Ajinomoto Co., Inc. newly established the Consumer Data Analysis & Business Creation Dept. in the spring of 2018. Its mission is to make the future of food enjoyable. In this series of FUTURE FOOD TALK, we shall look together at the different paths we should be taking by talking to people in different fields about the future of food.
Just as Uber has broken up the taxi service industry, and Instagram and mobile phones have democratized the way we take pictures, so too is there now a new revolution in the democratizing of food. Talking about this is Rei Inamoto, a globally active creative director based in New York. Tatsuya Okamoto and Ken Sato of Ajinomoto Co., Inc. talk about the future of technology and food with Rei, recently appointed as adviser to the department to create business together.
Mr. Sato: Digital technology plays a very important role in the future of food. That’s why we wanted to offer the role of adviser to Rei Inamoto with his expertise in digital creativity and his keen insight into human nature.
Mr. Okamoto: What do you think about digital technology and food?
Rei: First of all, I’d like to think about the influence technology has had on the world. If we think of work as being on a scale from 0 to 10, then technology can replace humans from 1 to 9 on our scale. But the bits at the end, 0 to 1, and 9 to 10, this is where humans, with their senses, emotions and imperfections, must fit in.
No matter how much technology is developed, it’s here that humans can add their value. When we think about food, it’s these imperfect human inconsistencies that have their affect on cooking. This inconsistency is creativity.
Mr. Okamoto: Cooking at home is typical of our human imperfections. I often ask myself why I don’t get bored of eating at home every day. And the answer to that is it’s because the taste of the food is just that little bit different. With this you get feelings of affection, memories and happiness, which give way to a greater sense of deliciousness. I think technology should be used as a tool to magnify this pleasure.
Mr. Sato: Technology tends to be associated with cold things that contribute to efficiency, but there’s also the possibility of finding out about new ingredients and food that you wouldn’t have come across without technology. Technology doesn’t simply exist at the other extreme of what we may say is “warm” food, but instead it can be used to intensify food experiences. Technology has increased productivity and efficiency. As such it was thought individuals would be able to lead better lives by creatively using the extra time freed up by technology, but it’s questionable whether this is really happening.
Mr. Okamoto: As Rei mentioned before, food has always been thought of as being something creative. Cleaning and washing is something people do to make dirty things clean again, in other words, turning something from a minus state back to zero. But with cooking, you start with a zero state and make something positive, which is quite a rare thing, don’t you think?
Rei: That’s right. Nutrients are all we need to survive. But the feelings of good taste and deliciousness, these are a bonus. They produce something much more, something akin to art.
One of the inspirations when starting our company came from a restaurant called El Bulli in Spain. El Bulli is a legendary restaurant which has revolutionized the world of food. It’s a place where not only taste, but textures, sight, smell, sound, all the senses are used to enjoy the food. Even in completely different industries, cooking and making things have the same thing in common, namely the act of stimulating the human senses. I really feel like its fate that I’ve got this job after all the choices I could have made (laughs).
Rei: What’s unique when thinking about food is that it can convey the finer feelings without using words. I mean, you can’t see taste but it does give a sense of happiness. And it was AJINOMOTO which invented that whole idea, the concept of umami, or good taste. These days it has spread throughout the world and is now known as umami. It’s really important that a company with these kinds of origins tries to create a sense of happiness with taste in a new era. I think it’s very unique.
Mr. Okamoto: Thank you. I think AJINOMOTO is a company that has continued to create products which many people are happy to use, ever since Professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered umami and the founder of AJINOMOTO, Saburosuke Suzuki, launched it as umami seasoning in 1909. But as food preferences and ideas change, it seems as if there are limits to the models that can deliver the perfect taste for each and every person. So that’s why I want to try and offer a localized flavor, to suit the individual tastes of people in different areas.
Rei: A person’s happiness is largely dependent on their memories. Just before, we talked about why home cooking tastes so good, but everyone has their own favorite foods. The time, place, the whole food experience and taste, combine to leave distinct memories. Take for example, the food you ate when you studied abroad, or the manju cakes your grandparents bought you, or the curry you ate after doing your sports club at school, all these kinds of things should leave lasting memories which can’t be explained in words.
Even without the use of words, the sensations that people have leave lasting impressions on the mind, in effect communicating over time. It’s a different kind of dimension to the communication that happens when you see or hear things. Putting thought into the things we make is similar to the kind of communication work I do.
Mr. Okamoto: We’ve been developing products that make it possible, in one single bag, to quickly and easily make food that up until now has been really difficult to make. We are a company which has adapted to an increasingly fast society with economic growth and technological advancements, where food is becoming simpler and more individual.
In contrast to this there are times when people just want to eat alone. There’s a kaki fry (deep-fried oysters) restaurant I like to go to but when I go I just want it to be me and my food, I want to give the oysters my undivided attention (laughs), that’s why I want to go by myself. But the food should taste better when eating with 2 or 3 people rather than having to eat alone. So, I want to look for happiness in food that brings people together.
Mr. Sato: Food connects people together but I think it also crosses borders. Ajinomoto is a company that has placed itself perfectly for the local food culture. First of all, we went to people’s houses to find out what the food culture was for them in those areas, and then we slowly expanded the areas we went to.
If people in different regions can taste food from food cultures of other countries more freely then they’ll be able to find foods and ingredients they like which they haven’t come across before. I want to contribute to this kind of variety.
Mr. Sato: I think the future of food will be a wide range of completely nutritious, fully automated, authentic homemade produce. I really think I want a world where there is this kind of freedom of choice.
Mr. Okamoto: When freedom is given to consumers in this way it really is a good future for food, isn’t it? And we also want to give people the option of getting more variety, more richness, from the food’s taste.
Rei: Yes, I think it’s important people have this choice. Through the development of technology, only the rights of those people who have them are being democratized. Uber has broken up the taxi service industry, and Instagram and mobile phones have democratized the way we take pictures. The act of eating itself hasn’t changed for thousands of years, but democratization will surely happen in this world too.
I think there’ll be more food experiences like El Bulli where only a limited number of people can enjoy the food. With this kind of democratization comes a new food culture brought about by the invention of great tasting food from whatever country we don’t know. It might be five years later, or 50, but it’d be nice to see this project sowing the seeds for the future in 50 years time.