• John Ennis

Jozef Youssef - Chef’s Choice


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In the 90s we had Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsey usher in the era of the shouty, angry, passionate celebrity chefs. By the early 2000s, Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal brought about a change in the way we look at fine dining experiences and culinary creativity. And to date, their disciples (the top restaurants in the world) continue to expand upon their work.


So what is the future? What is the next leap forward in Gastronomy?


A chef who believes in “improving global wellbeing through innovations in gastronomy.” A chef who will change the way we eat. A chef who after working his way up in Michelin star restaurants has spent close to a decade collaborating with some of the UK’s leading scientists and academic institutions on understanding our multisensory relationship with food and its functional role in our health and wellbeing. Introducing Chef Jozef Youssef, founder of Kitchen Theory.


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Kitchen Theory


Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)


John: So, Jozef, thank you very much for being on the show.


Jozef: Thank you for having me. It's an absolute pleasure.


John: Okay, great. So, the first thing I would like to say is I cannot wait until we're able to travel again so I can come to your restaurant. I've never been there and I cannot wait to get there. It sounds like it's going to be amazing. So for our listeners who maybe aren't familiar with you and your work, I think it would be good if we could start with, your kind of biography, it's quite an interesting one, in my opinion, with some overlaps, actually, with some of the things that many of our listeners, I think will be excited about.


Jozef: So, I mean, I started out, let's say by the time I was in university studying business and information technology, and that was kind of quite far from what I'm doing now in some senses, but all very relevant skills and transferable skills that were picked up over that period, and then I worked in kind of field of IT for a couple of years, straight out of graduation, and then I'd always had a passion for hospitality. I'd always hoped my father's Egyptian where I was born and brought up over here in the UK. But he may be instilled in me a love that kind of Mediterranean kind of love of food and cooking. So a few years out of university, I decided that I was going to move into hospitality, specifically, I wanted to become a chef. And I was very lucky to actually pick up my first position for Alain de Rose at the Connaught, which is a now two Michelin star restaurant in Mayfair in London. And that's where I kind of got my foundations of training and learning, both kind of to some degree, classical skills, as well as slightly more style as a little bit more kind of progressive and uses ingredients from all over the world, specifically with tons of Asian influences. And then over the years, I worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels here in London. And then there came a point around 2011 when my interest in gastronomy or my interest in food and being a chef has always extended beyond being a chef and food into gastronomy in its broader context, and I guess that's everyone who read the physiology of taste in the 1800's defying gastronomy as being everything that relates to man as a feeding animal. So everything from nursing on the breast all the way through to your finest of fine Michelin star kind of meals, everything that we consume this gastronomy. And I guess I really like that kind of definition of it because I think food is an amazing medium that you can trace the history of culture through food. You can trace economies and you can trace civilizations and what they were eating. And food is such an important part of our existence as human beings, and it always has been. We eat from the moment we come onto this earth and, you know, our food likes and dislikes and everything that we enjoy about food is shaped perhaps by the kind of culture that we grow up in. And it's a very rich kind of discipline in a way, it's never-ending. There's a history of food. There's food as a kind of art. There's food in science. And there are many, many sciences which are linked to food and gastronomy. So by 2011, I'd met Professor Charles Spence, an Oxford University experimental psychologist who runs as head of the Crossmodal Lab. I met him at a talk, a symposium that was called Multisensory Flavor Perception, which I had no idea what that meant at the time. But over the course of listening to his discussion, I was amazed. I'd always been interested in prior to that, I had actually started writing a book called Molecular Gastronomy, which was published in 2013, and I was always interested in the science of cooking. But after hearing Professor Spence's work, all of a sudden I realized that there was a science of dining. There was also a psychology behind this and that there was more than just the part that I understood on the chef's side, on the culinary side. But there was a whole other world there when it came to understanding what makes an incredible dining experience, and it goes beyond just the food on the plate. So that became majorly interesting to me and became a field that until today I continued to work with Professor Spence in both researching these tended to Crossmodal phenomenon that occurs in us as human beings and looking essentially at how we can you know, there's two parts to our work, one is a more commercial side where we're looking at how can we take these really cool ideas and find ways of bringing them to life as part of multisensory dining experiences that people will pay money to come to see and to enjoy and to experience. But there's also the other part of our work which is looking at the practical applications of this kind of research within schools, care homes, hospitals, even people's homes, and looking at how can we nudge people towards making better more sustainable, more nutritious food choices through having a better understanding of their sensory relationship with food. And I guess in a nutshell, kitchen theory, which I started up in 2013, 2014, started off as pop-up dining experiences where we were just doing dinners and sensory experiences. And over the years we started working with more brands and companies on designing larger kinds of multisensory events and experiences for product launches or events, influencer events, and so on. And yeah, that's kind of it in a nutshell.


