Creating Smoke & Vapour

Posted Dec. 9, 2013 by Maja Kuzmanović

After the first Open Sauces dinner, Stevie Wishart and I talked about creating a composition using sounds of the kitchen. We wanted to bridge the separation between kitchen and dining table by using the mechanical and physical sounds of ingredients transforming into dishes. The composition would combine edible and sonic elements and encourage diners to be silent, but without awkwardness. Even though we were both keen on the idea, life and work took us in different directions and it remained in the back of our heads as another of those myriad projects that we might never get around to realising. Until Smoke & Vapour.

For some time I have been fascinated by the etherial nature of smoke: a perfume of wood that is infused in food through flavoured air. I began exploring smoking as a technique to enhance taste, preserve food, and even make convincing traditional Balkan meat dishes without meat. I'm a big fan of smoked food, but being a cancer patient I have to be careful of carcinogenic substances produced by smoke. So, I've looked into various techniques that would give me the taste of smoke and reduce the problematic particles of burned wood, such reducing the temperature, time and amount of wood used. I gathered an arsenal of traditional and novel smoking tools that were just waiting to be shared with a larger group of people.

When in May 2013 we received this year's the Week van de Smaak festival brochure on the theme of 'water and fire', I saw the perfect opportunity to bring my interests in food, smoke, sound and silence together in an event. At one of the Friday aperos at FoAM I excitedly shared my ideas with Nik Gaffney and Rasa Alksnyte, and 'Smoke & Vapour' was born.

We began experimenting with smoking and steaming during summer barbecues and autumn harvests, which gradually condensed our attention on creating the seasonal menu in early November. Then for three weeks we cooked, recorded, tasted, listened, tested, walked and laughed (a lot). The process itself made us more aware of the aesthetics that emanate from the processes of cooking and eating.

Stevie and Nik used the whole kitchen, as well as the insides of our mouths, as musical instruments. It was interesting to have to cook and listen to the sound that the pots and pans, knives and pestles made in the process. The rhythm of cooking slowed down, becoming intensely focused and concentrated. Every gesture aquired hightened importance. Sometimes the needs of the sound recording accentuated the taste of food – like slow, low temperature smoking; other times they clashed – as when we ground so much pepper in a salad to get enough recorded material that we sneezed and coughed the whole evening. Using different steamers and smokers to record the sound of 'transformation' – from moment the wood combusts and fumes begin to rise from the embers to the roaring sound of fire in an enclosed oven; or the sounds of delicate bubbles just emerging from the bottom of a pot to the carnival of bubbling, hissing and burping of a steamer at 100°C. We became aware of the sonic nuances that exist between the effervescence of sparking water, fizzy vitamins and pain killers; between the crunch of nachos, bruschetta or Swedish crackers. Reading out cooking terms and names of dishes to include in the composition made us realise how beautiful some of the words are – like samphire… chestnuts… popping sugar…

Rasa and I built on each others' cooking styles, and tested out tools both old and new in the kitchen. We both share a love for smoke, mushrooms, wild food and above all for experimentation. Rasa has a large garden that supplied some of the piquant ingredients, and she supplied her own extensive experience with traditional and experimental cooking techniques. I brought in my investigations in molecular gastronomy, as well as my own cultural background. Our cuisine became a mix of Balkan and Baltic, old and new, spiced with goods brought back with us from various travels (like Icelandic moss and Australian bush tomato), all brought together with the taste of the Belgian terroir. The two of us spent days tweaking the menu, cooking up small experiments for a keen group of tasters at FoAM and in our homes, until we were convinced that the rhythm of taste and texture would flow with the atmospheres we were trying to create. The level of trust and appreciation of each other's cooking became a strong foundation on which to build the event.

The team (Rasa, Stevie, Nik and Alkan) worked together to create the four 'movements' of the menu. Literally we wanted to move our guests from one part of the studio to another, allowing for different types of sociality and ambient experience to emerge. From mingling in the foyer to sitting alone, to sharing a small table and 'hanging out' in a communal kitchen. While creating this experience it was amazing to see how each person's life experiences, diverse types of knowledge and palettes of skills worked together to create a harmonious whole. There were elements of composition, choreography, architecture, sound engineering, meditation, process facilitation and recollections of good restaurants – but also common sense in Nik and Alkan's 'Hmmmm, I'm not so sure about this…' Each of our contributions helped design a flow that made our guests feel welcome and at ease.

The process of designing Smoke & Vapour became one of the most smooth and inspiring co-creations in which I have participated in the last years. I would even go so far to say that it was a true embodiment of transdisciplinarity. The boundaries between different arts, crafts, sciences and technologies truly dissolved in the creative process. We fed off each others' ideas and approaches, built a menu based on sound and a composition derived from taste, then created an experience to hold all of the components together. It didn't matter whose ideas were being used, nor where they came from. As long as an idea increased the synaesthesia between food and sound, eating and breathing, it was tested, incorporated if it worked, discarded (with no hard feelings) if it didn't.

We openly acknowledge the fact that our ideas don't originate in a vacuum. Some of our recipes came from experimentation with available ingredients, others were based on previous work by us and others. We collected recipes from cookbooks and online, modified and combined them, making sure we acknowledged our sources in the spirit of Open Sauces. When we compiled the Libarynth page of our inspirations, it appeared that the most prominent sources were a mix of recipes gleaned from the internet or based on vague memories of dishes from our mothers' and grandmothers' kitchens, as well as borrowings from the artful concoctions of Noma, In De Wulf and The Tippling Club (which are not surprisingly my three favourite restaurants). We are grateful to all of the home cooks and professional chefs on whose shoulders we could stand to create our humble degustation menu!

