Stories on a Plate – Food Design Brings Hidden Truths to the Fore
Based in the Netherlands, Adelaide Lala Tam is a designer who focuses her research on our food system. By revealing the truth often neglected, her work prompts us to think about the lifestyle choices.
Food designer Adelaide Lala Tam hopes to make the journey of dinner itself the subject of dinner table conversations. Photo courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
“When it comes to food, people tend to think about flavour, price, or even how Instagrammable it might be, and value their meal based on these qualities.” says Adelaide Lala Tam, food designer, Knowledge of Design Week (KODW) 2022 speaker. “Very few people consider the journey that the food takes before arriving on their plates – that’s the gap I’m trying to fill with design.”
Food design – communicating through, and about food
Born in Guangdong and raised in Hong Kong, a graduate of the Food Non Food Department at Design Academy Eindhoven – the first design department in the world to offer a course in food design – Tam admits that she wasn’t always sure where the course would lead: “At first, myself and quite a few of my fellow classmates didn’t have a clear concept of what the course would be about. We had a lot of discussions around it. I think that it’s an extremely broad field of study – for instance, when chefs create a new dish, they’re designing, but food design isn’t just about ingredients, flavour and aesthetics, we should also be looking at the food system, food processing and the direction that the food industry is headed.”
Unlike interior or graphic design, food design is a relatively new field, but it doesn’t stray from what is traditionally recognised as “design”. To Tam, food design draws on the different tools within the design world, allowing her to form a complete narrative around food through collecting, archiving, transforming and transmitting knowledge. Her goal is to “help people decipher complex issues in food using ways that can be easily understood,” she says.
Tam realised upon arriving in The Netherlands that she had no idea how an animal became food on her plate. Photo courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
There is often a direct relationship between design and making people’s lives better. Tam’s work requires a bit more mental meandering – it often evokes discomfort to unveil the true stories behind food.
What “farm-to-table” really means
In Tam's work, the truth behind food covers the long journey that is food production, a sobering look at what “farm-to-table” really means – from an animal’s conception to the moment it lands on our plate, in particular, cattle’s journey to becoming beef.
Her interest stems from first moving to The Netherlands, where she struggled to find one of her favourite foods: “I missed the beef offal that we eat in Hong Kong, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in The Netherlands, despite beef being available everywhere. Then I started thinking, ‘Where could all the offal have gone?’,” she recalls. “At around the same time, at school, we were researching food supply chains, so a classmate and I decided to contact an abattoir to get to the bottom of it.”
This visit to the abattoir inspired several projects – “it’s amazing that food memories can be such a source of inspiration,” she says as she reflects upon her work.
Tam’s work often evokes discomfort to unveil the true stories behind food. Photo courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
Tam says goodbye to Romie 18, the cow who’s life she’d been following for two years for her project. Photo courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
For the project Romie 18, Tam invites her participants to get to know Romie 18, and be in the running to take her out on a date – at which point they’d meet Romie 18, albeit on their dinner plate. Photo courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
0.9 Grams of Brass was an early project that put Tam’s work on the map, shown at Dutch Design Week, The World's 50 Best Restaurants and more. Created while she was a graduate student, the project features a vending machine, ostensibly for a common paperclip, but the process involved showing “customers” a video of what the paperclip was made from – the 0.9 grams of brass used as the casing for each bullet used at a slaughterhouse. The video never shows the actual slaughtering of the animal; it’s an image participants can easily conjure up themselves, which would be more powerful than anything on screen, Tam explains. The paperclip serves as a poignant souvenir of the ethics of the meat industry.
Created while she was a graduate student, 0.9 Grams of Brass features a vending machine, ostensibly for a common paperclip. Photo by Ronald Smits & Joël Hunn. Courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
Each paperclip was made from the 0.9 grams of brass used as the casing for each bullet used at a slaughterhouse. Photo by Joël Hunn. Courtesy of Adelaide Lala Tam
In another project, Romie 18, Tam follows the life of a cow over the course of two years, and writes her a dating profile – her astrological sign, her mating history, number of siblings, and how she splits her time between work and rest. Tam invites her participants to get to know Romie 18, and be in the running to take her out on a date – at which point they’d meet Romie 18, albeit on their dinner plate.
Tam says that she’s not an activist – her work doesn’t aim to shame or convince the audience to become vegetarian, but simply to give people another perspective, to consider issues below the surface. “While working on these projects, I was thinking a lot about ‘compassionate empathy’, which goes a step beyond just understanding others’ feelings; it inspires people to take action. By humanising Romie 18, I hoped to create an emotional connection between the participants and the cow, so that she’d be viewed as something beyond a commodity, and encourage participants to rethink their eating habits,” she says. As to what about their eating habits they would change, how, or whether they would be inspired to make any changes in the first place, is completely up to the participant – to Tam, these projects are an invitation to reflect, not direct calls to action.
Tam speaking about 0.9 Grams of Brass on the Food Meets Talent stage, hosted by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in Belgium. Photo courtesy of The World's 50 Best Restaurants
What will sustainability taste like?
From missing Hong Kong-style beef offal to unveiling the intricacies of food production through design, Tam has come a long way. Her work provides a behind-the-scenes look at the food system, and allows the audience to come to their own conclusions.
She feels fortunate that she’s based in The Netherlands: “The agriculture industry here is very advanced, and the younger generation are more concerned than ever about the ethics of food production, whether it’s locally produced, and so on; farmers have more flexibility to reflect on sustainable development and understand that it’s essential for the long term survival of the industry, so they’re more willing to invest time and money into future-thinking programmes, and are open to new ideas from designers and the like,” she says. To a designer, she says, The Netherlands provides an environment where she feels she can build bridges with the farming community and continue to contribute to the conversation around food sustainability.
“Everyone needs to eat, so can I make mealtimes an educational experience?” is the challenge Tam has set herself. As much as issues of climate change and sustainability are urgent, she knows that most people suffer from information overload, and many have become exhausted by the discussions around these issues. Only “innovative, exciting, forward-thinking approaches will truly get to people,” she thinks. In Tam’s view, a food designer’s role is never to dictate a point of view, but to use food as a medium to tell a story.
To make the issues in our food system more transparent, she hopes to work more with chefs and restaurants in the future, to make the journey of dinner itself the subject of dinner table talk.