In recent years, chefs around the world have founded dedicated test kitchens as venues in which to create freely — without the pressures of a normal, working kitchen — and feed their restaurants new dishes, ideas, and techniques. Some of these projects delve into scientific, technological, and academic research (Momofuku, Mugaritz, Moto), while others stick to developing menus and working on food (Relae, ThinkFoodTank). For the most part, these are small kitchens that don't serve diners or independently produce much or any profit.
The test kitchens of today owe much to Ferran Adrià, who would close his restaurant for half of the year, head to Barcelona, and work in a small space to develop an entirely new menu for the following season. It is, as NYU professor Anne McBride describes it, about "separating the creative process from the productive one."
And with a good number of food labs or test kitchens popping up in the last three years, is this something many more restaurants will be adopting? According to McBride, the level of resources needed for these operations is simply too high for most chefs and restaurants." However, she believes "that even without having defined test kitchens, the idea of allowing more space (physical and mental) to the creative process, will trickle down. I think that diners and the profession can only benefit from this push in creativity."
Here are ten, but stay tuned for a new regular Eater feature highlighting these and more test kitchens around the globe.
Location: Errenteria, Spain
Mugaritz, which sits on a bucolic landscape just outside of San Sebastian, is where chef Andoni Aduriz negotiates the natural and the progressive and considers thoughtfully what it means to provoke and move the diner.
It makes sense, then, that when Mugaritz R&D head Dani Lasa describes his workspace, he speaks of "studying human behavior in creative contexts." According to him, that helps the team understand how to develop "sensorial, emotional, and intellectual stimuli to incorporate into [our] food." In addition to pursuing that goal, which often requires interdisciplinary collaborations with artists and scientists, the team spends much time studying traditional and local ingredients, as well as "more technological ones."
The creative team is a rotating cast of eleven cooks which has become more and more dedicated to research and investigation in the years since Aduriz built the restaurant's first test kitchen in 2004. These cooks are instrumental in helping Aduriz prepare for congresses and demos, showcase dishes for media outlets, and work on book projects.
· All Mugaritz Coverage on Eater [-E-]
[Photos: Adam Mörk]
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
Not too long ago, it dawned on Noma chef René Redzepi that during many weeks of the year, he'd spend more time in the kitchen, with the staff from his restaurant, than with his family. So he and the Noma team decided to do something to make everyone more comfortable in the grind: they did away with the banquet room on the second floor of their restaurant — once their "bread and butter," according to Redzepi — and turned it into a multi-use space that includes sleek, spacious tables for staff meals, an office area, an herb garden, and a test kitchen.
The test kitchen within Noma is different from the Nordic Food Lab, which is located on a houseboat docked in front of the restaurant. At the Noma test kitchen, Redzepi and two dedicated staff members can work "more intuitively" and focus on developing new dishes for the restaurant. At the Nordic Food Lab, which you can see on BBC HARDTalk, the work is more academic, scientific, and according to restaurant managing director Peter Kreiner, "general."
· All Minibar Coverage on Eater [-E-]
Location: Chicago, Illinois
In Chicago's Fulton Market, just around the corner from the Aviary, is Moto, a symbol of unabashedly science-mad cooking. There you can eat your menu and try out dishes often made using inventions that chef Homaro Cantu himself has developed — some of them even with the help of NASA.
The current test kitchen at Moto serves several purposes: to work on the menu, to experiment, and to develop what Cantu refers to as "groundbreaking products." So, both Moto chefs and members of the separate staff at Cantu Designs, the chef's company, use the space. In addition to developing products and working on dishes, Cantu often uses the test kitchen to do consulting work for several organizations.
Cantu tells Eater that he is currently building a second, much larger research kitchen at the Green Exchange of Chicago, where the focus will be on investigating disruptive green technologies. It's something the chef and his team have been studying for the past eight years.
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During the MAD Symposium earlier this month, Puglisi invited a group to the test kitchen to watch the Euro Cup Finals [Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater]
Location: Copenhagen, Denmark
In a recent Eater interview, Christian Puglisi of Copenhagen's Relae described how he went through about fifteen different variations of a new strawberry dish before finally letting go and putting it on the menu. "It has become a lot of work in the developing of things," he said of his habits since opening the restaurant. One can assume it's only gotten more intense now that he has a new wine bar, Manfreds og Vin, right across the street from Relae.
To feed both restaurants, Puglisi just finished building a tiny test kitchen down the street from the two businesses. But, as he explained in an e-mail message, he hesitates to use that term: "I consider it our creative space. It's where our thoughts can focus on the food, creating new dishes, flavors, and combinations. We don't want to do a lot of testing and lab work — we want to create and find room to be creative." Puglisi also hopes to offer his team's work and expertise to other companies working with food.
At this point, he doesn't have a dedicated staff, but if they acquire more funds, one of his current sous chefs, John Tam, will probably shift over to the test kitchen.
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[Photo: Sat Bains]
Location: Nottingham, United Kingdom
In September 2010 British chef Sat Bains, whose eponymous restaurant in Nottingham holds two Michelin stars, opened up a test kitchen with two full-time staff members. The two people that run the space are trained as chefs and not as academics or researchers.
