The New Food Frontier Comes to Boston
A trio of innovators lead the charge of a culinary revolution with whiffs of food and cotton candy clouds.
Photographs by Guido Vitti
Everyone knows the power of a scent to cross a room. But the Atlantic Ocean?
Today, Dave Edwards became the first person to text a smell on a trans-Atlantic voyage. At Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, Edwards sent a smell to a colleague in Paris via his invention, the “oPhone,” which he says will soon allow users to transmit smells to anywhere in the world. But he’s just getting started. For Dave Edwards and his partners, food is the final frontier.
Imagine a place where you can eat delicious meals, drink awesome cocktails and be wowed by design, inventions and amazing ideas. In this food frontier, you can drink vapors from a Le Whaf machine, tasting a cloud of pure cotton-candy flavor without calories. You can, of course, text a scent with the oPhone. Or hold The Orb in your hands, sing and let the sound waves of your own voice heal and calm you. As you leave, pull out an Aero inhaler from the “mint” bowl and breathe in the delicious flavor of chocolate or coffee.
The food frontier is real, and opens this October in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. Le Lab Cambridge and Café ArtScience will be the first place to combine classic food and drink (from a celebrated Boston chef and an inventive bartender) with a movable interior space where the public can participate in food and sensorial experiments and — if they want — try to create new things.
Modern Farmer meets the team behind Le Lab Cambridge at the raw space in Kendall Square on a blustery, clear April day. Founder David Edwards, chef Patrick Campbell and bar geek Todd Maul walk amidst plywood walls and dangling electrical outlets and point out the marks on the floor to illustrate where the bar and restaurant will go. Parisian industrial designer Mathieu Lehanneur stands nearby and talks with his American architectural team, Brown Fenollosa Architects. According to one of its principals, Zeke Brown, “The space is still a moving concept!” Lehanneur laughs about the directions from Edwards. “There was no brief. David is a very special client. There is no program. Only intention. Informal ideas are spread. Like when you cook. This place is still cooking.”
Edwards says the visual vocabulary will have a lot in common with the Apple Store’s; it will be a clean, aesthetically provocative and inviting environment. There will be a product wall, a books section and a hexagonal structure for talks and experiments. It will be open seven days a week.
Although the new building is made of steel and glass, Lehanneur wants the space to be cozy. He is laying gray oak wide-board floors and has designed a modular sofa covered in dark-green velvet as the centerpiece for the restaurant. “The sofa can be modified to accommodate a mood or an event,” he says. “This one piece is going to give the feeling of the whole space!”
Le Lab Cambridge is nestled in the heart of greater Boston’s innovation and biotech hub near Harvard, MIT, Genzyme and Akamai — you only need to breathe the air here to feel smarter. It’s also the center of Boston’s burgeoning restaurant scene. What used to be an empty, ugly salt marsh turned industrial wasteland has transformed into a neighborhood that feels like Silicon Valley meets Stockholm (lots of pretty young couples and baby carriages) meets international student hangout (in winter an ice-skating rink is set up out front next to Moo Moo’s ice cream stand). All this to say — it’s happening here and you can feel it.
Edwards — who splits his time between Paris and Boston, where he lives and works on a blue-and-white trawler in the harbor — started Le Laboratoire in Paris in 2007. He manages to mix mad focus, energetic ideas, inspiration, warmth and calm. And he has that equally rare ability to not only execute his ideas but make money from them. His first company, Advanced Inhalation Research (a drug delivery company based on inhalable medication), sold for $114 million two years after he founded it. In between inventing edible packaging and phones that send scent, he continues to teach a class at Harvard called “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.”
Right now, his focus with Le Lab is on all things edible. “How do you change the food system,” asks Edwards, “so it’s sustainable in the long term from both an individual health and environmental point of view?” His answer? “Willful, joyful experimentation that the public can join.”
Café ArtScience builds on another invention from Edwards — the Wiki.
Wiki is an edible skin that can be placed over products as a solution to eliminate wasteful food packaging. Wikis are similar to the skin of fruit — all natural and made by Edwards’s patented technological process, which harnesses natural ions in food and literally whips them into a skin that is impermeable to water, tasty and nutritious. The Wiki is sold now at Le Laboratoire Paris as WikiPearls (ice cream encased in deliciously flavored edible skin).
The eating experience defies explanation: You’re holding ice cream enveloped in edible skin just as cold as the dessert it contains. But it doesn’t melt, keeping your fingers free of stickiness. Proof of the packaging’s potential: Stonyfield yogurt recently launched the first Wiki-covered Frozen Yogurt Pearls at four Boston-area Whole Foods, where they were so immensely popular that they sold out in four days.
Le Lab Cambridge and Café ArtScience will expand the Wiki concept to cheese, yogurt and soup. At the Café ArtScience bar, the Wiki will be a subject for future food and drink experiments.
He calls the Wiki technology “exciting” and “important.”
“The litter of plastic is a true dilemma in the developing world. And if you could ship food in edible containers, that’s a really interesting phenomenon,” he says.
Where smells can be a meal, but a ham sandwich is still for sale.
Edwards is already in talks with an international beverage company to make an edible water bottle for the Cape Town Marathon in 2015. The bottle, which will last for up to two weeks, will have a nutrient-rich coating (like an eggshell) that you can peel and then eat. It’s a concept that is emblematic of his notion that food design is a way to provide a simultaneously sustainable and sensual experience both at the table and on global issues. It perfectly sums up his reason for creating Le Lab Cambridge and Café ArtScience. Only, when it opens, don’t expect to find the equivalent of El Bulli, the famed, now-shuttered experimental restaurant helmed by Ferran Adrià.
Back at the raw space, Edwards, Maul and Campbell drink Maul’s experimental Tom Collins (involving blended melon and fava leaves) while discussing the comparison to El Bulli. “The molecular cuisine movement introduced materials into food that created special forms but moved us away from natural nutrition,” says Edwards. “Le Lab and the Wiki and Café ArtScience have an amazing focus on the natural and innovation through change of form but not through change of substance. We’re interested in a pure tomato and a pure carrot — not ‘looks like a carrot, feels like a carrot but isn’t a carrot.’ ”
And so what about the ham sandwich, planned for the lunchtime menu? Café ArtScience’s new chef swears it’s true. It isn’t the idea of a ham sandwich or an experimental, floating ham sandwich, but an actual sandwich. “It won’t just be any ham sandwich,” says Campbell. “It will be housemade ham with all of its fat on the most crusty bread we can find, smeared with good butter and homemade pickles. So yes, you’ll absolutely be able to get a ham sandwich.”
“There will be enough familiar things here,” Edwards says. “We’re not going to scare anyone.”