Where is Dining Heading?

Working in a Michelin star restaurant used to be the aspiration of a budding chef.  And molecular gastronomy was the ultimate food experience. In the last few years, however, this status quo has been challenged; we want and expect different things now from food, cooking and experimentation.  There has been a shake-up and rethinking of how food is cooked, purchased, served and enjoyed. Pop-up restaurants are now commonplace, appearing in trucks roaming the streets, shacks in run-down parts of downtowns and other outdoor urban spaces. Professional restaurant critics are becoming obsolete, being replaced by bloggers, hipsters or anyone else for that matter – who likes to review, tweet or simply, ‘like’ a new place.

Not only are customers enjoying new culinary experiences but chefs are also relishing the new challenges they bring. One theme has been to serve up traditional, modern fusion or favourite dishes using locally sourced ingredients. Another has been to play with the space and place of the kitchen and the artefacts food is served on and with. Ben Spalding, for example, spent last summer in a school playground in the East End of London at a makeshift stall. He had no grill, gas, or fridge – just some pre-cooked food from the day before and a stack of Tupperware containers with raw ingredients in that he mixed and melded in front of their noses. Foodies and locals, alike, flocked to his stall to literally dine out. Playing on the ideas of eating outdoors – he even dished up his fruit dessert in a garden trowel!

His next venture entailed serving chicken on a brick, which gave diners the opportunity to rethink how they ate. Some licked the chicken off the glazed brick and other chiselled the caramel glaze with their knifes. Such re-appropriation of trowels and bricks to replace spoons and plates forces the diner to examine their relationship with taken for granted aspects of dining – in doing so it can enhance, entertain and sometimes embarrass. But all the time such unexpectedness heightens the dining experience, the conversations about and around it and ultimately the memories that last.

So, what next?

  •  How best to intervene as chefs, technologists, artists, designers, philosophers, and diners?
  • What role can technology play (e.g., video, sound, e-ceramics) in enhancing our dining experiences? How does it achieve this? Is it through association, multi-sensory integration or other process?
  • How can we change the context of how we experience food? Does it start in the anticipation of having a meal to recalling the event to others afterwards?
  • Why do people flock to restaurants that offer something quirky, unusual, exquisite and playful? How do we get the right combination of mood, taste, ambience, conversation, narrative for the dishes, menu of plates, etc.?
  • Why do we want to invoke food or other memories when eating? Why would be want to make taste like sound? When memories are invoked what do we do with them? Are they involuntary as Proust would have it? Does that matter? Can we induce and trigger certain kinds of memories that linger?
  • Does knowing more about where your food has come from (even seeing videos of the animal before slaughtered, or the fish swimming around, or the vegetable growing in the soil), its ‘good’ value set (healthy, locally sourced, foraged, no animal produce, etc) or its ‘naughty’ ingredients (it has lots of cream in it, alcohol, etc) enhance the taste? How does the interplay of increased knowledge impact on the user experience?
  • Is it important for the diner to be creative in how they experience a meal to reflect the creation that has gone into its inception and making by the chef and technologist? If so how can that be triggered?
  • Are there aspects of the dining experience we have not considered?
  • What is the sweet spot we are aiming for?