IFTF Interview

January 30, 2015

Back in the summer of 2014 we sat down with Sarah Smith from Institute For The Future as part of her research for The Future of Food in 20 Objects. We finally had a chance to transcribe the interview and even though it is off the cuff, and conversational, we thought that included a good summary of our first four years worth of research.

NOTE: Some sections of the interview have been edited for clarity or accuracy. 


SARAH: I would love to start with you description of the Center For Genomic Gastronomy and your mission.

CGG: Our official description is An artist-led think tank that examines the biotechnologies and biodiversity of human food systems, but we’ve been working on a new way of defining Genomic Gastronomy in the last year, which is the study of organisms and environments manipulated by human food culture.

We were really interested in looking at food from the prospective of biology and ecology. The title “Genomic Gastronomy” came from a play on molecular gastronomy, which was (and is still) very popular. [Molecular gastronomy] was all about chemistry and a reductive approach to food: how do we understand the base chemical elements of food and build up a narrative or event from these chemical constituents? 

When we started in 2010, there was a big transition in the high-end cuisine world from [restaurants like] El Bulli and Fat Duck to NOMA and the Scandinavian approach. We started joking that NOMA was really just a restaurant that was doing “Genomic Gastronomy” and that they stole our idea. [It was] a bit facetiously because we thought well, we are artists and don’t have a big relationship with the restaurant or food world. But then, about two years ago, we were contacted by Nordic Food Lab (NOMA’s R&D restaurant) and we went over and had dinner with them. It actually turns out that there IS a lot of crossover, which is really fascinating. They are interested in terroir and time and place in [a given] region of the world. But they also spend a lot of time looking at the different cultivars of plants, and different sub-species of fish and ecosystems of fisheries. While we’re trying to push ideas from an artistic angle, looking at biotech and ecology, high end cuisine is already heading in this direction, so there was an interesting confluence we hadn’t predicted.  

TCP_van_snow555   Russel Market Research

S: So neither of you had any food system background before this? You come at it from the art perspective? 

CGG: When we met in 2010, Cat had been working on an ice cream van that attempted to make it snow ice cream, and [Zack] was doing food research with art students in Bangalore, India

ZACK: I had been really interested in what was happening with biotechnology, and I was seeing a huge lack of criticality. On the one hand there was industry hype, and on the other hand popular resistance to GMO, but there seemed to be very hardened cultural positions. We thought artists had a role to play in challenging the norms and metaphors that were playing out. Many of the [pre-existing] metaphors used within the biotech literature and field were about engineering (see: BioBricks and IGEM). These metaphors really glossed over the ways life is actually quite different from code. That was a huge inspiration, so we started [asking], could we use food or gastronomy as a lens to challenge these norms of biotech? 

Since then we’ve really branched out because [we discovered that] biotechnology in itself is really a poor metaphor for the interaction of humans with other life forms, mediated by tools. Now, we’ve gone way beyond that initial idea of food and biotechnology. 

S: [To discuss] that idea of driving metaphors of our current food system, for example the industrial metaphor as a dominant one, [has there been a] shift from industrial models to information age [models]? What does that look like in the food system to you?

CGG: There’s an assumption that we go from an industrial to a post-industrial information economy, but we’re seeing another trend as well, which is the craft economy— or a desire for people to relate to their local ecosystem services or their region. It doesn’t have to be totally separate from the information economy, but there does seem to be a schism. 

There is also a fundamental materiality to food that you can’t really digitize, no matter how much people try.

beyond eggs   soylent 
Beyond Eggs & Soylent

S: Beyond Eggs is a good example [of a] distribution model where you would break things down into small parts and distribute it through a resilient network.

Centgg: We do spend a lot of time thinking about technology, but I think it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and situation—like contemporary architecture that tries to be sustainable, but doesn’t just look backwards towards regional materials and methods, but also uses high-performance materials. I think we’ll see really interesting food cultures take these hyper-efficient, lets say, industrial materials like Beyond Eggs, but also combine that with hand-foraged herbs from a new walkable forest that is planted.

Right now I think there is a really awesome opportunity to bring those two worlds together. We have a lot of reactionary, conservative food groups (for example, [groups who think we] should only make sourdough the way it was made 500 years ago), and we also have this food start up movement that wants to “disrupt” everything. Those are both less interesting than if they were combined. I think that’s where we get really excited.

The information technology space [enables lots of] information about organisms, ingredients and techniques to go around the globe really fast. We’re particularly interested in (and [currently] exploring through our Food Phreaking project) the bringing together of some of the ideas, ethics, values, and metaphors from the open source and open culture movements to food technology. [Right now], a lot of well funded food technology is following the privatized model. 

Soylent is interesting because even though we think it’s a ridiculous project, they do have the sort of open source community side, and they are trying to make an open platform. But from the prospective of nutrition and other things it follows these absurd, 1950s, pill food ideas.

