Mar 14

Episode #34: Nicole Vindel

The co-founder of Food Design Nation.

Nicholas Gill
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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
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In this episode of the podcast we speak with Nicole Vindel. She is the co-founder of Food Design Nation, an art and design collective from people of different backgrounds from all over the world who want to disrupt the outdated global food system. Nicole has created a lot of projects related to food that take us out of our comfort zone. That ask us to take a step back and think about the food around us. It’s really creative and powerful.

Right now, they are working on a project set in Chile titled Somewhere Called O’Higgins, set in the region immediately south of Santiago. It’s a stunningly beautiful place with a lot of different landscapes – the Andes, valleys, the coast – though you don’t hear a lot about this province and its food traditions. The series of exhibitions, which feature the art created by multi-disciplinary people from around the world with O’Higgins locals, officially launches in the Chilean springtime (the last few months of 2022).

On Food Design and her work with El Celler de Can Roca:

Nick: “So, your work your work is about using art and design to create a better food future. Is that a safe way to put it?”

Nicole: “Yeah, for sure. Actually, I use food, to create the landscapes or to envision the landscapes that we want to see not only in the future, but also in the present.”

Nick: “How did you get in to this line of work?”

Nicole: “It's a good question because I think I don't I know myself. I think it was a process, one thing drives to the other. And sometimes it's more about trusting the process and where it goes. So I started, actually, from an engineering background, and it was tightly related to design. And then I realized that more than the engineering part, I enjoyed the designing frameworks. And from there, I discovered arts and I saw that there are different ways of working between arts and design. So, I focus more in this part.”

Nick: “Okay, so what exactly is food design?”

Nicole: “That's like the question of the moment.”

Nick: “Right now, I hear the term a lot. But a few years ago, I never heard it. But suddenly, it's everywhere. And we're thinking about food in this way now.”

Nicole: “I think that it's quite wide. I can tell you my perspective, which doesn't mean that it's the correct one. But I understand food design as the merging of these two disciplines. Like when we design something is when we put intention on making something consciously. And our food systems have been designed, but not designed with the purpose of lasting forever and for everyone. So, when we're speaking about food design, I envision this part. I envision having a more holistic perspective of a system, and then designing accordingly. Sometimes just in one specific part of the process but thinking in correlation of the entire picture.”

Nick: “So it's basically a different way of thinking about food systems than then what we're typically used to.

Nicole: “Absolutely.”

Nick: “I was digging around and saw that your university thesis was in collaboration with El Cellar de Can Roca. It was about the experience of eating in high cuisine. What exactly went down with this thesis?”

Nicole: “So, in this moment, I was coming from this engineering background, more specialized in smart materials, with a research center of materials, and I discovered that there were a lot of underused possibilities that were used in very technical aspects but not in something experiential. And there was one specific element that was a smart memory alloy that was an active material that react edwith heat. So, I decided to place it in a cuisine world and see how can we create new unexpected ways of eating with it. So, it was basically a set of tableware, smart tableware, that was reacting to the foods in front of the guests.”

Nick: “So, when you say reacting to the food…you created something called a Càlid bowl and it was made from what?”

Nicole: “It was made from silicone and then this material that was a smart memory alloy that was closed when served. And like a flower in spring when it hasn't blossomed yet. So, when serving something hot on the on the plate, it was opening itself, reacting to this heat and allowing you to start the experience of feeding with this blossom.”

Nick: “So, the silicon bowl was basically a closed and then you pour a hot liquid…was it a liquid? Like a soup?”

Nicole: “Broth.”

Nick: “Okay, so they pour broth on it and it opens like a flower. That's beautiful. And what was the rest of the dish? Was it just the broth? You didn't eat the flower I assume?

Nicole: “No, not the bowl itself. But actually inside it was a typical dish from Can Roca that they put small pieces of solid, and foams and leaves and things. Small pieces so that when the broth comes in, it's like a spring soup. And you can taste it both liquids and different textures. And this was one of the pieces. There were five.”

Nick: “Just out of curiosity, what were the others?”

Nicole: “One was a volcanic stone piece, where there was like a rubber plate that you were spinning on a dish, and it was covered in essential oils. Actually, the volcanic stone itself is a smart material that when it's heated, the smell spreads around and you can eat while this is turning around. And another one was using the same material of the bowl, that they were like sticks covered with spices that you were using as a spoon for the coffee for the petit fours. Especially for first at the end of the of the experience. And you were mixing these ingredients with a coffee itself.

Nick: “So all of these things they collectively just add to the experience, the fine dining experience. They transport you. What's the goal? To do what?”

Nicole: “At first, it was more about a way of playing. It was born from an analysis of the experience in high cuisine, but it's quite different from any other experience. And to me it was an unknown world on how to use our senses. Our cognitive expectation of this dinner is something that you set up very high, because you need to wait for 11 months or so to make it and go there. So, it was a way of playing. And actually, after some years, I understood that it helped me to have a connection with our foods and establish a dialogue with them. It's not just something that you're eating and that’s it. It is something that is telling you something, and it's transforming you. Maybe not only in a physical way, but also in the way you think about those foods.

