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Techies Want to Reinvent How We Cook

A new generation of chefs and home cooks are embracing the principles of maker culture and applying them in the kitchen, going well beyond simple food hacks.

What happens when you take a professional-grade rotisserie and merge it with an attachment carved from maple wood that looks kind of like a backwards baseball bat? According to Louisville chef Bobby Benjamin, you make dessert.

"So you have the maple in there going, and you put on a layer of clarified butter, and then dough and some spices—cinnamon and sugar—then another layer of clarified butter," Benjamin explains. "You keep going like that and you have this Cinnabon-like effect."


Benjamin notes that his DIY pastry rotisserie fits perfectly with the ethos of his upcoming Butchertown Grocery, which will open in November. "My restaurant is based on all local ingredients, and we want to make sure that we cook those ingredients in the best way possible. Sometimes that means changing things up a bit, or getting things specially made. Like how we're creative with our ingredients, we have to be creative with the tools we have in our kitchen."

It's this line of reasoning that puts Benjamin, whether he realizes it or not, in line with a new generation of chefs and home cooks who are embracing the principles of maker culture and applying them in the kitchen. The same thing is also happening on the flip side: Techies are making the move from computers to kitchens.

It goes beyond the the basic kitchen hacks that you typically see on Buzzfeed and Pinterest—using a Ziploc baggie as an icing bag, or basically anything Alton Brown did on Good Eats. This hybrid movement is reaching for something much bigger.

According to Techopedia, the maker movement itself is a trend in which "individuals or groups of individuals create and market products that are recreated and assembled using unused, discarded, or broken electronic, plastic, silicon, or virtually any raw material and/or product from a computer-related device." The movement also incorporates new creations and inventions, as well as those that improve upon current technology, which are often developed by individuals in their homes, garages or a "makerspace," often bolstered by a desire to subvert the commercial market.


What many chefs, home cooks, and culinary-minded independent manufacturers have realized is that, in many cases, the market doesn't have exactly what they're looking for anyway (e.g. a Cinnabon-on-a-stick roaster). And while some purists may cringe at the idea of makeshift technology taking over their pristine, stainless-steel kitchens, this movement confronts the assumption that cooking is an inherent ability, or one that can only be taught learned in a certain way.

"Everyone has to learn how to cook," says Amy Trubek, a food anthropologist at the University of Vermont. "Granted, in the past, that learning used to come through oral transmission or written transmission; we're just seeing different, multiple media utilized now."

Trubek, who has written an upcoming book about modern domestic cooking, doesn't believe that there should be a normative ideal of how cooking is taught.

"There is no one singular way to become a cook. In that sense, there is no right way to cook," she says. "However, in my research, I am interested in our power to act in relation to food. We can be passive consumers or active producers. I am interested in learning how to cook with fluency and confidence."


The Louisville Table. Photo courtesy of FirstBuild.

James Carlson is the founder and CEO of School Factory, a nonprofit funding agency that focuses on getting makerspaces and cooperative, project-based learning centers in communities that need them. He has observed that there are a lot of people within the maker movement who are approaching food and cooking tools differently than culinary school-trained chefs. These people are studying food like a science and asking different questions about where it came from and how to make it.


Carlson describes the collision of food culture with maker culture as a multilayered ecosystem composed of people making food, people studying food itself, and people studying how food is made and where it comes from.

One such example is GE's FirstBuild—a microfactory in Louisville dedicated to designing, engineering, and selling the next generation of major home appliances—which released its first "social appliance," The Louisville Table, in March 2014.

At first glance, the Louisville Table might look like your average kitchen island that's just been tricked out a bit. But the table was specifically designed by a team of GE engineers and the organization's first artist in residence, Jakub Szczęsny—a partnership facilitated by the nonprofit arts organization Ideas xLab—to build and maintain strong interpersonal bonds through cooperative cooking. It's a way to turn a kitchen into a true, cooperative makerspace—something that Americans have gotten away from in recent decades.

"The Louisville Table was created to challenge contemporary kitchen layouts, which are perfect solutions for solitary cooking. This appliance, specifically created to embrace collaborative cooking, reflects the emergent nature of contemporary kitchens as gathering and party spaces for friends and family," says Szczęsny.

The table's features might seem minor—the inclusion of an induction cooktop, heat-resistant surfaces, and two stainless steel drawers that keep food either warm or cold for up to two hours—but the marketing campaign behind it has been successful enough that the company is already releasing a prototype of a DIY version (furthering the maker movement concept).

FirstBuild is also embracing the competitive spirit of the maker culture. A home coffee roaster concept, known as House Roast, was developed at FirstBuild's inaugural Hack the Home event in the Spring of 2015. This device enables coffee lovers to roast coffee beans in a standard home convection oven.

As Carlson notes, the culinary maker community will continue to evolve and take different forms. "In my mind, maker culture involving food can look like different things. An example would be in smaller community, a group getting together and opening a professional-grade kitchen that members of the community could use. So you would have the chef who needed to go in a make a ton of crepes to sell, but it would be in a cooperative environment. That counts, in my mind, as a makerspace. But then, you also have the people who have made a 3-D printer that makes crepes," he says.

"I think you find a lot of people who aren't afraid to look inside things—and I don't just mean physical tools, but within situations or the way things are typically done to get a better sense of how things could operate differently."