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Chris Heathcote: anti-mega: Interesting 2011

Interesting 2011 · 19. June 2011, 15:55

The Interesting 2011 conference? happening? gathering? happened yesterday at Conway Hall. The theme this year was “less yammering, more hammering”, with various individuals, including myself, curating an hour of hands-on doing.

Everything was great. The way Russell frames the day – low expectations, lots of clapping, be willing to participate – means that everyone pitches in and there’s an incredibly low level of cynicism for an event in London.

I presented “sketching in food”, hopefully destroying a little of the molecular gastronomy myth – we’ve been playing with food for a long time, and there are always new ingredients and new processes, and also it isn’t about precise micrograms of this and that, it’s about trying things out, seeing how they taste, failing and sometimes succeeding.

The nature of the day was participatory, so instead of doing a presentation on stage (as I did at Interesting 2007), this time I attempted to get all 200ish people in the room trying, making and tasting things. By-the-by, this is also one of the hardest things I’ve done in years – scaling to 200 people took an awful amount of thinking and prep. Apologies if I’ve seemed scatty in the last few weeks.

Here is the tasting menu du jour:

We started with two chemical coated strips – sodium benzoate, a preservative used in lots of food that a significant percentage of people can taste (interestingly in different ways, sweet, sour and bitter). Secondly was a chemical known as PTC that about 70% of people perceive as bitter, and a smaller number perceiving as really really horribly bitter. This was to show that taste is genetic, and different people perceive the same food differently. What was great about doing this with 200 people was that you could see if it worked, and people really did taste the strips differently (I had no idea if the sodium benzoate strips actually worked, as I can’t taste them).

Then we went through some of the senses, tasting tomato powder, MSG, and for sound, pop rocks. To explore texture, everyone spherised tomato puree into tomato caviar.

Spherising tomato passata
photo taken by Roo Renolds

The finale (and a bit of planned coup de theatre) was miracle fruit. This changes your perception of taste so that sour things taste incredibly sweet. Lemons, limes and grapefruit taste amazing.

I asked for the slot before lunch because the miracle fruit sensation lasts for about an hour, so it affected the taste of people’s lunches. Apparently salt and vinegar crisps were rather sweet and odd, and I ruined several people’s sandwiches, beer and fish and chips. It’s very rare to be able to (legally) change the way people actually experience the world, and I hope it opened up the doors of perception a bit.

Here are places to learn more about modern food:
Ideas In Food (and their amazing book)
Cooking Issues
Alinea Mosaic (and the Alinea cookbook)
London Gastronomy Seminars
Cooking for Geeks
(and if you’re serious, Modernist Cuisine)

And here are places to buy things from:
Infusions4chefs (UK)
MSK (UK, including Crispfilm which I made the tomato soup crisps from)
MCC (Germany, a good source of the Sosa flavours and powders)
Indigo Instruments (US, for genetic tasting strips)
sour2sweet (EU, for the miracle fruit tablets)
Everything else: Ebay. You can buy anything on Ebay.

Thanks to James and Tom for stepping into the breach and helping distribute things (a far bigger task than I anticipated), thanks to Alby for last-minute loan of a remote control for my presentation, thanks to Dentsu London for putting up with the tens of deliveries needed to make this happen, and thanks to Russell for inviting me to do something, for chauffeuring all my equipment and for putting on an amazing day. Also thanks for everyone who came and participated – it’s great that everyone played along and trusted me enough to taste things without knowing at all what they were or what they would do.

My photos from the day are here.


I know I’m not alone when I say I really enjoyed yesterday Chris. Thanks so much for putting it together; all your effort in the preparation (and the effort of your helpful food minions) was massively appreciated.

Roo    19.06.11    #

LOVED your session yesterday. You ruined my lunch and I’ve probably been turned off tomato soup for a while – but well worth it! :)

Neasa    19.06.11    #

Chris, thanks for an amazing session yesterday. Really appreciated the hard work you put in to it. Are you able to say where you got the ‘miraculin’ in pill form from?

Popsarmchair    19.06.11    #

Hi – the pills are available from the sour2sweet link above (or indeed from other places on Ebay). Hope that helps.

Chris    19.06.11    #

Thanks for a fantastic session on Saturday. The tomato caviar was a revelation, our table also did some interesting mixes of the powdered tomato & pop rocks – which proved a winning combo!

Annie Mole    20.06.11    #