On what is Food Design Nation:

Nick: “For the average person, how would you describe it [Food Design Nation]? What is it exactly, I just signed up, by the way, so I have really high expectations.”

Nicole: “Nice, nice to have you on board. So basically, Food Design Nation is born from the fact that we wanted to make a collective move in designing those better systems. And we understood that we as individuals, when I'm speaking about we it’s Jashan [Sippy], my business partner and myself, that the we cannot make it alone. It's something that requires a lot of people and a lot of people addressing the same problems or addressing them collectively. Not everyone in their own voice. But when we resonate these, we can create better and bigger impacts. And in this sense, when we came up with this concept of Food Design Nation as a nation without borders, we're considering how nowadays that every everything is very fluid. We are defining ourselves according to our nationality, according to where you're based, or where you're born, or where you are, currently now, you know, and, it's crazy to think that way when we are partially living online. When we are spending like half of our awake lives in a digital world, and we can be connected with something else, then it's not just our physical state, but the purpose that we have. And in this case, it's the shared purpose that it can come from a scientist or an anthropologist, or a chair, or an educator or parents that are caring about the food system of their child. At the end, it's all the same because it's a shared purpose.”

Nick: “And this shared purpose is, through all these people, to disrupt the current food system.”

Nicole: “Exactly.”

Nick: “So how does it work? I mean, you have everyone with a shared purpose, but what do they do? What do they create to make it a reality and actually do the disruption?”

Nicole: “So, this is an umbrella. We understand Food Design Nation as a space where we create those creative frameworks that can be shaped according to more specific purposes. Like, for example, all of this started during lockdown, I think it's important to say it because it was one year of thinking how all of this is going to be transformed and how we can work together in the digital world to make a physical impact. And all of those thoughts, and that being manifested in different results. And during this time of lockdown, and actually, until now, we are doing events. Different kinds of events to create dialogues or share experiences. Some of them are safaris, for example, and their led by Maud [de Rohan Willner] from Salty Studio. And in this case, it's a conversation where we invite guests from different areas to discuss one topic. All the topics until now have been related under the same umbrella of democratizing food, but in different specific sub topics. And then it's more like a safari where you can discover insights and you can get inspiration from others from anywhere in the world. Then round tables and tools, another framework that was interesting because Neeraja [Dhorde] from India was moderating these round tables where people were having breakfast, maybe in London, and then another person was having a cup of wine in Canada, and it was nice. Where you can have a dialogue and another one is serendipity. That it's like speed dating with people in the field, or people with this shared purpose. But that it can be from any fields.”

Nick: “To actually date?”

Nicole: “That would be nice, but actually, it's more for collaborations. So from there, there have been people that have met and have started a project from meeting online in a moment that everything is very under control, you know. You're meant to meet from 10 to 11 and be creative and get ideas in this moment. And then you have another meeting. Everything is in the digital world is such a framework that it's very close. And suddenly it has this randomness to happen, you know. So, these are some of the things.”

On Somewhere Called O’Higgins:

Nick: “What is Somewhere Called O'Higgins?

Nicole: “So as I was telling you of the events, we have different frameworks, and one of them is challenges. We call it challenges because it's very open. But basically, it's commissioned work, where the government of O’Higgins and the Centro Interpretación Gastronomica, together with the Association of restaurants and University of O'Higgins, commissioned us to create an exhibition. And when perceiving this exhibition, actually, one of the added values that they were seeing is that so that the main goal is to appreciate the local regional culture, gastronomical culture and other products, processes and ingredients.

And then they said that one thing that happens a lot is that – and actually, I feel identified because I think it's the same – that happens in all Latin American countries, or many, at least in Guatemala happens also, is that we see the grass greener on the other side, right? We tend to admire other cultures sometimes more than what we have a close to us. And in that sense, because we have an international community was interesting that this international community has the opportunity to appreciate and care and understand and highlight all the value that is within this this region that as you said, it's super vast. Actually I haven’t been yet but I would really love to. So, it's really nice to hear you have been.

Nick: “I love all of Chile. I've been to Chile a lot of times. I've written guidebooks and things, so I've kind of had the pleasure of seeing all of it. I love Chile, but there are so many hidden little provinces that you don't really hear about. They're not like, the places with $1,000 a night hotels like, the Atacama or Patagonia that are and all the magazines, but they're completely beautiful. And they have such rich, food and culture and the scenery is unreal. And so yeah, so O’Higgins. You said there was a gastronomic interpretation center, was that there already, or is that something that's going to be built?”

Nicole: “It’s there, actually. So basically, all of these entities are supporting this project that will end up being like an exhibition, but we made it become an art residency. So, people can experience a place through all of these places, the Centro Gastronomica, the Association of Restaurants, the University, every partner, and individuals also that are supporting this initiative in a way that from outside, you can travel without traveling, and you can experience it from a distance. So, we can create something related to this appreciation or this unique experience of getting to know the place.”

Nick: “So right now, are you taking applications for the residency. People are still applying or applications are closed?”