John: Yeah, it's fascinating. Now, I am so excited to talk to you because we have so many shared interests. I mean, I think that the first of what you said about the difference between the science of food and the science of dining, that's fascinating to me, right? Because for me as a sensory scientist, the sensory experiences, I mean, that's what I think about. I think sensory is the science of the experience of life. And food is very central to that. In fact, I mean, you literally can't live without food, right? So what could be more central is one of the key things. Right? So also, incidentally, I just would like to note, it's very interesting that the Roman Empire only really thrived where olives grew. You were talking about, you know, if you've ever really, you know.


Jozef: Yeah.


John: I've never really heard an explanation for that. It just seems to be true that if you look at the map, that's where it worked.


Jozef: And it's interesting the kind of correlations that you can find throughout history with food in terms of how people migrated or how civilizations were developed in certain areas because of the kind of land around there and how that could sustain them in some way. And then, you know the wars that we've gone to because of food and all sources which food is included in and I think one point that you just mentioned there that I share your kind of passion for is you being a sensory scientist probably one of the things that you could back me up on here is that food is probably one of the most multisensory experiences that we take for granted on a daily basis that we actually kind of, you know, whether we're mindful of it or not, it is a multisensory experience and whether we're aware of how crunchy our chips are or how, you know, the texture of our jelly and our peanut butter jelly sandwich or whatever it may be, we're taking in all of this rich sensory, you know, stimulus from our food. And you really do need all five senses to come together in a congruent way, I think, for people to really enjoy food.


John: Now, I totally agree with that. So I think it'd be interesting for our listeners to hear some examples then of the work you're doing in Kitchen Theory. How you're playing around with multisensory experience? What can people expect when they come to kitchen theory?


