Review: a dinner ‘experience’ at Kitchen Theory, Barnet
Dinner, but not as you know it. Employing gastrophysics to heighten and alter our perception of food, this Barnet ‘experimental gastronomy studio’ is an experience
Chef Jozef Youssef does not serve his guests a meal. Nothing so straightforward. He calls it ‘an experience’. His restaurant is not even a restaurant but a bright and cheerful space on the third floor of a refurbished former Victorian dental factory in High Barnet. The clue is in the place’s name – Kitchen Theory. His description of it is ‘an experimental gastronomy studio’, which for anyone interested in food, as opposed to just eating, is persuasive – enough so to earn Kitchen Theory the Best Newcomer title in the 2018 Hertfordshire Life Food and Drink Awards.
Jozef offers his guests what he calls a multi-sensory chef’s table – maximum 10 guests sampling 10 courses, many featuring unusual ingredients – to demonstrate his passion for the field of gastrophysics. It’s as much about science as about food. The nomination for Kitchen Theory to the Hertfordshire Life awards spoke of gastrophysics as ‘the science of how our senses can alter our perception of flavour’. Guests at Jozef’s monthly dinners are temporarily offered noseclips so he can demonstrate the effect of being deprived of their sense of smell, and given headphones to show the effect of sound on what they are eating.
It sounds not for the faint-hearted – nor for a cheap date, as each dinner costs £170 a head – but Jozef and his small and dedicated team make it all work; Jozef’s enthusiasm is catching and carries his audience with him. Each dinner begins with two short videos followed by a brief talk from Jozef on gastrophysics, then an exotic tequila-based cocktail – a nod to Mexico as one of several overseas sources of the ideas about to be made flesh – South America and the Far East are currently much in favour.
So much for the background to Jozef’s ‘journey through the new science of eating’. What about the food? Bear with me – there are some unusual names to come. Like me, you’ll just have to look them up. In true chef’s table style the portions are small but perfectly formed but it is the ingredients – and that includes jellyfish, an example of what Jozef calls ‘future food’ – and the way they work together and with the outside stimuli that count. The table is also designed to help with the experience, round in the style of Camelot with 10 seats arranged to encourage interchange between the guests – the number chosen deliberately to get them involved. Once the headphones and overhead projector come into play, there’s plenty of that. ‘We want to debate with the table,’ Jozef says, meaning his team. ‘To create dishes that get people talking.’
Each course is given a name, the first called ‘Flavour is a Construct’ is a simple combination first of lemon and yuzu and second of tomato and strawberry. Lesson one: Contrasts in food work. Next, again blending food with science, a course based on the sounds Bouba, meaning sweet, and Kiki, indicating a sharp taste, that have been found to be understood by two year olds and jungle-living tribes with limited exposure to the outside world. To illustrate: octopus and blue corn tostada with onion and hearts of palm served with a doughnut stuffed with oxcheek.
South America returns in the ‘Quetzelcotal’ course, named for a god of mythology and consisting of corn, beans and chili eaten with the hands because, says Jozef, who explains each food arrival as it comes, ‘food tastes better that way’. The table is decorated suitably beforehand and the overhead projector comes into play to beam a stylised image of a serpent on to the cloth.
The jellyfish appears in the ‘Ryujin’s Servant’ course, based this time on the Japanese god of the sea and accompanied by a projection of a rippling seascape and sounds of the ocean – described by Jozef as ‘sonic seasoning’ – relayed through headphones. Served with ginger, seaweed and Nukezuke cucumber, it is crunchy and not at all as expected and a leading candidate in Jozef’s campaign to find the ideal sustainable food source.
The rationale is that rising sea temperatures mean the natural predators of jellyfish are dying off so the jellyfish are blooming and their biomass is overwhelming other species. The solution: eat them, as already happens in the Far East. It resonates with Jozef’s views on senses and food. Most Westerners will react instinctively against the idea of eating jellyfish, he says, yet squid is now widely accepted. ‘There is a really good reason to be eating this,’ he notes.
After a ‘Scriptura Vitae’ course including among other tastes squid ink risotto, black bean tempeh and wakame, it’s into the forest with accompanying projection for ‘Tsumikasa’, a stuffed Jerusalem artichoke with truffle and shallot, all presented to look as if it is being eaten on the forest floor. ‘Jastrow’s Bite’, which follows, is by contrast a relatively straightforward offering of cubes of rabbit and duck with orange, carrot, quinoa and enoki, all accompanied by the soundtrack from a Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoon.
Three sweet courses, ‘Umami’, ‘Vanilla and the Bee’ and ‘Sensploration’, round off this meal with a difference, the first featuring Amazake ice cream, white chocolate, mushroom sponge and parmesan and the second torrija, vanilla and a honey kombucha.
It is, as Jozef rightly says, an experience. Much of what he does is based on his research work with Dr Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, so it was never going to be your average everyday meal. But for those of us interested in where food is going, Kitchen Theory provides a fascinating night out.
As well as the 10-guest chef’s table, Kitchen Theory hosts private corporate gatherings, family celebrations and more. The youngest guest so far was a six-year-old, whom Jozef says loved the experience. One can imagine that particular guest’s reactions came in for particular study.
An unexpected, and as far as I know, unreported side effect of a visit – a feeling of wellbeing that lasted for several days.
Alston Works Unit 9A, Falkland Road, Barnet EN5 4LG. 020 3302 7030