real stuffed chicken breast – then this is the opposite model. This is food with artistic licence.

Although the work of designers such as Catts and King is speculative, it raises interesting questions about the future role of designers in the food industry. Traditionally their role has simply been to package the food, to make consumables more desirable, to make it stand out on the shelf. Scientists believe that another decade of research is needed before in-vitro meat becomes commercially viable, but it raises the idea of a new role for the designer: not just packaging what we eat, but designing it.




Extreme pasta shapes that never made it.

I recently came across a forgotten bit of history that might be of interest to you.  It certainly grabbed my attention as it concerns two matters about which I am passionate.
What do the following cars have in common: Alfa Romeo Alfasud, Audi 80, BMW M1, De Tomaso Mangusta, De Lorean DMC-12, Ferrari GT Bertone, Fiat Spider, Fiat Uno, Ford Mustang (2006), Lamborghini Cala, Lexus GS, Lotus Esprit, Maserati Quattroporte, Saab 9000, VW Golf, VW Passat and VW Scirocco?  While we’re at it, what do these cars have in common with the Ducati 860 GT motorcycle and the following Nikon camera bodies: F3, F4, F5, F6?
Dgiugiaro1_2 Give up?  All of the above were designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, one of the greatest industrial designers ever to come out of Italy. Giorgetto Giugiaro was named Car Designer of the Century in 1999. Now while I do have a certain interest in cars, it doesn’t come close to the passion I reserve for good design and fine food.  You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Giugiaro had dabbled in pasta design.
In November 1983 Voiello, an innovative pasta manufacturing company in Naples owned by the Barilla group, decided to break the mold, so to speak, and develop  a “modern” pasta shape.  The assignment went to car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Giugiaro submitted 12 designs from which one was picked to go into production. Giugiaro named his pasta Marille.
Giugiaro took a very systematic approach to the problem.  He realized that his new design should not absorb too much sauce and should increase its volume in water.  The pasta should be both decorative and palatable. Of course his new shape should be produced by die extrusion.
Here are the only sketches and photos of Marille pasta I have been able to find.  Notice the dual-tubular design and the protruding tongue.  Unlike conventional rigatoni, the grooves or rugosities were on the concave surfaces of the tubes presumably to give better adherence to the sauce.

Unfortunately, Marille did not remain in production very long. As far as I can determine, problems were encountered with uneven cooking of various parts of shape.  Judging from the available sketches and the photo above, my guess is that the junction of the 3 elements would have cooked much more slowly than the rest of the shape.
I think the Marille was, nevertheless, an innovative design even in spite of its troubles in hot water.  I doubt much of it is still in existence but if you ever come across any, give me a shout.
Now you may have noticed that the title of this piece is in the plural.  This is because as I was rooting around for more information on Mr. Giugiaro’s Marille, I happened upon a second designer pasta shape, this one by the equally famous Philippe Starck and called Mandala.
In 1987, the French pasta maker Panzani commissioned Starck to design a new pasta shape for them and this is what he came up with:

Perhaps, it would be best if I let Mr. Starck tell you about Mandala in his own words (from a lecture he gave at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in October 1997): “I was so happy because I’m very interested in things close to humans. I said, “OK, what can I do with pasta? Why do we love pasta? When do we love pasta? We love pasta when we are children, when we are sick, when we are stoned – ah! – or when we are old – in other words, when we are a bit regressed. But sometimes when you eat pasta you become fat. Perhaps the thing I can do is to give the same pleasure, with a good mouth full of pasta, but without making people fat. How I can make a pasta that will be ten percent pasta and ninety percent air? If you make a tube, you have ninety percent air, but when it’s cooked, it collapses.” That’s why I thought of a spring that makes the pasta stay open. And because American and French people always overcook pasta, I made two wings that have a double thickness, so that when you overcook it, eighty percent of the pasta is still al dente. I asked a doctor, “What is in pasta?” and he said, “It’s a perfectly well-balanced food.” “Well-balanced: yin-yang! Perfect, that can be the spring!” This shows you that even in something small, everything can be functional. If you just make a nice design, it’s nothing.”
The cross-section has a yin and yang look about it.  Starck was obviously worried about maintaining the shape’s integrity when cooked and the pierced thickenings at opposite ends were probably meant to serve this purpose. Unlike the Marille, the rugosities are on the outside.
Alas, as far as I can tell, Mandala met with the same fate as Marille and try as I might, I can find no evidence that it is still in production.  Furthermore, I have been unable to get any information from either Barilla or Panzani about these products.  I even contacted the Museo Nazionale delle Paste Alimentari in Rome with no success. Pity because failures though they might have been, these two pasta shapes represented the work of great men in the world of design.  Both my food-lover and design junkie sides grieve at having been deprived of these two interesting attempts at a “modern” pasta shape.

Joseph Froncioni