Jozef: So, you know, I'd say the difference, you know, one of the questions I get asked a lot is what is a multisensory dining experience and why is it different on all dining experiences multisensory and they are indeed all dining experiences are multisensory. I'd say one of the probably distinguishing factors in the kind of experiences that we or what you would term as multisensory will be that the curators and in our case, what we do with kitchen theory will have given thought to all the different sensory touchpoints. And rather than just thinking about your guests as coming as a customer and thinking of things in a very practical sense in terms of the flow of the operation. So the booking, the greeting, seating them at their table, getting them a drink, getting them their order, putting bread on the table, you know, there's all those kind of they tend to be the run of the show that you'll have in any restaurant. But when you come to developing experiences, it becomes a lot more about storytelling and narratives and taking people on a journey and kind of developing this idea right. Every sensory touchpoint that they come into contact with and that could be the music playing on your website as they are booking. Might be something as abstract as that right through to the cent of the menu as they're leaving, that they're handed as a memento of the experience or the smell in the room when they first enter our space. You know, one of the things that we're very conscious of is that people wear a bit remote where we are as our chef's table here and even when we were in central London, we would do the same thing because central London is a busy place. By the time people come and find you and they arrive, the bag, what's the most one of the most important things to us was initially what you want to do is immerse people into a much calmer environment and you want them to be able to really relax so that they can enjoy the experience that they're about to go on. And so everything from what they're smelling, the sounds that we have playing in the background, what we give them to eat or drink in those first kinds of moments is all about looking at how at that user experience, at looking at everything from the guest experience and thinking how can we and it's very important here that we're not talking about manipulating people's senses. We're not talking about manipulating people's emotions. But what you're doing is designing the experience, taking into consideration how you can emotionally engage guests and get them into the right place. And with the emotional engagement as the fun part or let's say, the practical part, which is getting people relaxed, getting into the experience and allowing them to enjoy it, then there's also the fun things like how can you get people to laugh at the dining table? How can you get that emotion of happiness and enjoyment and laughter? How can you stimulate that? What foods do we associate with whimsical laughter and joy and happiness? What things could we play? What smells could we smell? What could we do that creates an atmosphere? Equally, what could we do that creates an atmosphere because, again, we're talking about this journey that you take people on. So what can we do that creates this atmosphere of fear? Maybe we want for a moment people to feel a certain sense of apprehension about the next day to get their hearts racing in some way. Maybe we can kind of create that sense of intrigue and a little trepidation. And admittedly, you have to be very smart with that, where those kinds of if you want someone to experience fear, you want that to be later on in the media when they're already quite comfortable with where they are. You wouldn't want to start this one off with fear. But, you know, it's about understanding how to create this experience and, of course, drawing on all the different senses and designing each sensory touchpoint for each dish and for each chapter of your story that you're taking your guests through and designing that to have, no. 1 is really important that it doesn't distract them from the food and that must work as a congruent part of the experience. Otherwise, you end up in that trap that a lot of experience designers do where it's a really nice experience, but the food doesn't really fit or isn't really a great match for the rest of the experience. And so taking advantage of different types of technology, taking advantage of some even very low tech ways of delivering certain sensory experiences, so it could be when you have raw music, it could be the more flashy way of pouring it over dry ice that cascades down the table and envelops your plate in some way that's very dramatic and very, you know, kind of maybe a bit more kind of modernist in its approach. And then you can have much simpler examples of that, where you simply take a nice kind of aroma. It could be a citrus aroma on a dish and that you just kind of wipe the rim with it and you just get this lovely kind of aroma coming off your dish, or maybe even just a whiff at times, kind of impregnated cutlery with certain aromas so that as you're holding the cutlery and you're eating that you get this whiff of maybe basil as you're eating your salad or your pasta. And all of a sudden as you're eating it, I can smell basil, I can almost taste it, but it's not there. But you're getting it through your other senses. And, you know, we always stay away from it's never about tricking people's senses. It's never about sensory deprivation. So taking people's senses away for us is always about curating an experience that really lends itself to allowing people to enjoy it with all of their senses. And that actually puts us on the line because you're constantly asking every guest to analyze every dish with all of their senses. No restaurant really asks that of you. So we've got to deliver on their food as well on the flavor and that's very important to us.


John: Now, there are so many things in there that I'd love to talk to you about. So, okay, so for one thing, I would like to know, to what extent do you think diners need to be prepared mentally for the fact I mean, if you just have someone is thinking, okay, let's be nice. Some people don't even pay attention to food when they eat it. In your case, what is the process for preparing someone? What would you recommend?


