At the recently opened FoodInk pop-up in London, the furniture, utensils, and food are all 3-D-printed. But are puréed ingredients extruded through a syringe really the future of cooking?
"Taylor Swift is also a form of artificial intelligence, you know."
No, this isn't the latest development in the Tay Tay-Kimye saga. I'm talking to Antony Dobrzensky, co-founder of the latest restaurant to open in London's Shoreditch. A queue has already formed outside the doors, which are due to open in five minutes, and he and another member of staff are trying to decide whether to put on a playlist or resort to ironically pumping "Shake It Off."
So far, so typical East London restaurant opening.
But FoodInk is different. All of the ingredients in the dishes here have been blitzed to a pulp before being extruded through a syringe onto plates. Sounds like some weird Soylent pop-up but all the food in this restaurant—including the utensils and furniture—is 3-D-printed.
"The best way to describe it is that mechanically, it's the same principle as a pastry chef using a pastry bag to ice cakes. Puréed ingredients are extruded and vertically stacked into the three-dimensional molds from digital files," explains Dobrzensky. "In this case, the bag is squeezed and guided by the robotic arm of the 3-D printer with a level of precision that's beyond what a human can do."
I'm told that the machine in front of me is making olive "caviar" and watch as spherical balls drop from something that looks like a needle into a solution which makes them solidify. The balls are scooped out after a few minutes and placed in a petri dish.
Dobrzensky adds: "And more importantly, it [the printing process] can be automated so it can be replicated for greater efficiency."
Logistics out of the way (just before my eyes start to glaze over and my thoughts turn to iced cakes), I want to know if the food at FoodInk is any good. But before I have the chance to ask, Dobrzensky jumps the gun.
"I'm going to answer what you're going to ask next," he says. I haven't even had chance to draw breath.
"I knew intuitively that it would be easy for a lot of people—people who love food—to be skeptical of this," Dobrzensky continues. "I only wanted to do this project if the food could be outstanding and I don't want to substitute chefs. I wanted to work with them to see how we could work with the technology to bring out the best in each other."
Dobrzensky picked his collaborators wisely. I'm not sure Nigella would be so keen.
"In the beginning, we did have doubts about the technology," Castanye tells me. "But since trying it out and proving that we can make great food, we love using it and even combine it with the menu in the restaurant."
Meanwhile, the olive caviar is being served to a group of people huddled around the printer. Weirdly, the food is placed on the top of their hands to eat from. I hold out my hand obligingly—it's all part of the experience, right?
Castanye continues: "We use the same ingredients but just served in a different way."
As the caviar balls pop in my mouth, true to the chefs' promise, they pack a salty, olive-flavoured punch.
And that's another thing that Dobrzensky ticks off my list of questions before I can get the words out—the ingredients.
"I knew people would be critical when they see the food coming out of a machine but, no matter how healthy you think you are, the majority of food now comes out of a machine with chemicals," he says. "But this food is made from all-natural ingredients and is more healthy and nutritious than food in other restaurants."
I'm all ears.
"We make a paste of naturally medicinal plant, flowers, and herbs from the hills outside Barcelona—very potent and very healthy—and combine that with the other ingredients in the 'cartridge,'" Dobrzensky explains. "You can make things as vitamin-enriched as you want."
So, 3-D-printed food is basically a clean eater's green juice on crack.
Other ingredients are also added to give the printed food its density.
For now, 3-D food printers are largely the reserve of high-end dining (could explain all the faux-caviar) but Dobrzensky believes that within as little as two years, everyone will be casually printing out spag Bols for weeknight dinners.
If the makeshift foams and "artistic" sauce smears that have filtered their way down from Michelin-starred kitchens into the homes of Come Dine With Me contestants are anything to go by, he might be right.
"You'll buy fresh ingredients at the supermarket—or even a ready-made pack from FoodInk—download a recipe file, and pop it in the printer. Food is what is going to make this technology mainstream," says Dobrzensky with an exuberant smile.
I can't help but hear the dystopian "Soylent Green is people" screams in my head.
Dobrzensky continues: "It's multi-generational. 3-D printed foods can help older people who have trouble swallowing. And if kids don't like vegetables, you can print them out so they look like candy or their favourite cartoon character."
The inner Charlie Bucket in me is fascinated by the sound of this Willy Wonka-esque factory of food. But I can't help thinking that there's something inherently wrong in not letting children appreciate a carrot for what it really is.
Another gripe I have is about FoodInk's 3-D-printed caviar is its texture and smell. For all Dobrzensky talks about the visual elements and flavour of foods, he hasn't mentioned these other two sensory elements thus far.
It's where the whole concept stumbles a little.
"We care a lot about making this a multi-sensory experience and we use essential oils like rose and peppermint," Dobrzensky says. "We can add ingredients [like the aforementioned alginate] so that they are printed with a texture and for the restaurant, we've included non-printed food in dishes for contrasting textures."
Personally, I don't think I'll be printing my addictively chewy sourdough or ragù with a heady aroma of tomatoes and red wine anytime soon.
Dobrzensky enthuses throughout our conversation that 3-D-printed food will empower its users, from downloading and personalising recipe files to making a fridge forage even easier ("Whatever you have in your fridge, just chop everything up and the printer creates the structure of the dish for you.")
But as more studies, anecdotal evidence, and therapies find links between mental wellbeing and cooking, I wonder what could be lost when "You've got mail" becomes "You've got meal." Dobrzensky's words, not mine.
Stirring a risotto in my own kitchen later that night, I remember Dobrzensky describing the efficiency of the automated extruders on the FoodInk printers: "The chef doesn't have to stand there with his poor tired arm all day!"
3-D printing is an exciting move for the food and technology world, and it's got potential. Let me know when you can 3-D-print a proper pizza but until then, I'll be clinging to my wooden spoon a little tighter.