Data Cuisine: You Eat What You Are

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Consider dining on a plate of fish that represents a city’s immigrant population. Or a personalized shrimp cocktail based on how many Facebook friends you have, and how many of them are smiling in their profile picture. Welcome to Data Cuisine, where facts and figures find their way onto your plate.

Data Cuisine is the brainchild of Susanne Jaschko and Moritz Stefaner. Jaschko is the founder of prozessagenten, an organization that collaborates with artists and designers to change the way we see the spaces in which we live and work. Stefaner is a data visualization expert, and a “Truth & Beauty Operator”.

Data Cuisine Barcelona Workshop | Requiem for Science

Data Cuisine’s workshops are an attempt to represent data using local food by focusing on color, texture, smell, taste and place of origin. Local chefs star at the workshops, but the idea is to make designing and preparing the dishes a collaborative experience. At the end of each workshop, a local data menu is created and publicly tasted.

Never before have such cold, hard facts seemed so warm and inviting. Not to mention delicious.

Paste: What inspired prozessagenten to work with food as a means of conveying information?

Susanne: Food is a rich medium for expression. It is sensual and tangible, we can perceive it with all our senses and it creates an intense experience when consuming it. We have a personal and emotional relation to food: we very much like and dislike some food, we associate certain people and moments in our life with a particular dish. Hence eating and cooking is a social and multi-perceptual experience, while data is often said to be abstract and ‘dry’, unemotional, non-tangible and non-sensual. This dialectics is the starting point of Data Cuisine. By transferring data into the medium food, by representing it with dishes, we can overcome those qualities of data and take advantage of the qualities of food.

Paste: With taste being such a personal, acquired thing, is there a risk that there are too many variable for data presentation?

Moritz: Food indeed provides a very rich palette to work with. You can ‘paint’ with food and then we have all kinds of sculptural 3D possibilities. We can work with taste – from the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami to complex combinations or hotness. There is texture – immensely important in cooking! Then we have all the cultural connotations of ingredients and dishes (think of potatoes or caviar for example). We can work with cooking parameters (e.g. baking temperature or duration). Or the temperature of the dish itself, when served! And all the little decision that go into plating and food presentation. The possibilities are endless.

Susanne: Actually there are so many possibilities to explore at both ends, the data and the food, that most participants end up doing something relatively simple, because they are overwhelmed by the complexity. A translation of data into a visual edible diagram is relatively easy, but that’s not what we are striking for, but for creations that work and communicate on both levels, visually and as regards taste.

Data Cuisine Barcelona Workshop | Emigration Fish

Paste: How do things like spice tolerances, cilantro sensitivity, and personal preference affect the dishes and the data they represent?

Susanne: So far, sensitivities to food or intolerances have not been an issue in our workshops. We can see that the choice of dishes is very often a personal one and guided by taste preferences. Regarding the data, we ask the participants to work with local data, ideally open data, and most workshop participants tend to pick data that reveal environmental, social and economic problems that they are concerned of or directly affected by. This is not really surprising as we encourage people to pick a topic that they feel close to, that motivates them to work on, and to turn it into some kind of food experience.

Paste: You’ve done two Data Cuisine workshops so far, one in Helsinki and one in Barcelona. Was there a difference in the way the Spanish participants approached Data Cuisine from the Finnish ones?

Susanne: In Helsinki less of the dishes were local, maybe also due the fact that a lot of Helsinki workshop participants were either immigrants or just visiting. I remember that Moritz and I were wondering what constitutes Finnish cuisine before we had our first meeting with Antti Nurka, the Finnish chef. And it was particularly interesting to see how the shortage of vegetables that grow in Finland and the variety of local mushrooms, berries and fish influence the Finnish menu. But other than that, I couldn’t discover much difference in the general approach of the participants, maybe because the people who join the workshop are usually food-aficionados.

Paste: How much do cultural foodways influence the presentation of data?

Moritz: Well, first of all, the data and the food should relate to the place where the workshop happens – we like to “ground” the dishes by turning local data into local food.

Susanne: The involved cooks bring the real cooking expertise to the table and advice on local cooking techniques, ingredients and their different uses in different cuisines and cultures. Usually our participants quickly develop ideas what they want to do and which dishes they want to create, and then it’s the chefs who push them to open up their mind, to explore something new and unusual, such as trying out other techniques or ingredients.

Paste:What’s your favorite dish to come out of a Data Cuisine workshop?

Susanne: It’s very difficult to name single dishes, since they are all memorable and interesting. I really like all ideas, but if you insist I would name the Emigration Fish from the Barcelona workshop and the Twisted Lasagne from the Helsinki workshop.

The lasagne represents the ethnic mix in Finland with a spice gradient from 1990 on one side of the lasagne to 2011 on the other side of the lasagne. One can basically taste how immigration spiced up Finland. The Emigration Fish shows the other side of the story: The specially prepared gilthead represents the emigration of young people from Spain. One side of the fried fish represents Spain, all in red and yellow, while the second half shows where Spanish people emigrate. Each piece represents in size the amount of Spanish immigrants to the six most favoured countries, and is prepared in a way that’s typical for the respective country: battered fish for the UK, with a wine sauce á la Française for France, cooked in beer and parsley for Germany. The US fish is fried in bacon fat, while the Ecuadorian fish is prepared as a ceviche. In your mind, tasting each fish preparation really takes you to that country.

Data Cuisine Helsinki Workshop | Spiced Foreigners Between Pasta

Paste: Are there future data cuisine workshops on the horizon?

Moritz: We aim for a few more editions of the workshop, in order to continue to explore the medium. There is nothing concrete at this point, but we are in conversation with a number of places and organisations. We might also vary the format in the future – one format we were considering is a high-end ‘data dinner’, which would put less emphasis on the collaborative workshop process, but more the final result and dining experience. We would like to include more new approaches and technological advances in the cooking since this field is truly inspirational.

Susanne: It would be fantastic if people would be inspired by what we do to explore Data Cuisine at home and to share their creations with us. We set up a blog and a Facebook site that could potentially become public forums to exchange knowledge and experiences.

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