Dining & Design: It's Not all About Looks

Design is key in understanding many aspects of the restaurant industry and the food system at large, from the shape of a fork and the ways kitchens minimize environmental impact, to the visual elements of a dining room and the sustainable organization of food purveyor networks.
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Today, many argue that the culinary world, and in particular the restaurant industry, is developing two opposing trends. On one hand, chefs are embracing farm-to-table dining; they highlight the provenance of their ingredients -- emphasizing in particular local and organic ones -- and stress the artisanal aspect of their craft. On the other hand, many culinary professionals are paying more and more attention to the physical and chemical properties of food, in the style sometimes called "molecular gastronomy." Chefs are creating kitchen and dining room implements to accommodate their new and daring dishes. And they're exploring the intricate links between memory, emotions and the senses.

In my opinion, this is a false dichotomy. There is no battle opposing wholesome to gimmicky, vernacular to high concept, traditional to modernist, humanist to technological. Successful chefs can and do move across the different realms of cuisine, according to their curiosity, their interests, and last but not least, their entrepreneurial priorities. Whatever they do, chefs aim to distinguish themselves in their increasingly competitive profession, and hope to ensure the financial viability of their businesses. The key to achieving these goals is to create a pleasurable and memorable experience for one's patrons. Each individual chef does it differently, but what they all share is a sensibility to design, the research for the best solutions to the conceptual and practical issues connected with the restaurant activity and its physical setting, as well as its relationship to clients, purveyors, the media and the environment.

From this point of view, design is key in understanding many aspects of the restaurant industry and the food system at large, from the shape of a fork and the ways in which kitchens can minimize environmental impact, to the visual elements of a dining room and the sustainable organization of food purveyor networks. Design goes beyond creating objects: it envisions experiences, systems and connections. In his books The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design: Why we Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, scientist Donald Norman observed that appealing objects, able to elicit intense and positive emotions, actually work better than those that challenge and frustrates users, and that the goal of design is to identify those traits that allow for pleasurable experiences. He often uses kitchen design objects as examples, but the same approach can be applied to food packaging, the interaction between customer and vendor at a food truck, or the flow within the back and the front of the room in any restaurant.

Arguing for the influence of emotional components, Norman identifies three different aspects of design, each of them responding to a different brain dynamic: the visceral, concerning appearances and related to immediate, almost mechanical reactions; the behavioral, connected with enjoyment and usability that correspond to routine performances and learned skills; and the reflective, which regards intellectual and rational aspects. The three levels also differ in their relations to time: while the first two are all about the present, about "now," the third level is about the long run, the memories that objects solicit, and the future satisfaction derived from their possession. At this level, self-esteem and identification processes play a key role, as do customer service and interpersonal interactions.

Research in this field is quickly expanding, stimulating interest among scholars, professionals and the general public. The critical relationship between a restaurant's culinary concepts and its physical design will be the focus of "Dining + Design: Conversations with Chefs and Architects on Creating the Ideal Dining Experience," a new series of panel discussions launched by the Food Studies Program at The New School and the James Beard Foundation. The first panel, on April 22nd, will feature chef Dan Barber with the architect Peter Guzy, followed by chef Andrew Carmellini with architects Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch on May 20th, and chef David Chang with architect Anwar Mekhayech on June 10th. The conversations will explore not only the increasingly integral alliance between aesthetics and cuisine, but also collaborative creative process that goes into producing an exceptional dining experience.

We hope these panels will foster a debate among food experts and culinary professionals to acknowledge the relevance of design beyond aesthetics and consumer culture, as an important tool for social and political change in the food system.

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