CGG: A Scottish scientist we’ve been working with who studies phytochemicals and micronutrients, argues that we don’t know enough about what [humans] need to be healthy. There’s no way you could be so reductive with a product [like Soylent] and be healthy.

And even from her perspective, focussing on the nutrition, why would you want to [be so reductive]? I think that’s what a lot of people are reacting against: we don’t want just industrialized food.

CGG: The application of design and design thinking to food is actually super scary because it presumes that there is always a need for new “products” and tends to define innovation in terms of efficiency, fungibility and profit. Products and innovation aren’t in themselves bad things, but [design thinking in food] has actually kind of been a failure as practiced in the market. Some very interesting design thinking projects that were community oriented have more promise…

I think looking towards the future, code and disruptive design, and the tech industry in the Bay Area, are terrible metaphors for what we should be doing with food. We need metaphors that are much more interesting and appropriate to life than “disruptive innovation” , and I am not sure they exist yet. 

Biohacking’s an interesting [direction], but it’s maybe more interesting in Europe where there’s more consideration of how to combine it with tradition, or how to maintain it in a context that is political and not just profit maximizing.

Culinary Breeding Network

 IFTF: So, in that context of the ethos of an open source movement, are there specific technologies or even efforts that you’ve seen that really excite you or are interesting application of open source technology with food?

CGG: Open source seeds [have been in the news recently]. Plant scientists are concerned about the consolidation of seeds and the privatization of seeds. Their research is being affected by large companies patenting certain traits that they’ve been working with for twenty years. So, while it was a much more open system in the past, now it’s closing It is very fascinating because it brings up so many interesting legal questions and the [scientists] who are doing this have no financial weight [compared to the giant corporations], so basically if it did become a legal issue there would be no way of [funding their side].

The Culinary Breeding Network is a fascinating organization that we are hoping to learn more about. 

CGG: Two colleagues of ours that are doing really great work are: 

Hackteria (a DIY bio group run by Marc Dusseiller). They do a lot of workshops and pulling together methodologies and tools, and making inexpensive hardware and methods for DIY biology. There’s often a food element because that’s what brings people in. But what I think is really important about them is that they are really serious about the open source aspect of everything they do, and you already see a lot of DIY bio  communities becoming more proprietary and less open, so they are a counter example of that.

Daily Dump in Bangalore, India is more about dealing with food waste side. Poonam Bir Kasturi has [created] an open source business platform for at home processing of food scraps. It’s a really interesting model for an open source business. She started making a few of these local businesses, but [now anyone] can clone the whole business and [she] provides all the resources to do that.

CGG: There’s always a tension between fungibility and efficiency versus resilience, and I think that’s the problem that large organizations have in this space. It’s that they are thinking primarily in terms of efficiency and economies of scale, but when it comes to food and integrating back into sustainable services and ecosystems, we may not want that, we may actually want diversity, sovreignty and resiliency. It’s not an either / or, but efficiency still seems to be at the center of most policy and market conversations, and advocates of resilient de-centralized systems are mocked in the mainstream.

We may want plants that ARE’NT fungible, that we sort of have to keep near where they are grown that don’t make sense to export whether it be nationally or internationally, increasing local food sovereignty. So that’s a huge tension.

The Climate Cooperation is a really interesting company. In a way, it’s a shame that they were acquired by Monsanto because it casts a shadow and people are going to be skeptical now, and using the goal of efficiency, and armed with cheap code and cheap data, the costs could be so low that lots of different kinds of farmers could use it, not just intensive industrial farmer. These kinds of things could work at multiple scales, but they may not just because the money’s not there, but that maybe is the promise of digital technology. They can scale across everything from a one acre urban farm to 5,000 acres.  

Carl DiSalvo (with his GrowBot Garden) has been doing a lot of good research on how agricultural technology could be applied at different scales, not just industrial farming, but also urban farming or permaculture. For example, could we imagine agricultural products for permaculture? This goes back to my earlier point: there doesn’t have to be a separation between tech and nature. Something like robots for permaculture, what  would that look like? And that’s a way more interesting metaphor than the industrial metaphor or the reactionary response of robots don’t belong in farming.

GrowBot Garden 

S: I want to go back to the whole topic of groups like Monsonto casting a bad light on genetic modification and people’s fear of genetically modified food. What are you seeing in terms of a cultural shift in being more open to biohacking and will become accepted?

CGG: I don’t think there’s been a shift in Europe. In the US, there’s a lot less criticality. When things enter the supermarket, people seem ready to adopt these new technologies, which is cool—it’s one of the things I love about America, but Monsanto’s done such a bad job in conducting itself [and] in public relations, that even in the US, it’s going to be a long time before people are openly and actively desiring different kinds of transgenic organisms to be part of the food system.

S: Do you think that transparency or people’s personal experience and getting to do it themselves [is important]?

