Dressing up food

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German architects Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter on the art of food design

French fries and a chocolate milkshake work. Chocolate French fries don't. Food design is rife with variations, exceptions and surprises. Yet, most people don't even notice why the food they eat arrives looking, feeling or sounding the way it does.Architects Sonja Stummerer and Martin Hablesreiter are on a mission to make people really look at what is on their plates. The young authors of the German book, Food Design, won a `Special Award of the Jury' at the Gourmand Awards last year. This year, they will be shooting a documentary-style series on food design, as they travel across Europe. The pair talk about how architecture inspired them to study food more closely. In 2001, they graduated in Vienna where they met and went on to London to study. Then Tokyo to work. "We started getting interested in food. In shapes," says Sonja. "In Japan, food is unique and traditional. The recipes of sweets that accompany the tea ceremony, for example, are all 200 to 300-years-old"Food for us is a metaphor that reflects society," says Martin. "It's very personal. When you criticise how a person eats, then that's a personal criticism. Because you express yourself by the way you eat: your education, culture, the house of your parents... "They talk of how important historical events were prompted by food, because it's the most basic human need: Columbus discovering America in his search for spices, the Boston tea party to protest taxes on tea, the salt march. "Once you know the stories and the history of food, the way you look at it is completely different," says Martin.The pair study "food form: the point of product design," looking at food as an object. "We ask who decides what food should look like the form, colour, consistency, smell, sound and why?" Companies spend huge amounts of money on product design, in the hope of discovering a new food that will touch a chord with consumers. "There's nothing in life people are more conservative about than food. Companies are constantly struggling with new products," says Sonja. In fact, a quick look at figures on the Internet shows that failure rates for food products are higher than those for industrial products, and just two of every ten succeed. Outstanding flops include `Crystal Pepsi,' a colourless, caffeine-free soft drink, and `Funky Fries' by Heinz, chocolate flavoured and blue. Breaking rules

Fiddling with tradition can mean disaster, like the Garlic Cake made by Gunderson & Rosario back in 1989, which baffled customers. But if it works, it can mean celebrity status, as in the case of the Michelin starred Chefs Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck restaurant in the U.K., and Ferran Adrià Acosta of El bulli in Spain. Blumenthal serves bacon-and-egg ice cream and snail porridge, and uses gadgets such as personal sound amplification systems to enhance crunches. Adria lists foamed espresso, foamed mushroom and foamed beet among his triumphs. Both consistently break the rules. Yet, Martin insists that a traditional meal on a street corner can be just as sophisticated and alluring. "Everything is designed in keeping with the way a culture works," says Martin. "Just like we should learn some history, and read some literature, be aware of great paintings and have an idea about our culture, we do need to understand food," says Sonja. Martin agrees. "Unfortunately, food is not appreciated enough as a cultural phenomenon. People study music and dancing, and underestimate food. But that's the most primary need."SHONALI MUTHALALY




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