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Why Scotland Needs Its Own Food Lab

Food is so complex and to have to tick the box of either being a supermarket or a cooking school or a restaurant or a cafe is so limiting.
Photo courtesy Edinburgh Food Studio.

Scottish chef and researcher Ben Reade doesn't do things by halves. If he's not smuggling black market haggis through Danish border control, he's whipping up pig's blood macaroons or eating toadstools in the Arctic Circle toadstools. Reade's latest project is the Edinburgh Food Studio, a research space started with partner and anthropologist Sashana Souza Zanella that will combine art, science, and culinary experimentation to "change the way Scotland interacts with food."

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Currently under construction, the studio hopes to hold its first dinner next month. After all, who wants to be eating French balls when there's a world of authentic Scottish cuisine to explore?

Scottish food is stuck in a bit of a rut. Haggis is excellent stuff and I'm very partial to the occasional can of Irn-Bru but really, to have just one national dish is a bit miserable. If you look at any of the great cuisines of the world, there is no national dish. The national dish of Japan, the national dish of Italy—it just doesn't exist.

We wanted to find a way of exploring Scottish food further. We applied for a bunch of grants but people seem to only want to sponsor things that are tried and tested. A food studio seemed too risky for them, so we decided, Well, dammit—we'll fund it ourselves. We'll start up for some kind of a body or business which can earn money to fund it.

WATCH: How-To: Make Haggis

We then had this big internal wrestle about whether we should just open a purely profit-based restaurant and channel some of that profit into research, or start a much more creative venture, in which we open as a restaurant occasionally and let some of the research happen in here. We're planning to use the studio as a multi-functional space where we could run workshops or do wine tastings or run masterclasses.

Of course, then the problem is that is it's much more complicated to communicate with people. When you want to talk to the council, they say, "What is it?" and you say, "Well, it's a creative place."

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So what is it then? A cafe? A restaurant? No, it's a studio, it's a creative place.

We applied for a bunch of grants but people seem to only want to sponsor things that are tried and tested. We decided dammit—we'll fund it ourselves.

Food is so complex and to have to tick the box of either being a supermarket or a cooking school or a restaurant or a cafe is so limiting. To create a space which is open to collaboration—or if some crazy physicist comes in here asking to work on a menu mimicking digital cells then, hell yeah, we can do it. Because we should be doing that, it's progressive and will help us move forward.

We'll be taking an anthropological approach, interviewing old folks to start collecting recipes and then trying to create a platform or a format or a forum or something that can help us move forward. We're really into using technology to make better food but at the same time, we'll be referring to historical texts.

So for example, Scotland has an amazing history of pigeon. These pigeon houses are all over the Scottish countryside. I've got a book from 1829 that says pigeon pie was the national dish of Scotland. In fact, in the early 19th century, there was this incredible mixed cuisine going on—people were fermenting lingonberries and everyone was creating different types of haggis. Now haggis recipes are all pretty standard and all people do with fruit is either stick them with cream or make a jam.

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We want to bend the boundaries a little bit and create a space where a wine expert could come and do a talk or a beer nerd do a brewing masterclass. A butchery guy could show us how to break down a pig or we could take foragers out for a day.

In the 19th century, there was this incredible mixed cuisine going on—people were fermenting lingonberries and everyone was creating different types of haggis. Now all people do with fruit is either stick them with cream or make a jam.

With the Nordic Food Lab, there was a lot of creativity but then none of the feeding people part—and that's one of the crucial things about what we're doing. We're doing all these collaborations but then at the end of the week, we're feeding people from those creative ventures.

We've set the place up with two big tables looking up towards a central demo table, with a projector and lots of white boards so it lends itself to communal dining. That in itself is risky because a middle class family who want to go for dinner for Dad's birthday don't want to come and sit at a communal table. That's fine, they can go and do that elsewhere—that's not the kind of thing we're going for.

READ MORE: You Should Be Cooking with Blood

It's about the importance of just sitting down together—how every big house or how restuarants used to be. Or when you went into bar and just sat down and spoke to people. It's about communality.

It would have been much easier for us to just set up a restaurant but the Studio is more of a life project, it's something that we hope can add something positive and that people can have memories of this place as somewhere where they had a good time and a decent dinner.

While there's this physical space, we're also creating this online journal. Once people get paid and we've covered our costs, 50 percent of our profit is going to go into research. So sending young food journalists off on a week-long adventure around Orkney or to Glasgow to look at the history of sugar, and then get them to bring those skills back and write a piece. That way, we can start to fund people doing exactly what we were trying to get funded but couldn't in the first place.

We're doing this more to ask questions than to answer them—and to get food in people's bellies.

As told to Phoebe Hurst.

You can donate to the Edinburgh Food Studio's Kickstarter fund here.