CGG: [There are techniques] for making these technologies more acceptable to the public, but I don’t think we presume that these technologies or techniques are good at a system-wide scale. There’s nothing about making corn more efficient that we believe is really helpful because that falls again into this industrial paradigm. All these biotech techniques are very exciting, if they are used for things that are desirable by individual human beings or communities. There’s nothing particularly interesting about making corn more efficient because it is again that top-down industrialized vision. What we dream about is how to use biotech to make something like a tomato that is more flavorful. Imagine if there was a breeding network devoted to using any breeding technique possible to make the most flavourful and untransportable tomatoes possible. How could you imagine having the most ridiculously over-engineered plant that could only exist in this one square mile, so that it couldn’t be exported, and it would just rot as soon as it left a very small micro-climate? To take it out of the fungible, industrial system. And those are very interesting provocations, but the problem is right now, all the metaphase and funding is coming from private industry, and even academic research is trying to solve problems, and maybe being too narrow with what we could dream of for these technologies.



S: Do you think that breeding for something like draught resistance is just not addressing the real problem? 

You want to improve and perfect crops for different situations, so it’s really just a question of what’s the situation we’re looking at? Are we actually talking about indigenous farming that was traditionally used as subsistence farming, but now the World Bank in the 70s started making them export? So there’s a lot of these political factors that are what actually make people upset—not the biology, but the politics and economics, but those things get conflated.

It’s interesting to think about, for example, regional cuisine and protected designation of origin foods in Europe. As climate change will shifts growing conditions, PDO plants will no longer grow [in their original locations]. Will people accept genetic modification as a way of continuing that tradition, or will that be completely unacceptable? I have a feeling, especially for something like a Bordeaux wine, it will be completely unacceptable. However, climate change may completley undermine the PDO system in Europe, which is grounded in the terroir of landscapes that go through changes from year to year, but are generally steady over longer time scales.

The Center’s Cobalt-60 Sauce

CGG: In our work, we do two things [that address this]: 

One is remain critical in all aspects of the work. We’re not necessarily trying to be advocates, we’re trying to be critics about the politics, economics and biology. For example, we’re [currently] looking at the history of mutation breeding, but really it’s a prompt for our audience to go deeper into their biological fears, and to understand biology more, and say, well what is the biological difference between transgenic technologies and mutagenic technologies? In some ways, the mutagenic might be much more immeasurable in terms of its downstream effects and consequences for human and plant health. However, [transgenic and mutagenic technologies have very] different political contexts. The mutation breeding programs were state-run, top-down, centralized, whereas biotech, as it’s practiced in the US, is largely profit-maximizing, corporate-driven research. Mutation breeding was utopian and modernist, using new radiation technology to save the world and feed people. That’s some of the same rhetoric you see with GMOS, but both of those haven’t been successful at their stated goals. So there’s this hype and fear cycle, and at the end of it, you’re left with a new suite of crops and a new political configuration. And that’s what always happens—these technologies will never end starvation. [Starvation] is a political problem, it’s not a biological or even agricultural problem. So I think that’s why people are so disturbed and upset, because they see how much hype there was in the 90s with GMOs, how poorly it was delivered, and then the companies saying, oh well it’s because you’re constraining us and putting more hurtles [in place]. But really, the whole conversation is moot, it’s not a biological [issue], it’s economic and political. So we’re trying to remain critical of this.

And then, since we actually serve food, we’re trying to give diners the opportunity to taste the future or to challenge themselves to put unusual things in their bodies, and that’s a very different commitment then what you see in Wired, CNN, or a lot of design fiction work, which is here’s this crazy thing and people don’t actually have to commit or remain critical because they just use their optics and not their physical or haptic ways of experiencing it. They see some crazy story on CNN about how steaks will be grown in the lab and we won’t have to kill animals, but they don’t have to actually deal with that process as it exists. When we do in vitro meat projects, like Art Meat Flesh, which is a cooking series where we cook fetal bovine calf serum, and say, hey folks, right now, this is where the state of the art is. Are you comfortable eating this? Some people are, and some people have left crying and throwing up.

Art Meat Flesh


S: What are the different types of activities that you do at the Center?

CGG: We do cookbooks, presentations, exhibitions, meals, lectures, and workshops. We’re a very small collective of artists so we’re very constrained by the funding that we can receive. We need to retain our critical voice, we don’t fall into the hype cycle of in vitro meat will save everything,” but we also shouldn’t ignore that cultural narrative because we think it’s just hype.

We have to look for interesting and unusual outlets like arts organizations, DIY bio people, universities, but so far we haven’t worked with anyone like Frito-Lay or Coca Cola. I think the conversation we have is to make provocations, but to also ground our research in biology and ecology and to not just have paper architecture, or design fiction, or speculative fiction, which is basically 3D renders or special effects. Sometimes we will use speculative techniques when it’s appropriate, but we also have this desire to source actually ingredients so we can see the food system as it exists, as we imagine the future. We want to work with the organisms and ingredients themselves where possible.  

S: So, in scenarios where you’re coming up with things that don’t yet exist, what’s your process for making that a visceral experience for someone?