After several weeks of experimentation, we settled on a flow that we were all happy with – first of all a playful 'arrival and descent', where guests were welcomed with trays of food and sound. It hilarious seeing Raquel striding off elegantly with a tray of of smoked eggs – and the noises of vociferous munching and crunching emanating from a small speaker on the tray. Or watching guests' reactions when popping sugar began effervescing from deep inside their mouths along with the noises from the speakers. The second movement was a 'solitary immersion' where we focused guests' attention on sound, scent, temperature and taste in earnest. Individual chairs had been scattered at random in the space and when visitors were seated hot hissing rocks were brought amidst them, while they were given warm bowls to hold and Stevie's hurdy-gurdy could be heard wafting down from some obscure place in the darkness overhead. This was all designed to encourage a movement inwards, from the social consumption of food to an intimate dialogue between food and senses themselves.

Following this, the third movement was a 'silent convivium' – a tavern-like room with small tables and dim lighting, where the food was shared among the guests, who were either silent or talked quietly about the experience of eating and listening. The last movement, 'sweet emergence', followed the tradition of the 'chef's table', where the diners are invited to the kitchen and the chefs join them for a part of the meal. In our case we converted our working surface (replete with notes on the presentation of dishes and all stains and spillages from the process of their making) into a communal dessert table decked with a range of sweet and savoury morsels to end the meal. The prerecorded sounds of the kitchen blended with the live noises of making tea and coffee: clinking china, bubbling kettles, the sharp clinking of plates and glasses, hushed conversations.

After a while the sussurus of conversation reemerged as guests and the production team alike reminisced about the warmth of the smoked mussel consommé in Kosi Hidama's bowls hot from the kiln, the surprising taste of the smoked garlic tiramisu, the comfort of flavoured steam poured over cobblestones, a recounting of kitchen disasters such as the collapsed dumplings and burned potato skins along with a demonstration of the various tools we used to make the dinner. These conversations lasted long into the night hours. It seems that eating in silence succeeded in gluing both friends and strangers together in a jovial atmosphere. Removing the burden of having to make small talk, dialogue would arise naturally, with a level of comfort that only emerges from shared experience. Several guests told us how much of a relief it was just to focus on the shared experience and not to have to talk. One of the guests was curious to see that the smokier the dishes were, the more conversation they appeared to encourage, reminding her of a paragraph she read in Michael Pollan's Cooked about fire and society.

By the evening's close, the whole became much more than the sum of its parts. This was evident on the faces of the guests on the nights both of the rehearsal and the public event. Even though there are many ways in which we can still improve the food, the sound and the atmosphere, we were happy to see the smiles and hear the words that the guests exchanged at the end of the evening. Words like trust, contemplation, deliciousness, grounding, rest, inspiration, nourishment and mindfulness were music to our ears after a marathon of preparation and production. And still it remains difficult to describe Smoke & Vapour in words – as is apparent from this post. We hope that we'll have a chance to present the event again, since by the end it definitely seemed to beg for 'another'. For now, we're documenting the process, the recipes, the menu and the overall flow on the Libarynth:

The Background of Smoke & Vapour

A couple of the guests asked me after the event where the idea for Smoke & Vapour came from. Although Smoke & Vapour was co-created over the course of a few weeks by a group of dedicated people, the seed had been germinating in my head for some years. In 2010 I followed a course in mindfulness training, where the first exercise involved attentively eating one raisin for several minutes, paying attention to the way it looked, sounded, felt, smelt and tasted. I was amazed at the profuse sensations arising from such a simple and overlooked food as a dried grape. Over time I became convinced that if we want to approach food from a holistic and/or systemic perspective we should start from our sense of taste. When talking about food in such circles as those devoted to attaining healthier lives for themselves and the planet, we primarily focus on functional aspects: growing more food in the city, respecting the sources, finding ethically and environmentally resilient diets, etc. All of which are absolutely important. However, if we would also focus more on mindfully tasting the food we eat every day, I believe that with every bite we could become more attuned to what is healthy for our (planetary) body and mind. For example, a carrot encrusted with pesticides, grown in a depleted soil, plucked early and bruised by travelling across the globe in dark refrigerated containers lacks taste, scent, colour and texture that its carefully grown, seasonal sibling retains in abundance.

I came to realise that the discussion on sustainable food production, distribution and consumption (including urban agriculture, guerilla gardening, permaculture etc.) that are often focused on functionality and pragmatism can become so much richer and more relevant to eaters' daily lives if it includes the aesthetics and experience of food. In other words: less talking more tasting. How often do we have meals in silence, wether alone or with others? How often do we take time to use all our senses to reflect on what we're putting in our mouths? Does that reflection take us back along the supply chain, so we become more aware of and thankful for the labour of the plants, animals, microbes, people, machinery, water, sunlight and all the other elements that make up the tasty morsel we're about to chew on? Can we taste the conditions in which this labour happened?

Such questions have kept me on my toes since eating that raisin, and over the years have influenced both my own diet and FoAM's as a whole. Even though mindful eating has informed our diets, I was curious to find a way to incorporate it into our artistic programme, without demanding meditation or other mindfulness training of guests. I was looking for an opportunity to create a silent dinner, designed to focus the diners' attention on the complex sensations that food can produce in their bodies and minds. Finally, with Smoke & Vapour, we have found an interesting form for this experience. From the guests' reactions, it definitely seemed to reflect Brilliat-Savarin's opinion that "the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star" (Physiology of Taste, 1825).