The Edinburgh Food Studio describes itself as a cutting-edge environment where ‘arts, sciences and food collide’. Ben Reade, one of the co-founders and ex-Head Chef at Nordic Food Lab, has a more refreshing way to sum it up: “This is a place where the words ‘innovation’ and ‘sustainability’ just don’t cut it. We need to go deeper than the buzzwords surrounding sustainable food.” The Edinburgh Food Studio is attempting to reinvigorate the past, share ideas in the present and pave the way to an exciting future for Scottish gastronomy.
When it comes to sustainability, a ‘one size fits all’ solution is comforting. However, realising a sustainable diet, food culture or ecosystem is very complex. A huge range of factors, contexts, values and pathways are involved and, as the Edinburgh Food Studio aptly represents, the diverse reality often risks a collision of ideas and approaches, rather than collaboration.
To create a more harmonious approach, policymakers now recognise that diversity must become the central pillar of any innovative or sustainable food system, from agro-biological and species diversity to nutritional and cultural diversity. However, in food business models, there is still a tendency to separate food research, production, processing and consumption. While the ‘farm to table’ food movement is growing, there is still a lack of truly collaborative, multi-disciplinary food organisations.
Both Ben and co-founder Sashana Souza Zanella are chefs, but are also educated as a scientist and anthropologist respectively. They both wanted to work in the world of sustainable food, yet had concerns about the various – seemingly discrete – options available to them. Ben reflects:
Setting up a restaurant could limit time and funding for research, with terms such as ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ functioning only to attract a mass consumer demographic or funding source, rather than actually reflecting the diverse realities of local people, ecologies and food cultures. On the other hand, working in research and consultancy risks simply telling the story, but losing touch with the simple, yet sacred, act of feeding people.
The caveats of choosing a single business model led to the evolution of the Edinburgh Food Studio, where a restaurant and communal dining are combined with workshops, consultancy and a research space. This platform aims to provide a place from which to explore the diversity of Scottish food culture, and ensure that the contested debates around sustainable food, climate, ecology and culture become grounded in the everyday acts of sociality and feeding ourselves.
On the 7th September, Ben and Sashana launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise £10,000. Within 36 hours, they had achieved almost half of their fundraising target. By 12th September, they reached £10,000, and since have raised over £17,000 from 228 backers. On 19th November, just 10 weeks after the start of their campaign, the Studio formally opened. Such an enthusiastic public response is indicative of a growing desire for community and collaboration in the ‘future of food’.
The question is, how is the Edinburgh Food Studio actually going to achieve this in practice?
Perhaps in part, by looking beyond that other buzzword: Innovation. The restaurant is a good place to see this in effect. Open from Thursday to Saturday every week, diners are invited to sit at a central communal table. Ben and Sashana will invite guest chefs, artists and people from diverse disciplines such as ceramics, botany, music, poetry and perfume to co-construct the dining event. Producers and suppliers are invited to cook with their products, and host interactive workshops on topics such as fermentation, foraging and butchery.
For example, on 22nd November, Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Co. hosted the Studio’s first workshop on organic tea production and its history. Customers can learn skills and gain knowledge at the studio, building relationships with local producers and organisations. Ben hopes that access to such networks and learning will encourage the replication of social and sustainable practice in everyday Scottish food culture.
The Edinburgh Food Studio embraces innovative partnership at all stages of the food supply chain as vital to their way of doing business. Before officially opening their doors, the Studio used the first part of November to evolve their dishes and get feedback from various partners. All ingredients for the meals are procured through direct trade, and all parts of the food supply chain are involved in the creation of the final product: “Customers can comment on the flavours, suppliers come in just before service and can help prepare their products. It’s laid back, and means that a menu can change from the beginning to the end of just one night,” Ben laughs.
This dynamism is particularly important when it comes to celebrating local Scottish food culture. The idea of each country having a ‘national dish’ neglects an important point about how food becomes food, focusing only on the food itself. It is a process: there is a thread between past, present and future, along which ingredients, techniques, tastes and values all continually adapt. This thread needs to be sustained, and one pivotal way of doing so is research. Fifty percent of the profits from the Edinburgh Food Studio will go towards exploring the diversity of Scottish ingredients.
For this diversity to be understood, numerous disciplines must be involved, including anthropology, chemistry, arts, biology and history. Each play a vital part in the creation of a dish: “Some disciplines help to source ingredients, others to garnish the food, others help create new paradigms or ways of thinking. All should be on an equal playing field, and that is the essence of collaboration,” says Ben.
Reflecting on how this relates to the ‘future of food’, Ben and Sashana want to see the forced dichotomy between ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’ removed. Tradition suggests something that is entrenched in the past, while innovation encourages a quest for novel foods and techniques. The Edinburgh Food Studio blends the two, researching the ‘living traditions’ still relished in small pockets of Scottish culture today, and reinvigorating these with the help of modern equipment and techniques and contemporary interpretations.
As Ben leafs through an old Scottish cookbook from 1825, including recipes such as fermented redcurrants and liquor from spruce tips, he tells me about tripe. Tripe and other offal are often seen as ‘disappearing foods’. Changes in labour, safety and trade regulations, along with shifts in cultural values and tastes, have resulted in declining production and popularity. However, this discounts the savoured memories of older generations: tripe is still, just about, a living tradition. Ben lights up as he recalls conversations with older women wistfully remembering the days of “proper” tripe: “It is hard not to get inspired…they become dreamy eyed.”
The Edinburgh Food Studio springs off these moments of excitement surrounding Scottish food, providing the emotional bedrock to their business model. Ben and Sashana show that ‘sustainability’ and ‘innovation’ is just as much about the process – exciting and inventive – as it is about the end product. It is about feeding people well and invigorating relationships and ‘living traditions’ that already exist in our complex and diverse food systems.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a visit to the Edinburgh Food Studio.
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