Our relationship with food has become a status symbol, sold to us by celebrities, celebrity chefs, and the 24-hour food entertainment industry. One Dutch design studio wants us to enjoy our food in a more personal way.
Not knowing what to eat, while having so much to eat, is high on a list of First World problems. There are some days when you would not mind eating something that you like, but opt to eat something else, because you are bored of eating the same thing. The same could be said for that restaurant that you like. Maybe tonight you choose a new restaurant so that you do not get sick of the old one. It is not that we are disloyal to our favourite foods or restaurants, but sometimes we just want to eat something new, with a new experience.
What began as a hobby in 2012, before turning into a professional studio in 2015, Creative Chef has been designing new ways for people to experience food. In the last 20 years, interest in food as an experience became mainstream. There used to be the odd cooking show with actual chefs watched by a niche set of viewers who had strong opinions about food. Now, there are many television networks devoted to cooking, with non-stop food entertainment. Things have gotten to the point where footballers, rappers, actresses, and anybody not known for their cooking skills, are showing us how to cook. Many celebrities have published their own cookbooks, and some like Gwyneth Paltrow, have published more than one. Food, which for most of human existence was a matter of survival, domestic, and cultural interest, and would later become a commercial interest in the age of mass production and consumption, is fully part of the entertainment industry of the 21st century.
Do people really value and enjoy food that much, or is it just that food has been intertwined with celebrity culture, mainstream entertainment, foodie Instagram profiles, and YouTube chefs?
“Food is everywhere in Western society and it has turned into a commodity product,” observes Jasper Udink ten Cate, founder of Creative Chef. “It became a lifestyle product. A way to communicate your identity.”
It is not just that ‘you are what you eat’, it is ‘who you are is what you eat.’ For example, anyone who has been to urbanism conferences or events about the future of cities in the last few years may have heard the word “kale” inserted into certain discourses. Saying that someone eats kale has become a shorthand for a ‘wealthy urbanite who is politically progressive, who does not own a car and rides a bicycle around town.’ The insertion into a conversation of one item in a diet can be used to make broad generalisations about who people are, what their status is, and even what they think in terms of politics. Food is no longer this niche interest that we all share, it has taken an elevated position within the culture, and can be used to signify where people stand within larger debates.
“Food has taken the same place as music, fashion, culture and even religion,” opines Udink ten Cate. “The food we eat has a strong relationship with price, marketing and industry. There is less room for local and small-scale food. Fortunately, we are slowly going back to authentic foods, with more sustainable ways of eating and growing.”
If people are excited about food as entertainment, how come that has not translated domestically? Why are people not excited about eating food at home, together? Many families in the UK rarely sit down to have dinner together, and this is probably true in many other countries. Our phones are part of the cutlery now, used for exercising the eyes and fingers between chewing and swallowing. Udink ten Cate has observed a backlash against this.
“What I see in Europe is that there is a movement towards valuing the moment of eating much more then 10 years ago, but on the other hand our meals have become shorter. Through food, people are searching for more connection with each other. The connection they miss out on during the week when they are on their phones.”
How do we get people to untether themselves from their devices, step back from seeing food as entertainment, and simply enjoy food for what it is? If running for a healthier body can go from something that people feel compelled to do by a doctor, into something that people are excited to do because they personally like how it makes them feel, then the same change of perception is possible for eating.
“For me, food is my artistic language,” says Udink ten Cate, whose studio consists of an art assistant, a production assistant, and a team of freelancers. “Food has a lot of power because it is connected with loads and loads of stories. Stories of our past, our present, and our future. It has the power to become a starting point of a story for people. It is a moment that matters in life. And for me as an artist, it has the potential to be a stage for stories that I would like to tell.”
As a chef and designer, Udink ten Cate looks for unique ways that he can serve food to people so that the experience of the meal goes beyond eating. His meals are food for the mind and soul, as much as they are nourishment for the body. For him, a well-designed meal is about the story.
