Here in Boston food and technology are like Fenway Park and “Sweet Caroline”: they couldn’t avoid each other if they tried.
The culture of innovation is baked hard into the city’s psyche, and there’s no shortage of restaurants in search of groundbreaking chefs who might just give them an edge.
While it’s hardly surprising that the talent pools of Harvard, MIT—Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and other great local universities have guaranteed that the laboratory and the kitchen are often one and the same, the range of local food pioneers is genuinely remarkable—whether they are cooks steeped in the marinade of genius, food scientists pickled in data, or gastro-curious visionaries driven by a burning desire shape the future.
Intelligent Plant Pots
Last year, a team of students from MIT created Spyce, a fast-food robot that makes healthy meals from locally sourced food at the click of an app. The Harvard Innovation Lab—i-lab—has nurtured Trignis—barbecue meets the Internet of Things—and in the South End—already home to dozens of great restaurants—there’s The Food Loft, a co-working space designed specifically for food tech startups.
Interest in super-smart, app-controlled “home growing systems”—variations on the “intelligent plant pot” theme—is especially lively. Grove in Somerville makes a magnificent indoor ecosystem with built-in aquarium—the fish help fertilize the veggies—and SproutsIO is taking orders for a gorgeously designed “microgarden” that produces delicious vegetables indoors, soil-free, year-round.
The latter system has already been picked up by professional kitchens.
“SproutsIO demoed their product at Menton, Sportello and Drink,” said Scott Jones, culinary director at Barbara Lynch Gruppo and chef de cuisine at Menton. “The system is cool—and once we figure out how to execute it in the most efficient way it’ll be even cooler.”
Jones, one of Boston’s most innovative chefs, has a degree in bio-chemistry from Harvard, but quit his Ph.D. at Harvard Medical School for an entry-level position at Barbara Lynch’s stellar Beacon Hill restaurant, No.9 Park.
Amazing Flavor Molecules
“A basic understanding of biology and chemistry helps you understand what’s happening in the pan,” Jones said. “I like cooking to be a really traditional, old-world technique. That being said, I think I’m a better cook because of science.”
It was after poring over a scientific study of flavor molecules found in both black cod and in black tea that Jones had a eureka moment.
“The data led me to a dish of lobster and chamomile that is still one of my favorite flavor combinations. It’s gorgeous—like drinking the ocean at bedtime.”
For Jones, science can be a very useful tool but, he says, it should always serve the experience of a great meal.
“When I go out to eat, I don’t want to be lectured about the various techniques that were used. What I want is something simple, prepared well and a story to go along with it. And if science brought us there, then that’s amazing.”
An Exploration of Tomorrow
At the aptly named Café ArtScience in Kendall Square, East Cambridge, the convergence of food and technology is truly spectacular. The restaurant is the brainchild of David Edwards—inventor, Harvard lecturer, writer—whose background in biotech, applied math and health care has been generously garnished with flourishes of design, cross-disciplinary thinking and cutting-edge technology. Like Jones, he believes strongly in the narrative power of food, especially when it comes to imagining what might be possible 10, 20 or even 200 years from now.
“We’re interested in food not only being an experience of today and an exploration of tomorrow but also a storyteller,” said Edwards. “I don’t think we should be so boxed in that the way we ate in the 19th century is the way we’ll eat in the 22nd century.”
Sensory Clouds and Robot Waiters
Throughout the summer, Café ArtScience is offering what Edwards calls “sensory clouds.” Edwards said: “These are food experiences that float in the air. They deliver taste and scent with no calories. We can deliver a hotdog or a hamburger, tomato soup or cotton candy, in this cloud form.”
The clouds are experienced via Le Whaf—a vapor-making carafe invented by Edwards—and served by a robotic waiter called Cafe Gita, developed by local Cambridge startup, Piaggio Fast Forward. Available for purchase is another aroma delivery system, Cyrano, which looks like a wireless audio speaker but delivers scents rather than sounds.
Edwards hopes that diners will not simply enjoy the experience but join a wider discussion about food and all its interconnected areas of interest, from art and entertainment to wellness and the environment. A series of 15 sensory cloud experiences will lead up to October’s World Frontiers Forum, when pioneering artists, architects, biologists and other leading thinkers will ponder the connections between food, robotics and sustainability.
“The future of food will be created by all of us,” Edwards said. “So where does that happen? It’s got to happen in a restaurant. This area of the world is so unique—East Cambridge is one of those rare places where we really are creating tomorrow. I can’t imagine a more obvious place for Café ArtScience than here in Boston today.”