Jozef: Oh, it's interesting because you know what, I completely agree with you. And you would assume that people would need to understand a certain amount about this kind of experience before attending it. But what you have to remember is a lot of the time people. So there's a couple of things, number one, it tends to be we get a lot of people who will book this for their partner or a friend as a gift. And that partner or friend has no idea what they're showing up to. And they come to this and what they end up with is this very wholly immersive experience that takes them on a journey that they just weren't necessarily prepared or aware for. So how we overcome that is by when guests arrive, when they arrive, there's a small champagne reception for them. They hand a glass of champagne and they get to walk around our reception area. And that reception area has a lot of information about some of the previous projects we've worked on, some of the sensory research that we've done, and allows you to just kind of walk around that very small gallery area, getting a bit of an idea. We also have some little sensory tests that allow you to kind of like test your sense of smell if you can identify certain ingredients. There's a screening room where we have a couple of short videos that explain by myself and Professor Spence explain some of the background research in science. And then once they've had that part of their experience, they come upstairs to my study area, and that's where we give them a few sensory tests. So you'll be aware of kind of like the supertaster tests that we do with them using the PTC strips. We do the jelly bean test where you taste the jelly bean, then you release your nose and you get all the flavor and a few other little tests that get them that are a very basic introduction to years and years of research basically distilled into a few moments that really what's most important for us is getting the guests to understand, because most people you see, you probably take this for granted, but most people don't think of their sense of all of their senses as being important to how they experience the world. They'll think what I'm eating, its smell and taste. When I'm watching TV, it's my eyes and ears. When I'm doing this, it's this and that. And they think that's how my senses work, because, in fact, you know, I guess all of our senses are constantly working all the time. You could be watching TV and smell that you know, the toast is burning in the kitchen. And that's just how your brain works. Not like your sense of smell shut down just because you're watching TV and just because you're eating and it doesn't mean that your sense of touch has all of a sudden gone to sleep and that it's only smell and taste. No, your sense of touch and texture and the feeling of the cutlery in your hands. The feeling that chewing that the oral somatosensory kind of sensations that you get in the trigeminal sensations that you get, all of these are very, very, very important to that food experience. So what we want to do in those first few moments when they arrive is just give them an appreciation for the fact that all your senses are involved in flavor and taste, sorry, in perceiving flavor, and that in order to get the most out of it, you want to really awaken all of your senses. And that's the main message that we kind of want to get them to answer, because, as I said, you probably take that for granted, maybe many of your listeners do because of the kind of interest in this kind of subject. But for most diners, introducing them to the idea that actually a lot of what you perceive as flavor comes from your sense of smell rather than your basic tastes is really quite revolutionary for a lot of people. We have a lot of guests who come for dinner and actually walk away saying I'll never look at food or dining in the same way again. This is completely changed my perspective on how I now see and understand my relationship with food. We've had many couples who after the dining experience, will say now we get why we have such different tastes in food and why we just differ so much in terms of what we like and what we don't. And, you know, you'll have one of the partners saying, oh, I've never understood why my partner didn't like mushrooms and I love mushrooms. And now I get that it's not their flavor. It's that texture that he or she doesn't like. And we've even had people who will go away and come back with their children or with a friend or with a family member that they feel would benefit from the experience on a personal level, like we've had some people. I don't know why they do this, but some people have brought some very, very picky eaters to our table. And amazingly enough, they've enjoyed it and they've loved it. And if anything, they enjoyed the experimental nature of trying something, but not being under pressure to necessarily have to love it. And I think that's because we do 10 courses plus. We are not saying you're going to love every course that you should like. Some of the courses are challenging. Some of them are things like jellyfish on the menu. People don't even just hearing jellyfish obviously conjures up a lot of negative connotations in some people's minds, both around the ingredient itself as well as around the texture and the flavor of what their expectations are of it. So there's a lot of that we kind of play around with. But essentially it all comes back to giving people an experience that is remarkable and different and memorable, but it's also somewhat educational in nature. And somewhat kind of gets you to understand a little bit more about yourself, a little bit more about your senses, a little bit more about, you know, the way in which you whether you acknowledge it or not that you have a sensory relationship with food.


John: That's great. You're doing people a huge service by making that. Right, I mean, I think that's a big issue, right, is that we in a modern society, we spend way too much time in our heads and it's not enough time in our bodies. And yeah, food is the interface there. So, yeah, fascinating. Okay, well, I can talk to you for hours. I do want to have a little bit about augmented reality because you mentioned fragrance a few times and I think fragrance is underappreciated as maybe the original augmented reality that before we had a fancy technology, I really am very interested in that. So I think it'd be nice to hear you talk about your use, I mean, I really like that you're not just obsessed with the high technology, but also the low technology and using these you know, you have this kind of this palette that you can work with or, you know, you have these tools that are available to you. So maybe it's nice to hear your thoughts on augmented reality and what are the things we should be paying attention to?


