Prof's Food Design Class Really Cooks

U of M Professor Barry Kudrowitz makes serious fun out of the connection between our stomachs and our eyes.

Barry Kudrowitz’s lab on the University of Minnesota campus feels like a daycare drop-off for grownups. There are racks of toys and toy parts, an ice-cream cart, and a couple of conspicuous handmade gadgets (including the Oreo Separator Machine, which knocks the cookies in half, then heats and sprays the cream filling into one’s mouth). The product-design prof shows what it’s like to be that rare someone who plays for a living.

“My PhD research at MIT was on connections between creativity and humor. Things that make something funny can also make something innovative—that’s how you get innovation, when you make a strange connection between two things that no one has made before.”

Kudrowitz teaches toy design and innovation, as well as a recent first-time offering called “Design and Food,” which attracted the participation of chefs Steven Brown of Tilia, Piccolo’s Doug Flicker, and Diane Yang of La Belle Vie. The subject matter ranged from the presentation of food on plates to flavors and textures, kitchen-tool making, and kitchen skills and design.

“When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to work for Disney and do theme-park rides—that’s the dream, to put people into an immersive world. And that’s what I like about food. Everyone relates to it. If you go into a restaurant, that’s a multisensory experience. The chef probably isn’t trained in design, but they’re designing products. It’s like a small-scale manufacturing plant back there in the kitchen, producing goods for consumption. And you can get a prototype out in a few minutes, and get feedback immediately and change it up in real time.”

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“A lot of chefs have never taken a graphic-design class, but they really know. Diane Yang says that I was teaching all the points she tries to convey to her sous chefs. She knows these principles. She’s thinking about balance, about negative space, and how to make the food pop with the other stuff on the plate. Because you’re always eating it with your eyes first.”

The class culminated with a ticketed event, open to the public, called “Eat Design,” a Top Chef-style competition.

“It sold out immediately. One team crafted custom hot chocolate based on survey questions about non-food-related likes and dislikes. Another mimicked a sushi bar with breakfast food. There were edible ornaments with a Christmas tree, including an ornament with a puff pastry inside it.”

“I’d like to see the class grow. I’d like to have the food community and a lot more chefs involved in a system where maybe the students can stage [shadow a chef] during the class and have the opportunity to work in restaurants. And for some, it’s the first time they’ve eaten at a fancy restaurant.”

Kudrowitz sees a future in “Design and Food,” and reaching younger students.

“I was going to go to cooking school. I got into CIA [Culinary Institute of America] but went to MIT instead. I’ve taken some classes here at Cordon Bleu, and I cook a lot at home. In the future maybe we could do an experimental restaurant concept: pop-up, student-run haute cuisine.”

“I’ve received a grant to study ways to get children to eat more vegetables in the school cafeteria. Along with Steven Brown, Diane Yang, and two food-science professors, we’re going to try to look at playfulness and playful design as a way to promote vegetable consumption. In a restaurant, they can turn carrots into spirally things or maybe make a gel out of mushrooms. And children will eat it—it’s not just presentation, but making it a novel interaction. There’s a little bit of trickery in there, some cool packaging.”