CGG: They will often be really grounded in things that do exist- no future comes out of thin air.

With Mark Post, we made seven dishes, and one of them was asking, Mark, if you could fantasize about combing any tissue culture or cells, what would it be? He said, In the US, they have ‘surf and turf,’ so it would be really cool to grow lobster cells and beef cells and combine them into a new thing. So for that dinner in front of a live audience we cooked a live lobster, and cooked steak and put it in the blender with fetal bovine serum (FBS) and egg whites (the FBS was an amazing binder), and served it as a paté. So we were trying to communicate a few things: one, you can combine a few different cells in the lab and have this fantastical protein translation, but also that it’s going to be a mush. It’s not going to be a steak. So this idea of realist speculative gastronomy – they are actually eating this thing, they’re feeling the mushy flavor in their mouth, they’re getting the scent of iron. In this case it is a metaphor, it’s not actually meat grown in the lab, but it has a lot of the components and they also have to stomach it. We’re trying to create metaphors that don’t already exist in the dominant discourse around the future of food.

[Another] project is the Vegan Ortolan, where we took the cruelest meat dish we could find, and now have an ongoing cooking contest where people try to make a totally vegan version of it—[the chefs] have to make the bones, the liver, the head, the brain. So this is imagining, what if we didn’t have just fake sliced meat that was vegan? But actually recreate a whole animal? We’re actually talking about [this project] now as cultural exorcism. What people love about beasts is that there are many complex components, and that if we push that to its extreme, what does it look like? Political vegans don’t want fake meat, some vegetarians and less political vegans will have it, but what if we took this to an extreme that no one really wants? To recreate this really cool dish and exorcise these ghosts from the past of cruelty.

SG-ortolanAbove-700x698   Vegan ortolan feeding time
Vegan Ortolan

S: What did [Vegan Ortolan] look like? What’s its story?

CGGArtists play with a lot of symbols. [Vegan Ortolan] is a symbol of a lot of things: high french cuisine, the ultimate dish of decadence, maleness and male kitchen culture. It’s illegal to sell in the EU, but it’s still served in back rooms, and it was Mitterrand’s last meal.

[The Ortolan bird] is force-fed, it’s eyes are poked out, you keep it in a box, then it’s drowned in armagnac. Then it’s baked in the oven for twenty minutes and you’re supposed to eat it whole, so you have the beak, the bones, the guts, and the idea is that all these flavors swirl together in your mouth and it takes a good while to chew.

Z: I think what a truly delicious vegetarian or vegan cuisine requires is human labor. Instead of the [responsibility] being put on the animal to put this biomass on its body and have this real complexity, vegetarian and vegan cuisines will demand human attention and care. They won’t be able to be industrialized, though maybe some components might be industrialized, but what’s going to make [them] amazing are those last moments where herbs, spices, combinations of flavors and textures put together by a chef. The US is particularly unsuited for this. We have such a hard time now with labor and paying humans appropriately because of exploitation, so we try to get in efficiencies through machining or making things really industrialized in chain kitchens. Vegan Ortolan is the opposite of that.  It’s trying to take all these different aspects of an animal and the flavor profile, the crunchiness of the bones, the unctuousness of the flesh, the bitterness of the guts, the performance of it, that food should be an opportunity to celebrate or to tell a story. It’s really the anti-industrial food narrative, but wrapped up in this story that people are familiar with about cruelty to animals. 

[This project] creates a moment of dissonance, disgust and often dark humor, which is really important for us. People ask, Wait, what is their position? Why would you want to make a vegan thing about cruelty? That seems really weird or why do they have sheets over their heads? We want to deal with in vitro meat on its own terms sometimes, but also want to tell the story of the future of protein with totally different metaphors, and this is one of those metaphors. It’s not a normative one, so people actually have to stop, and think, or laugh, or be confused or process it. Whereas when you see a steak in a petri dish people are like, oh yeah, I get it, that’s the future.



Decadence For All, Lisbon Planetary Sculpture Supper Club

CGGWe have an essay that we wrote called, Decadence for All [about how] this idea of decadence, or joy, or excess shouldn’t only include images of meat and rich people. How do we actually create decadence and excess in ways that are pleasurable? And not just over-consuming potato chips and soda (though there’s something to be said for that). So the Vegan Ortolan is part of that research base: how do we actually create a vegan dish that’s decadent and uses older metaphors and almost turns them on their head? That’s one aspect of it. 

S: So would you say that one of your visions for the future of food would be decadence for all?

CGG: That would be a much better solution space than efficiency because it takes into account, beauty, and joy and pleasure and possibly sustainability (if it’s really for all), and inefficiency and resilience. Yes, I would rather see people making decadence and pleasurable food systems, than efficient. 

S: What are you most hopeful about and most fearful about for in our future of food system?

CAT: I’m most hopeful for increased biodiversity, seeing small movements concerned with food taking off and becoming more mainstream. The fact that food has blown up as a topic over the last few years is really amazing. 