Jozef: Sure. I mean, I think augmented reality makes reality and even what we wouldn't consider high tech at this point, but projectors and projection mapping, which is maybe a bit more forward-thinking and things like headphones, even just wireless Bluetooth headphones, I know these seem like very sophisticated types of, you know, what even kind of led lighting that we use, sound systems that we use. These are all technology. And, you know, whether we think of them as being really high tech or not, they're definitely an integral part of curating these multisensory dining experiences. And you kind of mentioned something like aroma, which is you're right. Yeah, probably is the kind of original augmented reality features because I know from what we did years ago that if you present people with a risotto dish and you spray the aroma of truffles in the air as they're eating it, that will augment their perception of the flavor of that dish. That they will in some way you can spray saffronile in the air, which is a key ingredient in saffron. The key compound in saffron or you could spray, as I said, something like truffle aroma. And it's incredible to see that you can actually augment people's senses just or their perception of flavor just through tweaking some of the sensory information that they're receiving in a way. And technology obviously allows you to take this idea a little bit further and allows you to explore. I don't think we're quite there yet with the technology because right now the technology is a little bit invasive. So when it comes to, let's say, projection mapping, that's great because it's quite a shared experience. When it comes to AR and MR, it becomes a little bit more challenging because at some point you have a screen between you and the food or you have a headset on or whatever it may be that in some way that is intrusive in the sense of dining is a very like one thing that we never forget for all the technology and all the sensory experience and everything that we design. People are there to meet and chat and have a great time together.


John: Right.


Jozef: That the company that they are in is way more, I think I mentioned this just before we started recording, was that, you know, from our research, we know that when you look at people's dining memories, that the most false memories that people have are actually around the food. And the most accurate and vivid memories that people have are of the company that are in the service that they receive. And maybe some of the more kind of showmanship, kind of elements of things like dry ice or a cocktail being made or these kind of elements that stood out for them during the evening in some way. And so we're very, very mindful, as experienced designers, that we don't rob people of that very rich part of the experience, which is the social one. And so technology can in some way be a bit kind of invasive in that way, so we have to be careful about that. So to give you an example, we will use wireless headphones, but we'll only use it maybe once or twice on a 10 course menu. Because what you don't want is people sitting there for extended periods. Actually, a lot of people enjoy that. They enjoy having the headphones on and being immersed into this their own little cocoon of their experience. You've got, let's say, you know, in one case, you've got the projections of the sea glistening on the table. You have your jellyfish dish there, which looks like it's a very beautiful and well-prepared kind of seascape of a dish. And then you have your headphones on which are playing various kind of crunching textural sounds. And that's because it relates to the textural qualities of the dish. But also you have these kinds of deep undersea water kind of melodies kind of going on. And the point is this is very much that this is about immersing people into their own little moment. But beyond that, you also want most of the experience to be one that is shared and one that people can actually kind of discuss and talk about as they're experiencing it, relay, and share their experiences. And that is what creates some of the really rich dialogs around the table is when you have one person say, wow, when I hear that when I touch that texture, it makes it taste saltier. And someone else says, actually, that doesn't happen at all for me. And that's where the discussion then kind of begins. Or someone would say, oh, you know, I thought I don't know white was sweet and black was salty. And so I'll say, no. You know white is salty and red is sweet. And it's about, you know, I guess one of the things I'm really fascinated about as well as this, which is a human and this is one of the most important parts of the research, I think if I had to distill it down into 10 years of research, into a couple of sentences, it would be as human beings, we all live in separate taste worlds and in different and separate sensory worlds. And although we use the words like salty, bitter, sour, sweet, spicy, and crunchy, and we use these common terms, but they all mean very different than individual things to each one of us, because physiologically and psychologically we are all experiencing flavor in very different ways. But at the same time, there's something very unifying about the fact that we use the same language and about the fact that we use the same expressions and we can be brought together by food. And although you and I may not share the exact same physiological or psychological relationship with that piece of lovely apple pie, we can still appreciate it in our own ways and enjoy it.


John: Yes, that's fascinating. You know, when I was in kindergarten, somehow I had the insight that if you and I were to look at the same crayon and see something different, we would never know because we'd use the same words. And that is the deep point, because even at the tongue, you know, the receptors are different, the receptor densities, I mean, people are different, how they perceive the world.