“In restaurants, and even 3-starred Michelin restaurants, the chef creates a story that he is very successful, brilliant in cooking, and hard working,” Udink ten Cate says. “In other words, the story that is told is the story of the chef and the restaurant.” There used to be a handful of celebrity chefs, now there are too many to name. In a way that is good, because as Udink ten Cate sees it, the status of the celebrity as the reason that you should enjoy a meal should irrelevant.
“A well-designed meal is about the stage it creates for the guest. That stage can be about the questions it raises, or the interaction it evokes so you connect with other people. It is not about good food and the hero status of the chef.”
The inspiration for some of his mixing of food and design came to him while on vacation in San Sebastian in Spain while Creative Chef was still a hobby. There, he went into a restaurant and they greeted him as if they had always known him. After the meal, they invited him into the kitchen and he told them how the experience had inspired him. “They showed interest in me and made me the focus of their work. That was the only time in my life that I had a really mind-blowing food experience.”
Udink ten Cate then used what he felt in Spain to develop his own special food experience for guests, called the Deep Dinner Concept. He made a meal for two people and found a way to create stories within the meal specifically for them. One portion of the meal was served in a book. When the guests opened the book, a void was cut out of the pages and that is where the food had been placed. As each guest ate to the bottom, a message, which was part of the overall narrative was displayed. In one book, the message was: Kiss slowly, laugh insanely, live truly, and forgive yourself. “I do research and investigate who my guests are and then create memories they will never forget,” explains Udink ten Cate. Guests can personalise their dinner experience by giving him that information, which allows him to cook something up, and serve it back to them.
In his meals, there is always something that tricks the eyes. For the Taste the Dutch Masters project that he exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as in London, Paris, Berlin, Muscat, Milan, Venice, and Beijing, he accurately represented a famous painting from 1612 with actual fruit and cheese. “When people saw it, they believed that it was a real painting. When they got closer, they found out that the food was real. And that is the moment it becomes their story.” The fruits and vegetables that he used were grown from old seeds kept at the University of Wageningen, giving the food an ancient look that fooled visitors to the museum.
In May of 2019, at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York, Creative Chef Studio exhibited the Composition Table, a collection of products which could have wide appeal for families looking to reinvigorate their domestic dining experience. A table was set, with plates, cutlery, glasses, and napkins, all on a tablecloth. As music began to play, onlookers searched for the source, as Udink ten Cate hovered nearby with his phone. Naturally, they searched for a radio, at his phone, or any device that might contain a speaker. The reason no device could be found was because the sound was coming from the tableware.
“In product design, as in life, there is a strong tendency to follow acquired patterns,” says Udink ten Cate. “Learned behaviour is repeated ad infinitum.” Asking questions allows us to rethink experiences that are familiar. The viewers of the Composition Table kept looking for a device playing music, but what Creative Chef shows is that there is a broad range of products that can be used to play music. Eating at home together with the family can become an event worth experiencing again.
“Creative Chef examined the possibilities of utilising the wonderful shapes of sound vibrations for product design. Instead of sitting down and drawing, we started recording and exploring the phenomenal world of sound and vibration. We wrote our own music and captured the physical data. This data was used for the visual designs of our new tableware series from tablecloths to cutlery and napkins to glasses.”
With the help of a Dutch tech company called Superp, Creative Chef Studio inserts digital content to analog products. Through Superp’s proprietary AI system and Creative Chef’s imagination, the Composition Table creates another unique experience of food. Each product on the table is activated by an app that creates a unique sound, and together it is like a musical composition, where the people eating the meal are composing their own music. “Through the existence of the table you are given an opportunity: to explore the sounds behind the objects, engage the AI system by scanning the tableware, and to re-view learned patterns in design+food.”
For Udink ten Cate, the mixing of food and design is his way of strengthening connections between people. He finds ways for people to really care about food, outside of the superficial celebrity-based or status oriented culture, but through a personal connection with food and the activity of enjoying a pleasant meal with people you care about.
“For me there are no boxes. I really like to cook, invent, create, make music, make ceramics, tell stories, etc… But these subjects all come together in one brand, Creative Chef Studio. Food is always the language and the starting point of my projects.”
Words Phil Roberts