Tom Klare

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Experimental Food Society

Andy Lynes - May 2014

London—Brick Lane has traditionally been famous for its 24 hour bagel shop and row of garish-looking Indian restaurants, complete with touts luring passers-by with offers of free wine and cheap food. But I was tempted to wander down a side street off this colorful foodie corner of East London by something altogether more unexpected.

For two days in early November, two bare industrial units of the Old Truman Brewery were transformed by the Experimental Food Society for its fourth annual “spectacular” into a futuristic culinary playground where the ice cream tasted of Stilton cheese, and cameras were made out of sugar. But the event’s sense of futuristic fun was best personified by Brighton-based firm Harvey and John’s Tropism Well. The three-and-a-half-meter (11 1/2-foot) high wood, steel, and blown glass robot’s ultra sonic sensors detect when someone is standing still in front of it, causing the flexible “stalk,” which is topped by a flask, to bend down. As it does so, the flask fills with water (or whatever liquid has been loaded into the “Living Food Sculpture”), which is then poured into the waiting person’s glass. “It’s based on the biological phenomenon of tropism, when a sunflower turns its head to the sun, for example,” says Richard Harvey, who created the sculpture with business partner Keivor John. “We’ve built two so far, and they’re used at events. Eventually we want a whole forest of them.”

“It’s the first and only organization of its kind,” claims Alexa Perrin of the APR Consultancy PR agency in London, who founded the Experimental Food Society in January 2010. The society boasts over 50 members, ranging from cutting-edge catering and events companies like Blanch and Shock and “Jellymongers” Bompass and Parr to performance artists like Caroline Smith, who incorporates food into her work, and Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University.

Professor Spence, who has worked with Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, spoke on “Making Food More Multisensory,” a subject he’s currently researching for global food companies. He also conducted on-site experiments, including how the shape of food can affect flavor perception.

“Professor Spence is a very interesting man,” says chef Dan Cox, who attended the event and who will head up the brigade at the restaurant at Claridge’s hotel in London under Simon Rogan when it reopens this spring. “We’re doing a lot of work in research and development, looking at how different plates and cutlery affect the visual appeal and taste of food. The event focuses heavily on the foodie community, but it’s also a great place for younger chefs to go and learn about these topics firsthand.”

The roster of 14 speakers included artist and “sugar designer” Fernando Laposse, whose works have included edible handblown sugar cocktail glasses and who exhibited a working camera made mostly of sugar. Food Futurologist Dr. Morgaine Gaye discussed U.K. food trends for 2015 that included a greater emphasis on texture. “Food combinations have all been done, but texture has hardly been explored,” said Gaye during her talk, identifying folding chocolate bars and patterned, textured nori sheets as examples of the emerging trend.

Experimental Food Society member and food landscape artist Carl Warner showed his five-foot replica of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, a collaboration with food modeler Paul Baker, made entirely from pasta, Italian crackers, and biscuits, along with images of some of his best-known works, including the London skyline created from a variety of fresh foods, including bread, broccoli, asparagus, and melon.

Mischievous ice cream vendors Lick Me, I’m Delicious hit the headlines earlier this year with their luminous jellyfish ice cream, created for Halloween. Their dark Port and Stilton ripple ice cream, made on the spot in a home-rigged machine that pumped liquid nitrogen into the bowl of a standard food mixer, was a less startling, but I suspect more delicious, creation.

The society’s year-round schedule of events continued with a series of Food and Fragrance themed banquets later the same month at the Cookbook Cafe at the InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane, where Blanch and Shock collaborated with Professor Spence on a menu that included dry-aged mallard duck served on a platter impregnated with the scent of juniper and moss, and accompanied by roaming smoking branches doused with gun oil.

In addition, Experimental Food Society members worked on their own independently organized activities. Bompas & Parr’s Multisensory Fireworks at the London New Year’s Eve celebration, where various fruit flavored clouds of vapor were released in synchronization with the display so that, for example, the crowd smelled the scent of strawberries as red fireworks exploded above them.

Future plans for the society itself include corporate work, such as creating marshmallows in the shape of a brand logo, and a potential collaboration with Selfridges department store, as well as an ongoing roster of public events, details of which will be posted on the society’s website over the coming months.

“I’m delighted to continue to showcase the work of Britain’s culinary think tank,” says Perrin. “It demonstrates just how exciting food can be.”