Gastronomy 2.0: technology with a knife and fork
A tool for cooking at exactly the temperature you choose, dishes presented on tablets, and futuristic restaurants in which the food levitates and comes down from the ceiling. Technological innovation is already part of our menu.
Eating is an essential process for feeding our bodies, but also to feed our senses. Gastronomy, increasingly blended with art and innovation, is evolving in giant steps thanks to the most avant-garde innovations, which evoke emotions and improve the way in which we feed ourselves. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, technology has burst into restaurants with offerings that promise to change the way we experience food, bring us new sensations and renew the act of sitting at a table. Currently characterised by exclusivity, futuristic gastronomic experiences are already opening doors for those dinner guests of the present who are prepared to dig deep into their pockets.
“Nowadays, the role of science and technology in the kitchen is vital”, states Carlos Collado, chef and teacher at Le Cordon Bleu Madrid. “The gastronomy sector has always been very open to new technologies, new techniques and new developments, but you need to know how to correctly apply these advances to the nature of the product”, suggests the chef. Technology for technology’s sake, no. According to Collado, it should serve the cook and the product.
There are already many novelties that support professional and amateur cooks, and which come straight from laboratories. One of the most democratised is the roner, which was created by Joan Roca, chef at El Celler de Can Roca. “It is a low-temperature bain-marie cooking instrument, with which you can control the time and adjust the temperature by degrees or half degrees”, explains Collado. Vacuum-packed foodstuffs are put into it and you get “more delicate points from the product and a better texture”.
Photo conceded by Le Cordon Bleu Madrid
Other notable pieces of equipment are the ‘rotavapor’ or rotary evaporator, which is used for the distilling of different kinds of aromas, as mentioned by Juan Carlos Arboleya, coordinator of the University Masters in Gastronomic Sciences at the Basque Culinary Center. “The process of fermentation is also very in vogue. Although it is extensively used for some products, like cheese and yoghurt, now people are trying to find other microorganisms and foods that can ferment, and they then try to monitor the process”, explains Arboleya.
From table to stomach, via the brain
Lyophilisation or freeze-drying, sous vides and slow cookers are other advances that have been incorporated into the most innovative restaurants. But will they also reach our home kitchens? “Absolutely, as other devices such as ice-cream makers, blenders and grills have done. They now seem commonplace, but these instruments came out of professional gastronomic centres”, explains Collado. Although we’re talking about something that is still emerging, the public can already enjoy them in some of the most select restaurants. Like in those that work on generating emotions and understanding the sense of taste.
Where does taste originate? On the tongue? Yes, but also in the brain. Flavours evoke memories and transport us to past scenes from our lives. A sandwich in the mountains, snacks with hot chocolate or your grandmother’s stew. In the technological context, gastronomy is also interacting with the world of neuroscience. “Depending on the person, the interpretation of a flavour can vary”, explains Arboleya. This has to do with the field of sensory perception, and it depends not only on the product but also on what surrounds the diner: the lighting, sound, noise, and music. “There is investigative work going on about how to marry different types of music with flavours, for example, a grave with an acid. It’s an incredibly fascinating field that is very much of interest to the gastronomy sector”, suggests the chef.
Photo conceded by Sublimotion
To contribute to this study, last year the Basque Culinary Center together with Mugaritz restaurant and the Centro de Regulación Genómica organised the Brainy Tongue event, which sought to look deeper into these mysteries. “We put neuroscientists and cooks to work together, to analyse how the brain interprets different experiences. This knowledge is already being used in different restaurants. For neuroscientists this also brought them a lot, because it helped them to understand how the brain works”, concludes Arboleya.
For example, imagine eating in an environment that carries out a controlled release of specific aromas, associated with experiences and emotions. This is what the multisensory experience that the Japanese restaurant Sagaya offers is like; an interactive culinary spectacle that includes smells, projections and music. Talking about disrupting the senses, there are also proposals that offer for you to taste sound or make food dance. For dessert, take technology to your plate.
Transforming the table into a technological scene
To improve the sensorial gastronomic experience, for several years Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak, of the award-winning restaurant Arzak, have been offering a way of serving food that will stop the need for arguments about smartphones or tablets at the table: using them to serve their dishes. First they started with a place setting that lit up when food was placed on it, Arzak explains, and this technology evolved into putting food straight onto an electronic tablet. This is how the creations ‘Monkfish at low tide’ and ‘Charcoal-grilled lemon with prawns and patchouli’ are presented, and they include a video with sound and images.
Photo conceded by Arzak
But if there is one gastronomic example par excellence at the height of technology, it is Sublimotion. It is complicated to define. “Sublimotion is almost a new theatrical art, which was born of the union of the two Michelin star chef’s workshop Paco Roncero and our events agency”, states Eduardo González, director of the spectacle production company Vega Factory.
A 70 square metre room that has more technological infrastructure than a rock concert: engines that make the food fall from the ceiling, black light, fans, bubble machines, aromatherapy, levitators and vibration devices. An endless number of technological elements to create a gastronomic spectacle that is hard to explain and that “has to be lived”. You have to pay €1,650 for the experience. Behind the scenes, designers, illusionists, engineers and cooks offer a spectacle lasting more than two hours.
The idea comes from the desire to evolve the ancestral human ritual of sitting down to eat and drink with more people. “We set out to investigate and saw that the table is the best support for communication that exists. So we scripted a show around it, incorporating elements of theatre, scenography and special effects”, explains González. Thanks to virtual reality and augmented reality glasses, diners at Sublimotion go from eating their starters whilst watching a hologram with its ingredients and nutrients, to disappearing from the room falling from parachutes and appearing in a cabaret with another dish in front of them. “Spectacle and gastronomy have often been united, but along parallel lines; at Sublimotion everything happens at the same time, but the moments of eating conventions are respected”, states González.
Photo courtesy of Sublimotion
At Sublimotion they are also investigating mixed reality, which would enable diners to visualise a foodstuff virtually, but eat it physically. “This is something that is in full development and that will revolutionise everything. You will be able to have dinner with someone virtually, even though they are 1,000 kilometres away with programmed and coordinated glasses”, explains González. He and Paco Roncero have recently been invited to NASA, where they are already dreaming of being able to have astronauts eating with their families on 4th July, US Independence Day. Ferrán Adriá already said it, "cooking and technology are united through creativity". It seems that gastronomy is more creative than ever.
By Patricia Ruiz Guevara