Bains' goal with the outlet is "being able to learn about ingredients without the pressures and constraints of a professional kitchen." These days, many of the restaurant's new dishes come from the test area, but there's also an emphasis on investigation and experimentation. "Playing around is crucial to creativity," says Bains. Accordingly, there are projects that may take twelve months of effort and end up yielding negligible results. That's the whole idea.
The team keeps a meticulous log of every single project they have in the works, and Bains feels that test kitchens "really are the way forward for us chefs and craftsmen."
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[Photo: Eater Moving Pictures]
Location: New York, New York
"We want to try to understand what we do at the deepest possible level," said Momofuku's Dan Felder in a recent phone interview. Since August of 2010, Felder has been running research and development for David Chang's growing restaurant empire. He and his collaborator there, Veronica Trevizo, work out of a test kitchen/food lab whose location Momofuku wishes to keep private.
As with other listings in this article, the general idea of having the space is to foster an open creative environment. Felder and Trevizo, with Chang's guidance, work on new dishes and also serve as a resource for all the Momofuku chefs. They often help with troubleshooting. The food lab has also been recording and cataloging all of Momofuku's dishes, since, as Felder points out, "things can get lost in normal kitchens."
Specific areas of investigation include fermentation, microbiology, and food chemistry, which Chang has lectured about at Harvard, among other venues.
The R&D folks recently researched soy sauce and how it's produced, and then taught the staff about the ingredient. "We have an opportunity to study things we use all the time and take for granted," he said.
Access to the lab has been very limited to outsiders, but Jimmy Fallon, Gizmodo, and Eater NY have produced videos there.
· All Momofuku Coverage on Eater [-E-]
Location: Cartmel, Cumbria, United Kingdom
In the historic village of Cartmel, on the same street as his celebrated fine dining restaurant L'Enclume, chef-patron Simon Rogan opened Aulis, a small research and design facility that serves as a separate entity for ideation and creativity.
"We do a bit of everything here," said Rogan when asked if the focus was more on research or menu development at the space. There are three people working in the test kitchen, which also houses Rogan's offices. There is a special focus on investigating "forgotten ingredients" and emphasizing a natural, more healthful way of eating. To that end, Aulis also organizes tours to farms so that guests can learn about the supply chain and growing methods.
For the last year or so, they've been serving dinners at Aulis in order to get some income out of the operation. That means that diners can now go and try dishes that haven't made it to L'Enclume's menu yet. The price: £150.
· All Aulis Coverage on Eater [-E-]
[Photos: elBulli: Cooking in Progress]
Location: Barcelona, Spain
The elBulli taller, or workshop, in Barcelona, is the one that started it all. This is where Ferran and Albert Adrià and their chefs de cuisine would spend half of the year developing a completely new menu for their restaurant's forthcoming season. It is this meticulous, arduous, and occasionally contentious process that's the subject of the recent documentary elBulli: Cooking in Progress.
With elBulli soon to become a foundation, the taller isn't currently being used for dishes or menu development. Lucy Garcia, who collaborates with and often translates for Ferran Adrià, confirms that the space is being used to work on the La Bullipedia, the Adriàs' Wikipedia for cooking, and to complete the elBulli Catalogue, the series of cookbooks that will cover the final years of the restaurant (2005 - 2011).
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José Andrés' ThinkFoodTank
Location: Washington, DC
"We call ourselves The Delta Force," says Rubén García, José Andrés R&D director, of the three men that work not only to develop new concepts for the restaurants in the expansionist chef's Think Food Group, but also to maintain quality control at his growing list of properties.
From the beginning, the test kitchen hasn't necessarily enjoyed a dedicated space. Instead, when Andrés' extremely exclusive Minibar wasn't in operation, the R&D team would turn that small space into their development headquarters. "We handle menu development and creativity for all of José's restaurants," commented García. "It all starts at Minibar."
They'll often have TFG chefs from around the country come spend a couple of days learning new concepts at Minibar, and the R&D folks will fly to new restaurants in the company to train the staff and implement the menu.
When the new location of Minibar opens in a larger, 16-seat space, there will be more room for the ThinkFoodTank, as they're calling it, to operate.
· All Minibar Coverage on Eater [-E-]
The Fat Duck
Location: Bray, Berkshire, United Kingdom
The progressive chef Heston Blumenthal has emphasized the sensorial and emotional aspects of the dining experience in various interviews and publications. He's made clear that his goal is to make delicious food, but as he pointed out to Eater in an interview, "For me, the most important ingredient is the brain. We eat for two things: to survive and then for pleasure. The pleasure part needs the brain. The context of eating — the shape of the knife, the people you're with, the smell in the room — makes a difference. Whether you like it or not, it matters."
That's where the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen comes in. In this space, Blumenthal works on all aspects of his restaurant, from the technology to the food to the experience. A recent stagiaire describes the level of rigor at the operation: "Everything in the kitchen is measured and prepared according to recipes which have been tested and refined several times over in the experimental kitchen. There are no short cuts or substitutes."
In addition to exploring new technologies and developing techniques and dishes, Blumenthal has long emphasized the importance of thinking off the plate. Using the Experimental Kitchen as his brainstorming area, he recently developed an animation for customers to see at home, before they've even gotten to the restaurant. "It has to be fun," he said of eating at his restaurant.
In the TV series Heston's Feasts (see clips here), Blumenthal spent time in the experimental kitchen as well as traveling for R&D.
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