Where Food Meets Design: An Introduction to our Lab

Shams El Balad Food Lab Tasting with Kitchen Team

I had met Qais about a year and a half ago, well we had actually met a few times before that but only in passing. I didn’t really know much about him other than that he was in charge of Shams El Balad. That night our paths converged at Corner’s Pub near the second circle where mutual friends of ours had invited both of us along. The conversation quickly turned to food, as it usually does with Qais and also quite often does with myself. The discussion exploded into everything related to food in terms of design, science and culture. 

We were both clearly grappling with the same key issues related to our local food culture. How much do we actually know about the local foods we eat all the time? Where and how can we learn more? Most importantly, how can we build and advance on this knowledge in ways that are uniquely suited to fit and benefit the social, economic and political context in Jordan?

What was perhaps most interesting about our conversation was that we both seemed to be asking these questions from unique, but deeply related, perspectives. With my background in engineering and design, I was looking at how we could harness data and design to drive our food culture forward. Qais, with a background in cultural studies and a newly minted chef and restaurant owner, was interrogating our use and understanding of language as it intersects with cultural and physical production. He spoke of how that can be leveraged in pursuit of answers to these fundamental questions. Why are we forced to say Haricot Verts in a french restaurant in New York, or Fagioli in an Italian restaurant in London, but it seems off for foreigners to read Fasoulia off our menu? Was one seemingly unrelated question he asked.

We were both clearly searching for solutions to the same problems. At the same time, Noma had just released its book The Noma Guide to Fermentation which came up of course. The topic of fermentation loomed large in my head ever since I first read Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation quite a few years before. A few years prior, I had founded a start-up with classmates in London. Gutface Foods designs fermentation vessels and is still something I do on the side. I moved back to Amman two year or so earlier and was working at an Industrial Design firm. Qais mentioned that he had been dreaming of starting a lab for a while now and he asked me that same night to join them and lead the future lab at Shams. 

Shams El Balad Food Lab 2020

Pretty soon after his proposal, the conversation had to be cut short as the bar was shutting down. We had lost track of time. The idea was interesting, I was already a fan of the work they were doing at Shams El Balad. I did also believe that there was a lot of room to refine and deepen that work, as Qais also repeatedly and excitedly pointed out. 

We met several times over the next six months. We came to a few key realizations that came to frame our approach. Most importantly, we both agreed that the only way we could achieve sustained success with the lab was to give it a solid financial grounding. Shams, like most restaurants, was running on very tight margins and barely breaking even as is. So we had to find a way for the lab to ask the questions that mattered while energizing the product cycle at the restaurant and shop to generate income for the company in return. We wrote a business plan for a food lab inside the Shop, where the lab team would work on several different projects, and collaborate with the restaurant and shop teams to find ways to develop new techniques and products out of these experiments. 

Shams’s firm grounding as a design house also made it uniquely well suited to house the type of entity I had in mind, one that was design-led rather than science-led. Although both would play a role, the former is more interested in interrogating the direct human experience whereas the latter is more process oriented. A Scientific approach would underlie all of our experiments, but our key focus should be seeking solutions to design problems as they relate to our experience of local food.
Every time we met, the vague idea shifted into clearer focus. We had defined our aim, the lab was founded to evolve local food culture by interrogating ingredients, food systems and processes.The knowledge generated would enrich the kitchen, beverage and design teams at the restaurant and shop leading to new products and experiences to share this knowledge with our guests. 

The lab is the space at Shams where food meets design.

Food Lab Shot Work in Progress

It has been around nine months since I joined Shams El Balad and we started laying the groundwork for the lab, and around six months since we actually started work with our first hire Zeina, a nutritional scientist.

Our first project was driven by the question, “What is za’atar?” While some of our research delved into botany - attempting to classify the herbs that are referred to as za’atar and also the science of acid and fat and their effects on our taste buds, most of our research involved speaking to our customers and staff about za’atar to understand its cultural significance. That led to developing our own za’atar blend in collaboration with the Kitchen team. We tasted hundreds of samples from many different sources to find what we considered the most balanced and versatile blend. 

We came to many interesting conclusions related to Za’atar, and we developed our own process and recipe to produce our current blend (More on this in a future post). We’ve since started serving the blend in the restaurant and selling it packaged in the shop and at our seasonal market.  

Another one of our big projects has been creating naturally carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages. Other than being a field that is becoming ever more popular with the rise of Kombucha and other fermented beverages, it is a particularly important project for our restaurant as we do not and have never served commercial sodas. While this may have initially caused some customer discontent, we think many of our customer’s today appreciate this stance. However, there is clearly demand for such beverages, how can we as the lab find alternatives that are both appealing to our guests and uphold our philosophy of local, clean and sustainable food at Shams? 

The beverage team had experimented with a quick version of this using homemade syrups and soda water but we wanted to produce more complex tastes by leveraging the science of fermentation. We have been running experiments since pretty much day one with many successes and many failures. Our most promising line of inquiry has been with our ginger bug, a starter culture of bacteria and yeast found on the outer skin of ginger. 

We’ve used this to brew many fruit sodas the past months mainly using local varieties of citrus. We’ve also served them at the restaurant during bar nights and other events. We are still working on finding the most effective process to yield the best results, especially as it relates to finding and controlling the ideal carbonation level in order to bottle these naturally fermented sodas. We’ve had more than one burst open flooding the lab in funky fruit juice and fizz. This is where science comes to support and inform our design thinking.

To be frank, since setting up the lab, we’ve struggled to perfect the balance of design and science - especially during the research and prototyping phase. We’ve found ourselves getting swept away with the science of it all; trying to perfect a certain process or taste and putting the human experience out on the wayside. This became the case particularly with the launch of our seasonal market, as delivering new products ready to be sold became our main focus. 
We’re also still developing our vision and refining our process as we go, so it may be a good idea to get a little swept away every now and then (within reason of course) so that when we recalibrate and refocus we see what we’re after with even more clarity. The coronavirus pandemic has given us just such a break to analyze the work we have been doing. 

From my perspective, we need to realign with our founding principles of being human centred. The most exciting days in the lab are when we get to show people around and explain the work we’re doing - it’s in these moments that I feel like we have created real value by sharing vital knowledge. Like the fact that zaatar is a word associated with 8 different herbs and the ones most commonly used are actually not thyme, but a native species of oregano! It’s seeing people have these ‘aha’ moments that is the most inspiring part of the job.

We’re in a unique position to develop a first-of-its-kind lab anywhere in the world that is design-led and predominantly focused on local food culture. The journey so far has been a fascinating one with many pivotal conversations, many lessons learned, many failed experiments and hugely successful ones too. As we continue to grow at the heart of an inspiring restaurant, with so many unique personalities, I have no doubt that we will cement our identity and become a valuable resource for anyone interested in food and design.