Food hacker, n:
A curious person who loves to discover and create awesome food, and seeks the knowledge and intuition to come up with new and clever food ideas.
It’s a great time to be a chef. I love food and love to cook, and in recent years I’ve become fascinated by all the cooking techniques and equipment that have become popular in restaurants and accessible even to home cooks. Sous vide machines that used to belong to high-end chemistry labs now cost less than stand mixers and have become increasingly commonplace in home kitchens. At the other end, classic, artisanal techniques, like bean-to-bar chocolate-making that used to belong to the expert few, can now be learned by anyone willing to plow through YouTube videos, long blog articles, and online forums.
As I’ve built up my cooking skills and collection of cooking equipment, I’ve become increasingly convinced that food hackers need a well-thought-out, well-designed space that specifically caters to their needs. That’s why I’ve been inspired to build a makerspace dedicated to cooking. I believe that there are 5 things that set a food makerspace apart.
1. Access to specialized equipment
Just like a traditional makerspace might provide access to a 3D printer or a band-saw, a cooking hackerspace provides access to tools and ingredients that are out of reach of most home cooks.
High-end restaurants have evolved in recent years to include a variety of laboratory equipment and techniques. Coupled with an ever deeper understanding of food science, chefs can now craft flavors and textures so innovative that they might seem impossible — just look up recipes by El Bulli or Alinea. We want our food hackerspace to have equipment such as centrifuges, rotary evaporators, spray and freeze driers, as well as a variety of ingredients to make gels, foams, spherify liquids, and even liquid nitrogen.
But it’s not only about lab equipment. Most cooks don’t have the tools to practice more classic cooking techniques, such as roasting coffee, making bean-to-bar chocolate, aging cheese, curing meats, or extruding pasta (just to name a few). These are usually reserved for professionals in the food industry. Home versions of such equipment produce far inferior quality. We want our food hackerspace to have commercial or artisanal equipment to make these foods, so anyone who wants to can DIY.
Most people don’t have any of these tools at home because they they’re expensive, often large and heavy, sometimes challenging to learn, and not used all that frequently. It makes sense for a hackerspace, as a shared space, to have dedicated space to this specialized equipment so that all members can benefit.
2. Food hacker-friendly design
While traditional hackerspaces, commercial kitchens and cooking schools exist, food hackers need a different kind of place, specifically designed for their needs.
Traditional hackerspaces have a lot of tools, but they’re usually short on kitchen facilities. Building a space that is food hacker-friendly and supports the safe preparation of food requires careful design and jumping through food safety regulatory hoops that were designed with restaurants establishments in mind.
Existing commercial kitchens miss the mark too. They’re usually rented by the hour, and are focused on high-volume food production. They are very different from the relaxed atmosphere that hackerspaces provide. Food hackers need a place where they can hang out, learn and explore new ideas, connect with others, and have fun with food.
Then there are places that offer cooking classes. These do offer a relaxed environment but aren’t structured to provide any room for exploration, research, or long-term practice. That is something that only the hackerspace membership and unlimited-access model can provide.
A food hackerspace extends the hackerspace model to food and cooking, and is exactly what food hackers need.
3. Cross-disciplinary exploration
The ideal space for food hackers brings together a variety of activities, equipment, people, and ideas. It allows you to learn cooking, but it also enables you to explore fields adjacent to cooking, such as creating edible artwork, making new kitchen gadgets, and photographing and filming food.
Did you know that there are artists that specialize in creating spectacular edible art installations? Food artists have created artworks like paintings made with fruit, a ceiling made with flavored marshmallows, even edible coffee cups. A food hackerspace is a perfect place for a food artist or designer to prototype these ideas.
A food hackerspace can also be a great place to develop new cooking gadgets. We plan to have tools such as food-grade silicone, which can be used to quickly prototype cooking gadgets and then do real-life tests with them.
These days many food hackers are eager to capture and share their creations on social media, through channels like Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube. Food photography is an art and a profession of its own, with specialized tools and tricks to create the most appealing images. We want our hackerspace to have a dedicated photo and video station, where food hackers can stage dishes, tinker with lighting and editing, and capture their dishes in their best light.
Hackerspaces encourage creativity across disciplines to take place, and that makes the space more interesting and valuable to all members.
4. Ability to learn and practice
A food hackerspace as a dedicated space for learning about food is more valuable and accessible than other venues where one can learn cooking.
Formal cooking schools are dedicated to teaching culinary arts to cooks aspiring to enter the food industry. But that focus makes them ill suited for amateur cooks. The programs are expensive, generally take 1-2 years, and require a large time commitment (often full-time).
Recreational cooking schools, on the other hand, offer single classes to small groups on a specific topic. But this format forces the learner to practice on their own, without the equipment or ingredients used in the class. Without ongoing practice and access to the same cooking environment, it’s much harder to learn.
Finally, some may choose to learn in their own kitchens. Time and access are not a problem, but home kitchens are often missing tools and access to expertise. And for many people, learning alone at home can feel too unstructured.
From access to expertise, to the ability to practice, to getting encouragement and feedback, a hackerspace for food is a better space to learn.
5. A cooking community
Hackerspaces aren’t just shared working spaces. They are community hubs, where like-minded people get together to bond over common interests, learn from each other, bounce ideas and find inspiration for projects.
Most people don’t like to cook alone. A food hackerspace is a great place to host a regular cooking meetup. Monthly ice cream club, anyone? Or why not cook up a dinner party with friends, like Spain’s famous “gastronomic societies” (aka Txoko)? Some restaurants encourage cook-offs where their cooks present their experimental creations to the team. Imagine getting to present your novel creation to an audience of fellow cooks. Or imagine being in that audience and being inspired by what others create.
Maybe you just want to see what other people are up to, and get some inspiration for what to explore next? Grab a cup of coffee and hang out in a food hackerspace. I guarantee something will pique your interest.