Text: Stephan Wabl
Photos: Nicole Heiling
Food trend researcher Hanni Rützler talks about underrated insects, the kitchen of the future, food from 3D printers and the last time something edible took her breath away.
When Hanni Rützler was served the world’s first in vitro burger in August 2013, she actually really liked it. It tasted good, she says about this rather unusual experience, although it could have done with a little more salt. For Rützler, who was born in Bregenz in Austria’s westernmost province of Vorarlberg, culinary joys and technology are not mutually exclusive; if anything, they are both essential if we want to be able to feed our planet in the future.
Mrs. Rützler, what did you have for lunch?
I made myself some minutina – that’s a plant that looks like a bunch of chives. I added a little olive oil, cream cheese and bread.
When was the last time that something you ate took your breath away?
I wouldn’t really say it took my breath away, but I was really surprised by a tea I had recently. I had bought some new teas in Vienna and especially liked a blend that had liquorice in it. I didn’t expect it to taste this good at all.
Considering the amount of time you spend researching food and eating trends, do you still find time to enjoy food yourself?
The way I eat shows me how I feel. I travel and work a lot and my eating is an indicator of my speed and stress levels. It shows me when I need to slow down. It was a great achievement for me in recent years to take the time to sit down and eat lunch instead of waiting for hunger attacks to set in.
This year’s EXPO has the motto “Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life.” Which innovations will influence the way we eat in the future?
Meat will be one of the big issues in the future because it has a strong connection to the topics of sustainability and natural resources. This is also the reason why there will be a focus on protein-rich alternatives to meat – insects, in vitro meat or plant-based products imitating meat. If you ask me, however, the latter are only temporary solutions for people transitioning to a meat-free diet because many don’t know what to eat once they stop eating meat.
But how can we feed the planet and eight billion people in the future?
Through diversity and an appreciation of foods. We must not ignore the fact that we throw away about one quarter of our food. We are a society of fillet consumers with a very narrow mind when it comes to eating. Part of the answer to your question might be in new technologies – say in vitro foods. In our culture, this approach is still almost unthinkable; other societies, however, have already welcomed this innovation. Insects are an exciting alternative to meat as well. They are a very normal part of people’s nutrition in all cultures except those in Europe and the US.
Do you eat insects?
We are currently focussing on this issue in my futurefoodstudio. Insects are very interesting with regard to sustainability – they are very efficient producers of proteins and a great source of valuable nutrients. Whether they will become interesting in a culinary sense as well depends on types of insects we will breed for human consumption. At the moment, there’s only a very small range.
Products made by 3D printers are becoming more and more popular. How will this affect the foods we eat?
I think it’s fascinating and great that you can go and have perfectly comfortable made-to-measure shoes printed for yourself. When it comes to food, however, I haven’t really come across interesting projects in this field. Printing pasta or chocolate belongs in the domain of design, if you ask me. That’s exciting and, for special occasions, funny. But no one has yet been able to explain to me why one would want to print a whole menu of several courses. What I do find creative, however, is the idea of printing little balls of cereal flour or seeds: when watered, they can grow plants, salads, cress or sprouts.
How will these changes be reflected in our kitchens?
The kitchen will become more mobile. Households are becoming smaller and smaller and cooking is no longer a solely private matter. “Third places”, social environments outside the ones we use as living or working spaces, are becoming more common and more popular. Prices for small city apartments are still increasing, and not having a kitchen in every apartment can be of advantage. Both financially and socially – after all, cooking in, let’s say, a shared kitchen, can be a very communicative event.
Our way of cooking will also change. Current trends mostly aim at outbalancing a lack of cooking skills by high-tech innovations; think of household appliances who have direct access to recipe databases or surfaces that recognize what’s being prepared on them. There are a lot of such technological gimmicks. On the other side of the spectrum we have many low-tech, energy-autarkic innovations.
Shared kitchens in public space: How does that work?
Restaurant owners share their kitchens, equipment and ingredients with clients and guests and offer cleaning and dishwashing as extra services. There are first attempts at this concept. Recipease in London, a project by Jamie Oliver, for example. There you can either eat in the restaurant or in the café, you can cook yourself with optional support by staff, or you just watch them cook and take the meal out. It’s a very open, playful concept. Another nice example is the community cooking project by Austrian charity organisation Caritas in Vienna’s new cultural centre at the old Anker bread factory.
Austria’s contribution to this year’s EXPO is also about breathing in and out – about enjoying, relishing life. Eating, however, seems to have become an issue connected to a lot of rules and fears for many people.
I like the notions of breathing in and out in this context, it brings back the here and now and a sense of normalcy. Oxygen and food are vital for our lives, but food is not only a source of nutrients in a scientific sense. Eating is a cultural event, it constitutes a big part of life quality. But we have to learn to enjoy food, we have to learn to be gourmets. In my opinion, taste management is a very important cultural technique for the century we live in. Taste has so much influence on the decisions we make every day. It’s worth looking into what we eat in our daily lives and where our food comes from.
How can I best combine culinary pleasures with sustainability?
Every person should think about how and when it is most easy for them to enjoy food. You could ask yourself which meal of the day you enjoy the most. Also think about where you shop groceries, and what you buy. Shopping is different on a market or in a big grocery store. Or you could compare products. Our palate needs information and it should be fun when we experiment with different tastes. You could start with chocolate and not buy the cheapest one, but slowly work your way up to the best chocolate out there. Because by increasing quality we can also learn to enjoy smaller quantities.
Hanni Rützler was born in 1962 in Bregenz, Vorarlberg. She is one of the world’s leading food trend researchers and runs her futurefoodstudio in Vienna. She is the author of several books on food culture, the most recent of them being: “Can eating be a sin? Orientation in the jungle of dietary ideologies.”