Z: Culinary biodiversity, agricultural biodiversity. I’m most hopeful about the diversity of approaches and solutions and actors that are trying to solve interesting problems. Think tanks, corporations, chefs, farmers: the scale of people who are actively identifying food as a thing that needs lots of different voices is really exciting. I think I’m most scared of the Bay Area and tech entrepreneurs who don’t understand that food is not code. They have a lot to contribute, but until they that disruption has a downside, that could be a little bit scary. We’ll wait and see how it plays out. 

S: So, speculate on two scenarios: one is that people are going to have it be genetically modified and still be from that place, like the terroir is still the most important thing. Or [two], they would rather not have modification, so what would the alternative seal of quality or cultural legacy be on a product?

Z: There could be a biological seal where people look on the genetic level.

C: So you would almost have to sequence the DNA to [know what it is].

Z: PCR to mouth.

S: Is it possible to fake those bio markers?

CGG: Sure, that’s the sort of the design noir approach: what’s a sort of emerging technology and how do we use it?

One way you can distinguish between good food and not-so-good food is through taste. But [changes] happen slowly over time. For example, tomatoes becoming less and less flavorful over time. You don’t really notice it from one day to the next. But within a decade there’s a huge shift that’s happened.

This is where Europe is going to have a lot of problems. Their food culture is still rooted in conservatism, whereas the US is so much about innovation. I think actually the US (I go back and forth on what opportunities different geographies have) has a great opportunity to do adaptive bioregionalism. It’s not as set in its ways. If we see plants migrating north because of warming, like maple trees and maple syrup [for example], bioregionalism isn’t set in stone. It needs to be adaptive, and so much of the new EU laws around food are codified, whereas the US is willing to innovate. So that combination of innovating and trying new things and the entrepreneurial spirit with a sensitivity to ecosystems and regionalism is actually a great place for the US to be in, but it would mean that food systems would have to decentralize, and Portland (or the Pacific Northwest) is one of the few examples of food systems that are really starting to do that.


C: I wonder if less weight will be given to geography as these things shift and change. So, it may not be about a PDO (protected designation of origin), it might be a PDA (protected designation of atmosphere), where you’re looking at air quality and humidity and other elements of the environment as opposed to a physical geography. 

S: Dan Barbar is the Chef at Blue Hill in New York and he has a new book out called The Third Plate. [He writes] that if the first plate was the iconic American steak and potatoes (industrial farmed food), then the second plate would be a grass-fed beef with heirloom tomatoes and a farm to table movement, but dictated by the proportions and driven by high french cuisine ([yet still with] the whole American ethos of never being constrained and a total abundance)… [then] his vision for this third plate would be one that’s driven by the constraints. What would an actual American cuisine look like? A cuisine that is constricted by the actual resources available to us? So if farmers are having to grow heirloom tomatoes because that’s what chefs are demanding, then they’re also growing all these other things, like the beans they grow in between cycles to fix nitrogen into the fields, so that they can actually grow those tomatoes well. So, how can we embrace and actually support the full system? 

CGG: The cuisine of permaculture or adaptive bioregionalism. I think that’s great. I think what’s exciting about the US as well, is that it’s open to the new technologies and techniques of food. So if there’s an absolutely amazing, high performing ingredient like Beyond Eggs that you can then combine with some other thing, people here will do that. They’re not afraid of that kind of thing. And that’s great, but it has to be a choice, and it has to be pleasurable and desirable. It can’t just be like,  oh you should never eat eggs because they’re naughty, or this is much cheaper, go with it. It depends on the values and beliefs that you’re making these decisions based on, and if it’s about pleasure and joy, I’m all about combining the most crazy, industrial ingredient with a just-picked, wild herb. That’s the most exciting part! And those people are starting to talk to each other.

S: That’s a great metaphor to come away from here with, how can we be cultivating pleasure and joy in everything we do?

Now Serving Cobalt-60 Sauce…

December 31, 2014

Cobalt-60 Sauce is currently being exhibited (and is available to sample) at MU in Eindhoven as part of Matter of Life | Growing new Bio Art & Design

“Pigeons, fungi, human cells, finches and flowers are just some of the mediums of bioart and design. These emerging fields are the source of daring experiments and thoughtful reflections about how aspects of culture, such as our concepts of identity, nature and environment are changing.”

The exhibition and our piece were recently reviewed on the WMMNA blog.


Matter of Life, MU, Strijp-S, Eindhoven, the NEtherlandsImage courtesy of MU



LOCI Food Lab: Scotland Research

November 18, 2014

The Center is collaborating with chefs Ben Reade and Dave Crabtree-Logan (co-founders of The Scratch Series) for the next iteration of LOCI Food Lab in Edinburgh on November 25th. 

Ben recently arrived back in Scotland after a stint at Nordic Food Lab while Dave recently returned from working in the US. 

