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What does existentialism taste like? Can you cook with poetry? Can art, food, science and anthropology live side-by-side? These are the kind of questions being considered inside the Edinburgh Food Studio - a new project started by chefs-slash-academics Sashana Souza Zanella and Ben Reade.
Part restaurant, part research facility and part “unapologetic nerdism”, the sign on the door of the Edinburgh Food Studio reads: ‘Keeping Food Interesting’ and that’s exactly what Zanella and Reade have been doing since opening back in November.
“We have so much going on that some people really don’t know what we are,” says Zanella, “it’s such a multifunctional space that it can be hard for people to understand what we do. Is it a workshops? An art place? The concept can be hard for people to understand.”
The pair, who have a combined experience of 27-years in the food industry, met while studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. Zanella started with a traditional culinary education but says she “hated the environment” of working in a kitchen. She then spent time working for a “major liquor store” in her hometown of Montreal where she gained a solid understanding of alcohol before pursuing her real passion of anthropology, “I’ve always wanted to join the dots between anthropology and food,” she says.
Reade, who studied food culture, is best known for his time spent leading the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen - a research facility originally set up by chef René Redzepi. After years pursuing their own research, ideas and creative endeavours - they’re both massive food geeks - the duo decided it was time to open their own space, choosing Reade’s hometown of Edinburgh as their location.
“We wanted to crate a space where creativity and food sit hand-in-hand,” says Reade as he explains the basic idea behind the studio. “We’ve been in the industry for quite a while, we’ve seen a lot of different realities, and we think food is a bit more complicated than being either a restaurant or a cafe, a bakery or a cooking school, we want to do something that doesn't quite fit the box.”
This approach to food has led to some interesting ideas. The studio opens as a restaurant just three days a week, Thursday-Saturday, and the rest of the time is spent hosting events, talks from local and international academics, poetry recitals, historical food research and “field trips” to discover more about the food that surrounds them.
Zanella says it’s hard to explain the studio in two sentences, but when Reade says “we’re cooking ideas” it seems the perfect summary. There’s a number of students working at the studio, all taking on their own research projects. One, María García Vilanova from the Basque Culinary Centre, spends time cataloging and researching traditional dairy-based Scottish desserts, trawling through a library of historic cookbooks to understand more about the Scottish junket, the syllabub and the blancmange. This research is then showcased in the studio as Vilanova is tasked with the challenge of producing a new pre-dessert for every menu they serve. A chance for people to actually taste her research.
Another, Philipp Kolmann from the design school of Eindhoven, is collaborating with local ceramists to understand how the studio’s food waste can be used to produce ceramics for the restaurant. “We’ll use the bones that we cook with to make bone china, various ashes and plant trimmings or oyster shells can be used as glazes,” says Reade. “The studio becomes a kind of exhibition space where their art is somehow applied. So rather than going to see an exhibition of local ceramists, people are coming for dinner and all the ceramics they’re eating from have been developed in conjunction with the menu.”
They roast their own coffee, make their own sourdough, culture and churn butter, create their own umami sauces. Forage, ferment, present - repeat. “Whenever we can make life more complicated for ourselves we do,” laughs Reade.
The menu served is never the same and people visiting the studio are sure to leave with a full stomach and mind. “We want to take ideas as far as we can and get as nerdy as people will let us,” says Reade who also gives us a glimpse of a star-studded line-up of guest chefs set to visit the studio for what he calls “jam session cook-offs.”
In Scotland we have a real problem with food being perceived as fuel and fuel only
This approach of pushing the boundaries of food and aligning it firmly with the arts has led to some exciting collaborations. When we speak, the pair have been busy working with local poets to produce dishes inspired by their writing - sort of plates from prose, if you will.
“I think the poetry event is really pushing creativity to be triggered because it’s mixing food with a field that we really don’t think is related to food," says Zanella, “It makes you think of how that sentence, which is completely philosophical, can be represented in food.”
One poem, Blue Bottle Fly, is interpreted as a traditional Scottish Skirlie - a risotto style dish made with oats and onions. A beautiful plate on first sight that reveals a darker edge when the diner’s fork breaks the surface. “The poem was all kind of pretty on the outside but when you look at it more deeply and think about the meaning there’s this gnarly, dark edge," says Reade as he explains the dish. “We served this pumpkin seed Skirlie topped with lamb liver underneath some fermented kohlrabi and flowers on top. So you have this pretty floral outside with a smooth kohlrabi and then inside, when you get into it, it’s a bit earthy, bloody and gritty. It's conceptually reflective.”
Reade says the poet is now busy working on a second poem in answer to the dish, “a sort of call and answer” between the kitchen and the pen. They both say they want to increase the perceived value of food by engaging in these creative pursuits. They were told when starting the project that food is not creative and they seem to have something to prove from this, that food can sit comfortably in the world of art.
“In Scotland we have a real problem with food being perceived as fuel and fuel only. What we’re trying to do is raise that perceived value to acknowledge some kind of appreciation of food and appreciation of the aesthetic value of taste, flavour, sights and sounds involved with eating. We’re trying to increase the perceived value of food by engaging in some more of these creative pursuits.”
Zanella explains ‘Passion and Reason’ - a new event at the studio that will see philosophy used as ingredient inspiration. Guests will be invited to enjoy readings from famous philosophers paired with dishes from the studio’s kitchen. She’s half way through reading an excerpt from Plato, “Consider then, my friend, what soul it is in us”, when a loud alarm sounds in the background, “sorry”, she says, “it’s the timer, my bread must be ready.”
See a full list of upcoming events at the Edinburgh Food Studio - and here's one more bite of poetry: