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Prototypes in the kitchen as a shortcut to gastronomical innovation

Article Experiences from the innovation kitchen Nordic Food Lab show that prototyping methods known from the field of design can be greatly beneficial to chefs and other culinary craftsmen as a systematic tool in the development of new food.

“When you think with your hands and your palate, and not only your brain, food innovation moves faster and steadier ahead.”

This is the conclusion drawn by Michael Bom Frøst. He was in charge of Nordic Food Lab from 2012 until the closing in 2018. Bom Frøst is affiliated with Taste for Life and he is an associate professor in sensory science at the University of Copenhagen. Based on his collaboration with chefs through the past 10 years, he recently published a scientific article about his experiences with gastronomical innovation.

Michael Bom Frøst emphasizes the fact that the use of prototypes, as known from the designer’s workshop or studio, has proved to be far more effective when conducting research in a gastrolaboratorium compared to the more prevalent scientific experiments, as known from scientific labs.

Prototypes embrace both the fast and the protracted process

Nordic Food Lab was an innovation kitchen examining and doing research about food diversity and tastiness with the aim of contributing to the development of Nordic gastronomy. A team of chefs and scientists worked in the intersection between chefs’ craftsmanship and scientific research.

The heart of Nordic Food Lab was a hybrid between a kitchen and a lab – called a gastrolaboratorium – in which thorough examination of new ingredients and cooking methods with a focus on taste was made possible.

Working with prototypes with the aim of screening different versions of an experiment is inspired by design thinking. The method has, according to Michael Bom Frøst, proved to be extremely useful in innovative processes in interdisciplinary, gastronomical development. The method embraces the two different time scales that chefs and scientists normally comply with. The chefs’ work procedures are fast, and chefs quickly become impatient. On the other hand, the scientists’ methods are slow, and their goals are long-term, as Michael Frøst puts it.

”In the kitchen lab we learned to understand prototypes as stepping stones in the development of ideas. Prototypes do not need to be perfect, but they need to be systematic and to be able to push forward the idea to the next step. Using prototypes, the chefs and scientists at Nordic Food Lab together succeeded in creating new ideas, products and techniques to examine and develop new food and taste,” Michael Bom Frøst explains.

As an example, Michael Bom Frøst mentions the development of vinegar. They found faster methods to complete the fermentation, in which parts of the ordinary production of vinegar were skipped, but where the method could still be used to evaluate several different versions of the vinegar.

Work systematically with taste and sensory science

Based on the experiences from Nordic Food Lab, Michael Bom Frøst recommends that chefs and scientists use creative design methods when they want to be cooperative and innovative.

The methods can integrate the chefs’ customs and the scientists’ methods and simultaneously create a space in which it is possible to think both with the hands and the brain. However, it is crucial that working with taste and sensory science is done in a systematic way.

“The sensory scientists have developed a number of methods which, with a few adjustments, can be used by chefs and scientists in a test kitchen facility. For instance, ‘projective mapping’ can be used to quickly describe what effects the cooking method has on the taste of the food. Innovation is increased when chefs and other food professionals work systematically with optimizing e.g. the sensory aspects of an ingredient or a dish, and when they can quickly evaluate their prototypes. For this reason, it is important that food professionals develop their ability to describe their taste experiences,” Michael Bom Frøst says.

Innovation and sensory analysis in food professionals’ educations

Michael Bom Frøst and his colleges at the University of Copenhagen and Taste for Life will use the experiences from Nordic Food Lab in chefs’ education.

The first step is to implement sensory analysis and science in chefs’ education. Doing this, Michael Bom Frøst and the teachers from Taste for Life’s four vocational schools collaborate on developing and testing this when teaching trainee chefs.  

“We want to examine how teaching about taste and methods can impact the trainee chefs’ ability to work with taste, both with the aim of evaluating their own cooking and when developing menus,” Michael Bom Frøst explains.

Mentioned in the article

Associate Professor, PhD

Associate Professor, PhD, University of Copenhagen.

Michael Bom Frøst is an associate professor in sensory science at the University of Copenhagen and the former director of Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit organization that investigates food diversity and deliciousness.

Foto: Robert Elkjær.