Nicole: “Applications are closed, actually. We are going over all of them. It's really nice that we have a really good quality of applications. So, it's going to be a hard process for us to select. And when we select in April, people are going to start the residency.”

Nick: “So, they'll actually go to Chile, or it'll mostly be done online?”

Nicole: “I mean, they won't won't physically go there. But emotionally, mentally, yes. It's all about creating this kind of experience, without physically being there, but through a sort of an avatar, or that it's going to be a person, a physical person that it's going to be giving them one day of their life to experience through their body. Through their senses, their emotions, perceptions, and everything.”

Nick: “So each of each of these artists, or these residences, will connect with a local person. So, each one will be attached to a local person. And together, they create something?”

Nicole: “So this local person, is gonna do a one day exploration, to whatever the artist wants to discover. Maybe it can be a place of an ingredient. It can be like a special path they want to know, or speak with certain people that they want to know. And the artwork itself, actually, is going to be developed in partnership with craftsmen and people from there. So, artisans that are based in O’Higgins.”

Nick: “Do we have any examples of what this might look like? I know it's still early and that it hasn't actually happened yet. But have you imagined what something might look like? Like what's going to come out of it?”

Nicole: “We tried. We imagined it a lot, you know, but I think it's hard to say and actually, whatever we can imagine it's not going to be the full possibilities. But we tried to define at least three different tracks that people can choose. One is ingredients, so you're basing the artwork about the properties of these ingredients and something vernacular, something that is quite unique from the place. Then also Sabores, that's going to be developed together with the Association of Restaurants, and it speaks more about the palettes and the flavors that are from this place and the recipes and the application of those ingredients in an experience. And then a last one that is about process, that I think personally is really important because we need to acknowledge all these methods and the knowledge that goes beyond the ingredient itself. That it's what we end up seeing, you know, but all the effort and the seasonality and all the implications that that makes this food be on the table of Chilean people.”

Nick: “And there will be an exhibition at some point?”

Nicole: “Yeah, there's going to be an exhibition, and the exhibition is going to be in three places of Chile. And it's going to be from October to December of 2022.”

Nick: “Where in Chile? Outside of O'Higgins or all inside?”

Nicole: “The first one in Rancagua, but the other two are open now, we need to close venues.”

Nick: “So these exhibitions are there for the Chilean people, they're not just for some tourists to come in, and then understand what Chile is. But I imagine they'll also live online in this virtual world because the whole connection of everything is happening in this, virtual space.”

Nicole: “We want to document them, actually. Each expedition of Eli, that is going to be this local Avatar, local person, that is going to lead these expeditions, is going to be recorded. And the process itself is going to be recorded. The outcome actually, is for local people. That's the main purpose. So, we're gonna document it, but the main presence needs to be there.”

Nick: “OK, so to get local people to think about these traditions of O'Higgins and just, just to think, right? The spark to get them to think and…I don't know.”

Nicole: “Absolutely, to spark, to also feel this broadness, because there are some cultures that are really proud of what they have and their ancestry, heritage and what’s local, the unique things that are from this place. And one that people in O'Higgins can feel this proudness to. They can feel this appreciation. There was something that really impacted us when we heard it, that probably this is the last generation of campesinos, of farmers, that are going to be in this region. And one thing that we want to foster is, first of all, the acknowledgement of all these efforts, but also the preservation of the same very essential work and labor.”

Nick: “Right. Because fewer people are farming and being campesinos. They're moving to, gravitating to cities. And so yeah, that's kind of frightening. When you think about it, that Chile is itself being disrupted as we speak.”

On her Exhibition “Privilege of Fake Abundance”:

Nicole: “That was my last exhibition. Talking about complexity. I think all of this is, it's a way of embracing this complexity to be understood by each individual in their own way, and in finding those nuances of how you perceive it. So, when working with a project, one of the things that impacted me a lot, personally, is the fact of value, what do we value? And what defines the value we give to things? Sometimes it is social, you know, collective validation of ‘oh, this is worth it.’ Or sometimes this price, sometimes it's something that has been socially said, like, ‘oh, this material is worth more than this one.’ Or it happens a lot in colonialism. Cultures, how they shifted from an indigenous foods have been devaluated, while others have been adopted and have been raised. I feel that in this moment, currently, it speaks a bit about the modern complexities that we're living, how we are in a privileged era. Where we have a lot of everything, like maybe too much of everything. And it's hard to appreciate everything we have. And I'm expressing it through food, through water in the space.

To me, water is part of the food system. It's live, or it's everything. So, there are these kinds of fountains that are representing our sinks, and it has two lectures. One is the water from these fountains. And the other one is a procrastination, how all of the things that we as society we don't want to face, we're just putting them apart and leaving them in the sink. And there's like this kind of constructions that are built and can be turned on and one day, potentially, we will need to clean the dishes, but they are there. And then the water itself, just the fact that we call it a resource, something that makes us think that we own it, when water has been there before humanity and before anything. It's quite precious.”

Quotes from this interview have been edited for context and clarity.