Printing Some Dinner

February 23, 2010

Cornucopia

It is inevitable that 3-D printers will find applications in the kitchen, especially as they become cheaper and more ubiquitous. The geniuses at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories have already unveiled the CandyFab 4000, a device that prints forms with sugar instead of the usual plastic resins.

Chef Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant in Chicago has been printing edible menus for a few years, and has also used edible printed paper in the place of traditonal nori to wrap maki rolls.

Leave it to the MIT Media Lab to predict the future of this technology. Their Fluid Interfaces Group has introduced Cornucopia: Concept Designs for a Digital Gastronomy, a collection of three device concepts that may one day be essential components of every kitchen. Their Robotic Chef and Virtuoso mixer are interesting and within the realm of possibility, but it’s the Digital Fabricator that caught my attention.

The Digital Fabricator is a personal, three-dimensional printer for food, which works by storing, precisely mixing, depositing and cooking layers of ingredients. Its cooking process starts with an array of food canisters, which refrigerate and store a user’s favorite ingredients. These are piped into a mixer and extruder head that can accurately deposit elaborate food combinations with sub-millimeter precision. While the deposition takes place, the food is heated or cooled by the Fabricator’s chamber or the heating and cooling tubes located on the printing head. This fabrication process not only allows for the creation of flavors and textures that would be completely unimaginable through other cooking techniques, but, through a touch-screen interface and web connectivity, also allows users to have ultimate control over the origin, quality, nutritional value and taste of every meal.

As concepts go, it’s pretty cool. You could create layered “food” that changed as you bit through it. You could make complex geometrical forms: Why bother with foams when you could extrude fractal sponges? A multi-course tasting menu could be assembled like a three-dimensional puzzle of interlocking tastes and textures. The possibilities are endless.

Alas, they are only possibilities. The Digital Fabricator is just a concept, albeit a very clever concept. It could languish in the Media Lab thesis graveyard, undeveloped and ignored. But I have an idea that would solve two problems at once: Bring in chef Ferran Adria as a consultant. His genius with molecular gastronomy techniques, combined with the Media Lab’s digital know-how could bring the product to life in a few years. Foodies all over the world (myself included) would jump at the chance to buy a Adria-endorsed food fab.

We get a cool new toy for the kitchen, the Media Lab gets some much-needed exposure in a new market, and Adria has something to do while El Bulli is closed for two years. All I ask in return is a table for two for this year. Any time will do, I’m not picky.

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