Ben and Dave spent last Saturday refamiliarizing themselves with some of the regions producers and exploring the market for the relevant local food items that will form the ingredients of our next LOCI menu. Here’s a few images from their research:






The LOCI Food Lab: Edinburgh project was one outcome of the Nil By Mouth talent development program, which invited four artists to explore food, farming, science and sustainability through a series of collaborative residencies and workshops. The project is set in the context of the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Program (SRP) and was designed and managed through a partnership between the Crichton Carbon Centre, Creative Scotland and Wide Open.  

LOCI Food Lab: PDX Summary

October 30, 2014

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The LOCI Food Lab (“Bite-sized Bioregionalism”) is a traveling food stand for prototyping, serving and debating a range of bioregional food futures in different cities around the world. Visitors to the lab identify the attributes of the food system that are important to them, and are served a customized snack, created for them from our menu of possible ingredients.

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In collaboration with Heather Julius we developed a final menu for Portland, Oregon (Cascadia) which contained a selection of old, new and unusual ingredients that were sourced from around the bioregion and would all taste good when combined in different configurations. 

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The way it works:

Visitors to the stand use a 1-hole punch to mark their preferred attributes on a menu card. These choices are translated into a selection of 9 possible ingredients that form a customized snack. While serving this snack, we have a conversation about their preferences, ideals and the flavor of the snack we served them.

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We ran an initial beta version at First Thursday in September. After receiving feedback from visitors, and directed critiques from a group of our peers (Carl Diehl, Ariana Jacob, Mack McFarland) we refined the LOCI concept and menu, with particularly vital feedback and iteration through our work with Heather Julius. Happy with the developments, we took the LOCI Food Lab to three locations in three days: 

– Last Thursday at Alberta Street Fair 

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 12.22.37 PM  

– Fourth Friday at the Portland Art Museum

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– Saturday Hollywood Farmer’s Market

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At these 3 events, we recorded the food system preferences of 225 people, and served many more. (Some visitors chose their preferences in pairs or groups, and were served the same dish).

The three locations were fairly similar in terms of preference and ordering, but there were some subtle differences:


The work has been supported by a RACC grant, and is currently en route to Scotland, where we will be conducting the next LOCI food lab at Scottish Parliament on November 25, 2014 as part of Nil By Mouth: Food, Farming, Science and Sustainability.

LOCI Food Lab Research: Urban Foraging

September 23, 2014

The Center went on an urban foraging tour with Becky Lerner last week. In just a few blocks around Alberta Street in Northeast Portland, we tasted over a dozen edible plants growing freely in alleys and along the street. Here’s a few tasty (and some less tasty) varieties we found:


We immediately came across an apple tree with lots of fresh fruit. Becky informed us that her general rule is; if it hangs over into public areas, you can forage from the public side. 


Western Red Cedar: edible needles, often used medicinally.


(left to right, up to down)
Sweet Asylum: part of the mustard family, edible flowers and leaves
Mustard Seeds: edible seeds
Rose: edible flowers
Yucca: edible flower petals
Mallow: edible plant
Mallow ‘cheesewheel’ fruit: part of the mallow plant – tastes like a tiny squash


(left to right, up to down)
Hazelnut Tree: Edible nuts and common in Oregon
Hops: Flower is edible. Used as stability agent and flavoring in beer.
Hens and Chicks: edible leaves
Lamb’s Ear: edible leaves
Mimosa Tree: edible flowers and bark (medicinal – blood circulation)
Mimosa Flower: sweet tasting, wilts quickly. We would love to use this as an ingredient, but it appeared as if it would last less than 5 minutes from plucking to plate. Maybe if there was an outdoor restaurant with a Mimosa tree in the courtyard?


(left to right, up to down)
Black Elderberry: edible berries and flowers
Lemon Balm: edible leaves
Figs: edible fruit
Live-Forever: edible leaves
Hawthorn: Fruits and leaves are edible
Kousa Dogwood: edible fruit – when ripe, these spiky red lollipops are sweet like mangoes! They are currently all over Portland.


Here is an example of where we walked. In a small alleyway just off of Alberta, Becky showed us at least four different edibles sprouting up as weeds all over the place.


Happy foragers around the yucca plant at the end of the tour. Thanks to Heather K. Julius for arranging it for us, and Becky Lerner for sharing all of her knowledge.

LOCI Food Lab v. 1.0 [Portland, OR]

September 10, 2014


For the very first deployment of the LOCI food lab, we set up at the First Thursday street side event in Portland, Oregon. It was very exciting to feed about 100 people in the space of 2.5 hours. The majority of our eaters seemed to be intrigued that they were being fed by artists, and were very interested that their own bite-sized bioregionalism was being “plated” in front of them. With 6 components, the plating was a performance similar to what you see at a Chaat stand in India, one of our main sources of inspiration for this project. In future iterations I would like to continue to play up the performance of plating, both because it communicates a generosity and attention to detail that we think the future of food needs more of, but also because it speaks to the goal of “bioregional food research in public and in the street,” or as it has also been termed “NOMA for the people”.


