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.
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.