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Setting the table

Slow food rituals can stir up and nourish design thinking 

Spaghetti Squash from The Secret Lives of Fruits and Vegetables series, 2015. Photo: Maciek Jasik.
 

An architect in our group of 10 measures out a tidy pile of flour onto a sheet of brown butcher paper. With the back of her hand she forms a void—a well—in its center. She cracks an egg, adds a bit of olive oil, salt, and water, and pours it into the well. Her fingers gently stir at the edges, allowing the flour walls to collapse, and a loose dough is formed.

“OK, your turn,” she smiles, handing off a lumpy mound of potential to a dinner companion. Observing until now, a design engineer holds the dough and kneads it until it is smooth and elastic. A few more guests decide to take on making their own flour wells. Each shares wisdom or woes about the simple act of dough making, and conversations loosen. As the discourse begins to pick up, it’s time to set the framework for the night ahead: We are here to be open and transparent, to think about both old and new. To allow for all ideas to be shared freely, we ask guests to leave affiliations at the door.

The act of preparing a meal is a powerful gateway to remembering the skill sets for collaboration: participation, empathy, flexibility, making and doing simultaneously, emergence, and individuality. At The Laurentia Project, we use cooking together to explore these skills because it is universal, nonthreatening, and tethered to home.

During the dough making, the conversation ranges widely, but periodically we bring it back to a planned topic, such as how to recognize and embrace the Anthropocene era in which we reside; the alignment of patience in consommé and community; the resilience of female armaments; or how the dismantling of national institutions might occur with productive empathy. They are topics, intrinsically connected to design, that require networked nourishment in order to be explored and to render action.

Another dinner participant takes a rolling pin to spread the dough into a sheet ¹⁄³² nd of an inch thick. That takes time, elbow grease, and courage, but if the sheet holds together, the reward is light-as-air ravioli. With time, each guest gravitates to a role. Mixing the pesto filling. Spooning it onto the sheet. Brushing on an egg mixture that acts like glue. Folding over the dough to envelop the pesto. Pressing out the air pockets. Or simply bearing witness to the organized madness.

As the guests relax into their tasks, food stories begin to emerge. For almost everyone, food is interwoven with memories that span our lives. Food is a timeless and universal way to connect and offers a catalytic mode of design workshopping.

Jennifer Young, an associate at Lake | Flato who attended one of our dinners, explains the difference. “Everything always feels so rushed,” she says, about the conventional design process. Even when getting a large team together for a visioning charette, someone might be flying in and out on a tight schedule. Someone else has a hard stop at 4:00 PM. There’s always a lot to cover, and agendas aren’t necessarily aligned.

Young appreciates the evolution of dialogue that unfolds naturally in the space of a dinner: “There’s a period of time when we’re all cooking and making things and starting to understand the kinds of things we’re going to talk about. By the time we sit down at the table, everyone’s ready.” For this article, we talked with Young almost a year after our dinner together, and her memories of the event were vibrant and resonant. To us, this reveals how the making of food-based design charettes generates values that endure in the day-to-day.

Participants in a Laurentia Project dinner workshop prepare ravioli from scratch. Photo courtesy of Tristan Roberts.

 
For dessert, we serve pie with whipped cream. We do it the slow, collective way, by passing around a mason jar half full with heavy cream. Guests take turns shaking, and when an arm tires, the jar is handed off. Everyone who wants one gets a turn or two. Then the jar goes around another time, with a spoon: perfect zero-carbon cream, ready for pie deployment.

In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), the British primatologist Richard Wrangham hypothesizes that cooking food was essential in our evolution. We are the only animals known to cook our food, and cooking vastly improves the efficiency with which we extract nutrition. Not only does that free up time from activities such as foraging and chewing, but also, Wrangham argues, it freed up energy that led us to evolve larger brains. If that hypothesis is right, we became thoughtfully human by cooking around a fire in small tribes. These would have been the same fires around which we built villages and the same gatherings where we designed and made tools, shared ideas, and planned our work as a community.

Our ancestral patterns haven’t gone anywhere. Everyone still squeezes into the kitchen during a dinner party. And napkin sketches—hatched over a shared meal—remain the archetype of the germ of an idea. Design practice today, inclusive of cloud-based collaborations, screen sharing, and windowless conference rooms, has cleaved the sharing of food from the design of space. Instead of relegating food-based experiences to the margins, we suggest combining food ritual with design practice.

The importance of the connection between design and the making of food continues to surprise us. As an architect and a consultant who are both focused on sustainability, we recently facilitated a workshop for a firm that believed it wasn’t living up to its sustainable design ideals. We expected to delve into the technical strategies required of a sustainable design practice, but the group led us someplace else.

When we asked the room of architects what aspect of their work got them out of bed in the morning, one after another spoke—each through a unique story—about the pleasures of engaging with the teams they work on. They also bemoaned the absence of routine collaboration in office cultures ruled by earbuds and lunch eaten alone at desks. A weekly shared lunch, on the other hand, was a celebrated firm practice and a bright note.

A well is formed from flour, then an egg is cracked into the center. Photo courtesy of Tristan Roberts.

 
June Jo Lee is a Washington, DC–based food ethnographer who, among other things, has studied the vanishing American lunch break and designed programs to get companies cooking together. She says that one of her goals is to teach sohn mat—in Korean, “the flavor in the fingertips” that’s imparted by loved ones as they cook. “When you break bread [at the office], you’re connecting people beyond functional roles—it’s really about empathy” she says. “When you eat together, it transforms that relationship into a personal relationship. And suddenly, it infuses it with emotion and care. When you start caring, your capacity to care grows.”

In the same way, creating a nourishing design process and designing buildings that people nourish are the same task. When we make and share the ravioli and connect it with the love that went into it, we are each more willing to engage authentically elsewhere: in community ethnographies, material choice, placemaking, and building care.

The design profession is leaning on checklists to generate sustainability strategies and spending untold hours to document the work for third-party reviewers in order to demonstrate trustworthiness—instead of reappropriating that time to actually build trust. The paperwork process was necessary in the context from which it was developed, but the future of lasting design is not paperwork; it is community.

When the well is stirred and collapses, it forms a loose dough. Photos courtesy of Tristan Roberts.

 
Cooking from scratch, collectively, is a risk and can be perceived as a waste of time. But the slow pace of the food is intentional and productive, as we are asking our guests to unfold and disarm. Shared meals have more lasting efficacy than any meeting agenda, goal-setting charette, or community workshop. This is because cooking together is inherently empathetic, loosens meaningful conversation, connects us to ancestral behavior, embeds and triggers memories, and resurfaces core values. These are unyielding foundations for a design team to engage and share. Making a slow dinner is simple, effective design.

As the dinner conversation wraps up over pie crumbs, coffee, and perhaps a little discovered sherry, the work has only begun. We have listened carefully, lightly facilitated, and witnessed new threads come up. The promise of shared meals that lead to action doesn’t end when the kitchen is cleaned up. To us and, we believe, anyone engaging with food in this way, the layers of stories continue to evolve into better ways of meeting, connecting, and improving how and what we design. We also happily recognize that guests who come to dinner will take with them a part or the whole of the evening and transform it into something that is potent for their own individual process. That, too, is the intended outcome, however slow it may come. ■