(Don’t) Play with Your Food

August 1, 2016

By: Rafael Tonon

Your mom’s advice never sounded so backward: chefs and cooks are proving that playing with food has never been so fun.

It was the year of 2013 and I was visiting Basque Country for the first time. I made a reservation to have dinner at Mugaritz, the acclaimed restaurant of chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, in Errenterria. The restaurant had just opened for its new season, after being closed for three months for the development of the new menu (after more than eight thousand hours of creation and almost 57 recipes – I do remember the numbers, they were really impressive). For that year, Aduriz proposed a menu based on games. “Our recipes were thought to prove wrong the believes we grew up with saying we shouldn’t play with the food. In Mugaritz, more than ever, eating is a pleasure seeking game. How to face the unknown if not through the game?”, said Mugaritz website at the time.

Andoni was then obsessed with the idea of playing some tricks on his diners, specially regarding the texture of his recipes. “More than flavors, I want to dare my customers to a game for them to discover what they are eating”, he told me during my quick visit to his kitchen. He suddenly offered me a kind of dumpling made of an algae called Fat Choy, also known as hair moss. It really had a hairy texture: this cyanobacteria had come from China and he created  an extremely crunchy dumpling that made my mouth dry the moment it touched my tongue, with a texture similar to steel wool  – but as I chewed on, I could taste a creamy filling of Aragon olive and anchovies brandade.

Food designers of all stripes are capturing the imagination by approaching food not just as something to eat, but as a form in and of itself – an evocation of excitement and curiosity.

But the highlight of the dinner came by the hands of a waiter: he brought a storyboard of a game that in the Basque Country is called Tortoloxak, and a small bag with three pieces shaped like lamb bones for the diners to play with. Who could guess the amount of pieces in the fellow’s hand wins the “pot” – actually a real pot (also in the form of a lamb bone) with a portion of fresh caviar, which, by the way, I won. Food can also be a winning game.

From that dinner to nowadays, the way food is served is playing a significant part on what we eat, how we see food, and how the chefs who prepare what we eat show off their consummate skills. And it isn’t only in dining halls of high-end restaurants. Food designers of all stripes are capturing the imagination by approaching food not just as something to eat, but as a form in and of itself – an evocation of excitement and curiosity.

If that determined the new Spanish cuisine for years (more than the molecular food that local chefs tried to display), now more cooks and designers manage to be playful and provoking at the same time, serving edible creations that are nice to look at, to relate to, and also delicious.

Charles Spence, from the Department of Experimental Psychology at University of Oxford, says that the biggest gain from technology applied to food is the provision of a distraction to diners while they are eating and drinking, and that will become more and more an integral part of our food and drink experiences. “Everything from using an iPad as a 21st-century plateware to using handheld technologies like a musical glass to provide a dash of digital seasoning – that is, providing the right sonic backdrop is matched to bring out the best in what we’re eating and drinking”, he points out.

The biggest gain from technology applied to food is the provision of a distraction to diners while they are eating and drinking…

Since food is becoming more democratic and accessible, there are no more reasons for eating to be something dull and uninteresting. As people are having less time to really experience a dinner, they want it to be more fun. It’s not always that you are in the mood for explanations or special menus for everything: you ask for a water, and the waiter comes with a water menu, you ask for a  coffee and he comes with a coffee menu, and every plate that arrives at your table comes with a detailed (and many times tiresome and unasked for) explanation of what’s in it.


Dominique Ensel - Wafle printer

Pastry chef Dominique Ansel resuscitated the Macintosh 128K to create a waffle recipe.

There are cooks and chefs that are trying to make our meals more fun in order to offer a really  good experience for us when we are around the table. American pastry chef Dominique Ansel, who became famous by creating the iconic cronut (a kind of a donut made with croissant pastry) resuscitated the original Macintosh 128K – released in 1984 as a landmark machine that brought usable user interface to computers for the first time – to create a waffle recipe. ‘Waffle Computer’ pays a sweet tribute to this technology icon. As a part of his American Dreams dessert tasting menu, available at his New York West Village bakery now, Waffle Computer is a tech device in which you pop in a floppy disc and out it shoots a warm waffle.

With dessert names like “Eureka!,” and “Peace.”, Ansel created recipes such as “White Picket Fence”, which includes a pop-up picture book with houses (and ingredientes such as passion fruit, persimmon, pink pepper, lemon, saffron, and shiso) and “#GoingViral”, a dessert featuring little edible filters meant to represent Instagram plataform.

The creative culinary agency Tour de Fork have launched a range of open source 3D printable jewelry that can be adorned with pieces of fruits, chocolates, biscuits and other sweet treats. The laser-cut rings were designed to be used specifically with food and translate the idea of “finger food” in the literal way, not only turning laser cutting technology more acessible to the average consumer, but also rescuing the sense of playfulness from the childhood to our adult lives.

Tour de Fork is a food design agency with branches in Milan and London and founded by photographer and food stylist Claudia Castaldi and product designer Stefano Citi. This work resulted from a partnership with Italian magazine CASAfacile to make fabrication technologies easier to understand – which in itself is fun enough.

TourDeFork 2

Finger food created by couple Claudia Castaldi and Stefano Citi from Tour the Fork.


Open source 3D printable jewelry that can be adorned with pieces of fruits, biscuits and other sweet treats.

Japanese designer Oki Sato, from Nendo studio, with offices in Tokio and Milan, is obsessed with chocolate and its potencial to cause multisensorial experiences, and uses the most advanced design to highlight such potential.

He came up with the idea of a chocolate flask that can hold up to 5 different flavours (from mango and raspberry to a popping candy that bursts in your mouth) cointained in test tubes. The client can make his own combinations of flavors and quantities creating a very unique experience. The caps were made with burned white chocolate that ressemble a cork. “We thought about developing small bottles that each one could fill creating their own fillings, providing truly innovative flavors from a new experience, in a very personal and playful way”, he says.

Earlier this year, Sato decided to focus on a chocolate bar where he used different three-dimensional textures (zigzag, dots, stripes, plaid and waves) to make each square. Because what we recognize as flavor is very attached to the way we eat food (the part of the tongue in which it is placed, how we bite, how it moves inside the mouth, melts and even the way we swallow) he wanted to propose a game to the eater. “The idea is to show the perception that is entirely different with each square, even if they are made of the same chocolate coming from the same bar”. The flavors range from milk, white chocolate, strawberry, bitter and matcha. To be sure about how the different textures can evolve in the palate, it’s necessary to face the game and eat the bar until the end. Or, as they say, to beat it.


Rafael Tonon

+ posts by Rafael

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer. He writes about food, drinks and trends in gastronomy. He contributes to many media outlets, such as Eater, Vice, Slate and more. He maintains the trend food blog What the Fork.

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