At least 1/3 of the visitors to the stand were not from Portland arriving from Massachusetts, Florida and South Africa. Only one visitor did not like the flavor of the food, the majority smiled and said they enjoyed the experience, and about 25% of visitors seemed truly moved by a novel flavor experience.


A few visitors gave suggestions for other possible bioregional or seasonal ingredients including: blackberries, hops and chanterelle mushrooms. For a first round of research and experimentation, we were happy with the ingredients and the overall dish, but I think we want to continue to push ourselves beyond the ingredients and flavors that are already ubiquitous in “Pacific Northwest Cuisine”. This is easier said than done, because seasonal and bioregional eating, and real time culinary research are already pretty well represented in Portland. As we take this project to other geographies and food cultures, it is likely that we will need to leave more time for research and experimentation. 

LociMenuFRONT-01           LociMenuBACK-02


A framework for investigating the past, present and future of bioregional cuisine, and sharing these discoveries with a large audience at street level.

What is bioregionalism?
“Bioregionalism is a political, cultural, and ecological system or set of views based on naturally defined areas called bioregions, similar to ecoregions. Bioregions are defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, and emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions.” (Wikipedia)

Loci Food Lab Research: Urban Farm Tour

September 4, 2014

Last weekend in Portland, Oregon, we went on a farm tour as research for our upcoming project Loci Food Lab. We were told about the event and attended it with Heather Julius, our long time collaborator. 

During the tour we visited four sites ranging in size from 1/4 acre to 58 acres. In preparation for Loci Food Lab, we are exploring bioregional ingredients in the Willamette Valley and the Pacific Northwest of the US, but also asking the question – what is bioregional? We will post more on that later, but for now, here is a summary of our field trip.



The first stop we made was Grow Portland‘s Neighborhoods Community Garden at 835 SE 162nd Ave. Some of the space was sub-divided into allotments that individuals can rent on an annual basis, while the area we visited was a community farm managed by our host Christopher. With a focus on food security, the farm had a goal of growing bulk storage crops that can be stored and eaten well after the end of the growing season. Storage crops are difficult for individual families to grow on smaller plots.


This project’s primary focus was food justice and community engagement, and it was experimenting with strategies to share the harvest. In addition to purchasing the harvest, there was a work/trade system in place where people could earn $10 worth of food for one hour of labor.  


One of the communities that Christopher grows with is a refugee population from Bhutan, who were forced out of Bhutan after the government instigated an ethnic cleansing. On the farm, they have requested to grow Daikon radishes, which they eat fermented. We purchased some at the farm for our test kitchen. Daikon radishes are crispy and delicious, and may serve as an ingredient in the loci food lab, representing the shifting agricultural trends of regions as populations of people travel across the globe and share their food cultures, of which American cuisine is a true testament to. Daikon radish is also useful for soil remediation due to it’s ability to de-compact the soil it is growing in.



The Side Yard, founded by chef Stacey Givens, was our second stop on the tour. On just a 1/4 acre this urban farm grows hyper-local specialty crops for a handful of Portland restaurants. From edible flowers and micro veg to unusual varieties of herbs, The Side Yard has carved out a niche for itself in the Portland food scene. It seemed the community here was one of chefs and foodies concerned with sustainability and growing local, not only for ethical reasons, but also for novel flavor experiences.


The Side Yard currently has 2 locations with a third opening in 2015. An interesting model of urban growing where space is at a premium. It makes sense to have a distributed network of smaller spaces rather than a single centralized space.  

Farm2_4 Farm2_3

When urban farming first became a fashionable contender in discussions about future food systems, one of the limitations I noticed in the utopian projects that I visited was that they grow basil really well, but weren’t about to provide all the nutritional sustenance for a community of any scale. However, as Bliss, the tour leader emphasized, sustainable farming practices should follow many models and be an “and also” equation, not an “either, or”. It’s important to encourage and support many approaches we observed on the tour, as they complement each other and in their diversity they fulfill different needs within the food system.



Our Table was the third stop on the tour, and the closest thing to what you might imagine as a traditional farm. This farm is 12 acres and is a coop with a farm to plate mission. We were given a tour by the founder Narendra Varma who also explained in detail the philosophy behind the project. It was very idealistic, but also pragmatic, and very exciting to see such a well-managed experiment with an articulate leader. He explained how Our Table is building a model community food network, and as a cooperative they are trying to directly engage with the whole system from production, processing, aggregation to retail. 


They distribute their crop to Portland through their CSA, which is designed to cater for single people, or urban couples who don’t always eat at home. They were also in the process of building a retail outlet on the farm, and offer u-pick for their blueberries and flowers.