Jozef: And even just your like how you judge food, so if you and I were to try lemons, let's say, and we would say, okay, all tomatoes, let's say, we were going to say, okay, well, let's judge these tomatoes. If all I have ever eaten are really low- grade greenhouse kind of tomatoes, mass-produced in some tarpaulin farm in Almeria in Spain, it's going to be completely different, my judgment of the tomato is going to be completely different to yours if you've just come back from holiday from Puglia in south of Italy and you've just had, you know, two weeks of amazing tomatoes and tomato sauce and tomato salads, and we will have a different understanding of what a good tomato is. And we will have a different appreciation for what texturally flavor wines, aroma wines, the characteristics that we're looking for will be different because I don't have the same benchmark and food memories that you do. And so psychologically, we can't assess food in exactly the same way.


John: Right. So even if physiologically we were identical, we still would have different experiences. So, yeah, it's fascinating. Okay, well, Jozef, we are going to have to wrap up. I wish this would go on for hours. What are the things you're most excited about either technologically or some of the ideas you're most excited about to implement over the next few years?


Jozef: Well, what I'm most excited about, I think in our field of kind of like hospitality is I think that we can definitely see that there's more and more of a shift towards these experiences and with this like experiential dining that I think, you know, especially in a country like or a city like London, there's a lot of great food. Right? So to differentiate yourself and to make that experience more interesting, people are looking at defining it as experiences rather than just being another restaurant and in order to do that, that means that we're really starting to see different concepts that are pushing the boundaries of, I guess, like you can see some of the really interesting kind of techy type of experiences like ultraviolence in Shanghai or sublimation in Ibiza in Spain. And these kinds of experiences are very tech-heavy and have 360 mappings on the walls and have 365 story mapping on the walls. And they have the tables projection maps and they use sound and a lot of other kinds of AR and kind of MR parts of the experience they've integrated into it. And I think we're just going to see this get taken to newer and newer heights. And I think if you think about the history of dining since the seventeen hundreds, arguably when restaurant first came about till the 1990s, 2000s, eating in a restaurant has pretty much been the same format. That hasn't been that much change in the industry. If you consider how far other industries have come within that time and how much development and change there has been. And the hospitality industry has been kind of relatively stayed the same in the format of you have chefs, you have in front of house, you have guests, you have that interaction of you sit down, we serve you food. And I think now this is being taken to so much higher and different levels of dining while dangling off a crane in Las Vegas or Dubai or dining in the dark and being served by waiters who are visually impaired or dining while being immersed in a submarine or in a sub, in a location is under the sea somehow. And I think we're just starting to see dining experiences that are becoming really much more engaging and interesting and as well, because of social media, a lot more Instagrammable that's on down that chefs are looking at their dishes and their experience being Instagram. I mean, there are whole restaurants that will design themselves around being Instagrammable just because they want those. They want that kind of promotion. And so everything from the choices of that color and their furnishings and the decor and everything is there to attract people to pull out their phones and snap pictures. You know we are guilty of that, too. I mean, everyone's doing that. I mean that our experience you can see everything from, you know, younger people in their 20s up to people in their 70s who will pull out their phones, take a picture of it because that's what people do these days. And so I think all of this is shaping how experiences are being designed. And I think what excites me, sorry to answer your question, what excites me is I think in the past it was all about the chef. Well, in the past past 100 years ago, it was all about the maitre d and it was all about the show that the maitre d put on and how amazing the front of house was. Then it became about the chef. And then we had open kitchens and it became about the theater of the kitchen. And I think what excites me as we go into the future is that we're going to see that it starts becoming just about the chef and the food and it starts becoming more about the cross-disciplinary or the collaboration of a chef and a scientist and an architect and a chef. And we're seeing this happening in the artist and the chef. And we're seeing all of these collaborations now in their infancy. And I think they're just going to be so much more as we go forward.


John: Kind of a multidisciplinary approach. Yeah, that's fascinating. Alright, Jozef, this has been great. So I'm very happy to talk to you and I hope that we can talk in the future, thank you.


Jozef: Thank you.


John: Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.



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