The farm is located just outside of Portland’s urban growth boundary. The land was purchased by Narendra’s family and became a land trust under a not-for-profit entity that rents the land to the Our Table Co-op. He was very supportive of renting farmland as a model, because often young farmers can’t afford expensive farm land, and a rental model makes more sense financially. He even suggested that cooperatively people could get together and purchase large areas of land at the urban growth boundary and lease it all to young farmers. The ambition for this model to scale and be adopted by others was apparent. Our Table is pioneering building a new food system in a very experimental, yet professional and pragmatic way, and I’m excited to see how it will evolve and inspire others over time.



The last site we visited was the Learning Garden’s Laboratory in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood SE Portland. These 12 acres belongs to parks and rec, and a number of organizations seems to collaborate in running the site. On our tour we were told about three of the programs currently active on the site. 

First, the Lane Family Gardens were allotments for families and guardians of lane middle school students, designed to support this largely working class and very diverse community. The second program was garden-based education for lane middle schoolers. The students learn science, social studies and sustainability in the garden, and the classes are taught by graduate students of the Leadership for Sustainability Education course at PSU. 


The third program was BUFA (Beginning Urban Farming Apprenticeship Program) run by instructors from OSU and Multnomah County. This sounded like an exciting program, where students were taught practical sustainable farming techniques and business development, enabling graduates to start a CSA or participate in any other farm or food-related small business. 


When given 30 minutes to explore the site, we also visited the Orchard and the OSU Master Gardener Demonstration Garden.

It’s exciting to be conducting this research in Portland, where food experiments and initiatives are so plentiful and prevalent. What we observed on this tour was just a small sliver of what’s going on in the city and along it’s perimeter. It’s an inspiring starting point for our Loci Food Lab tour. Next stop: eastern Scotland in the late autumn.

Culinary Forensics Lab: Aalto Biofilia

May 15, 2014


As part of Aalto University’s Dinner’s Ready programming, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy was invited to host a 2-day lab at Aalto Biofilia. We ran three Culinary Forensics labs:

      • Honey Analysis
      • DNA Fingerprinting  
      • Who Wants to be a Parts Per Millionaire (Gluten Testing). 












* * * * * * * * * * * * 

“As a student of bioinformation technology, I was somewhat familiar with lab work already before the workshop. This, however, certainly did not lead to boredom, thanks to the relaxed atmosphere, learning by doing, passionate discussions, new methods and equipment, and altogether the versatile approaches to studying food.

I was actually quite inspired by the somewhat simple idea of the three approaches to studying food: labeling, scientific and tasting. Through labeling, the social and economic aspects somehow visualize. I like the idea of accessible science – that not all science is rocket science – because these things are way too important to be left only for scientists. And last but not least: tasting different honeys before investigating them with chemistry and a microscope made it all so much more fascinating.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

“The scientific and biological point of view of things as explained through participation in real life experiments was indeed really fruitful in the learning process. To be honest, being a chemical engineer I didn’t come across so many useful experimental techniques under one roof and that too put in such a delicate use. In fact I learnt PCR in real life which I never did before and which was completely out of my imagination of course when I signed and I am very happy about. I truly believe that skipping my other lectures and labs for this Biofilia course was indeed rewarding to me.

Also the slides and the topic discussion was very interesting, I was not asleep the whole time and actually learnt quite a deal from it and started to ask many questions like Taste matter?? Why??? What do GMO actually taste like ? no one knows, but I never thought like this before. What if GMO is actually threat and what if it’s the quick solution to natural disaster hit areas. For me the idea of super food is really amazing and having a lateral thinking in this field is of great use. The part of using microscopes in evaluating if the honey was made of pollens or multiple pollens was pretty amazing and the shapes and pictures of real pollens under microscope looked really beautiful.” 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

“By tasting the honey first we were able to have a really multi-sensual experience of this magical liquid. It is quite often the case that there many types of honey on the supermarket shelves, but we consumers have no real understanding about where or how it has come to be there. The exchange we have with the ‘free labour’ bees is minimal. We have no idea about their welfare, the pollen content or true extent to which the hive has had to be substituted with sugar syrups for us to enjoy their treasure. Honey is fantastic and more than ever I want to embark on a mission to try and understand the world of the honey bee.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

“When I entered the Biofilia lab for the first time, I admit that I secretly expected that everything would be just as easy and smooth as the acacia honey we tasted – I kind of wanted to see the lab, its tools and all the tests as perfectly designed mechanisms that would give us just the right answers. This being said, it is also probably the main reason why I think that getting no results from the GMO tests was one of the most interesting and important things for me: realizing the uncertainty of all that phasing and accuracy of measuring was maybe even more valuable than just getting straightforward answers from that blue, slightly surreal piece of gel.

Failure after such a complex and intricate process is not really unexpected in science, but there is something surprising in the way how the things we choose to do (and not do) and tools we choose to use (and not use) affect everything, not just the final result or product – in all that scientific accuracy it is still about our choices, preferences and natural curiosity.”

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Thanks to Ulla Taipale, Marika Hellman and Oron Catts for helping it all come together.

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