A Gourmet Restaurant for Plants, Not People

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A look at an experiment in which plants savor menus of light and challenge our assumptions about the natural world

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The Photosynthetic Restaurant at the Crocker Museum of Art, photo by Jonathon Keats.

On Saturday, April 16, the world's first photosynthetic restaurant for plants opened for business. Located outside the Crocker Museum for Art in downtown Sacramento, the new dining establishment is a project of experimental philosopher and artist, Jonathon Keats. This is not a restaurant for humans to eat plants; rather, it is an exercise in creating a dining experience for the plants themselves, with a menu of enhanced sunlight that is designed to appeal to their sophisticated sensory apparatus, providing them with not only energy, but also a satisifying, piquant, and delightful experience.

"Honestly I'm surprised that nobody else has done this," declared Mr. Keats in the accompanying press release, tongue firmly in cheek. "For nearly a half billion years, plants have subsisted on a diet of photons haphazardly served up by the sun and indiscriminately consumed, without the least thought given to culinary enjoyment."

If cooking did indeed make us human, then Chef Keats' plant cuisine might represent a giant leap forward for plantkind. Be that as it may, at the very least, this speculative exercise in solar gastronomy offers its human observers an intriguing opportunity to re-imagine the edible universe from a botanical perspective.

Curiosity suitably piqued, I called Keats to find out how he went about designing a restaurant for plants and what kinds of dishes are on offer. In our conversation, below, we discuss everything from the plant equivalent of habañero chilies and TV dinners to the possible outcomes of a bacterial education programme.

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The Photosynthetic Restaurant sign, photo by Jonathon Keats.

Nicola Twilley: What goes into designing the look and experience of a restaurant for plants?

Jonathon Keats: Of course, the look of a restaurant depends on who's doing the looking. From the standpoint of the plants, I don't think they're really going to be too bothered about the architectural elements. In fact, that's how I feel as a human diner, although a lot of restaurateurs seem to disagree and create restaurants where the staging is more prominent than the culinary experience.

What I'm trying to do with the design of the restaurant is to make the experience of different frequencies of light served over the course of the day as seamless as possible for the plants. If you happen to be a human looking at how it all works, what you would see would be colored acrylic filters mounted on copper poles that are planted on the ground. As the sun arcs across the sky, the light pours through the different color filters, one after another. The physiological effect of different frequencies of light on the plants will form different courses of the meal and, ideally, will bring some sort of culinary enjoyment to the plants.

The whole thing is based on working with nature, as any good chef and restaurateur does. It's classic California cuisine, showcasing fantastic ingredients -- in this case, photons, freshly delivered from the sun -- to their best advantage.

The Photosynthetic Restaurant, photo by Jonathon Keats.

The patrons will be out in front of the museum, in the garden. They're elderly -- they're rosebushes that, I'm told, are more than 100 years old. Over the course of three months, my restaurant will be serving two different menus. Of course, each will be modulated ever so slightly every day because of the tilt of earth's axis as it orbits around the sun. Working with seasonality is, I think, the essence of great cuisine, and I think the plants will appreciate this. At least, I hope that they do!

One of the menus will be what I kind of think of as hearty, healthy, well-balanced cuisine. In human cuisine, a hearty, healthy meal is a dish that serves up, in an enhanced and refined form, exactly what we need, nutritionally speaking. You take the basic proteins and carbohydrates that Cro-Magnon man or Neanderthals would probably crave anyway, and then, because we have these incredible resources available that they didn't, you can present each element in more forceful terms than they might occur in the wild.

The other menu is an avant-garde recipe. In that case, what I'm doing is playing against the expectations of the organisms that are my patrons. Just as in the case of human cuisine, when it becomes avant-garde, there's an element of surprise and disrupted expectations, and what comes naturally is put out of order.

Menu Three in The Photosynthetic Restaurant Recipe Book "syncopates plants' circadian rhythm by teasing their cryptochromes with a course of evening violet in the middle of the afternoon," according to its creator, Jonathon Keats.

The pleasure in the hearty meal comes out of the fact that our expectations are fulfilled, only more so than they might be in the wild, whereas in the case of the avant-garde cuisine, which perhaps is a little bit more advanced in terms of what it requires of the patron, the pleasure comes from the element of surprise.

To create each menu, I've drawn on research into the physiology of plants. A lot of it was done by NASA, who were looking into farming on Mars, and some came from the Siberian Academy of Sciences, out of their practical need to try to feed people in the winter. The other big source of information was probably the most advanced people in the world as far as thinking about everything to do with cultivating plants: pot growers. They're incredibly adept at these sort of things.

Of course, pot growers, Siberian scientists, and potential Martian farmers all share a common goal, which is to put plants even more in our service than they already are. They are giving plants meals that are meant to fatten them up in order for us then to consume them. It isn't about the plants' enjoyment at all. It's about cramming in the calories, to use a human or animal equivalent, whereas what I'm looking to do is to give my patrons the sort of culinary experience that we enjoy when we go to a restaurant.

Cover of the The Photosynthetic Restaurant Recipe Book, by Jonathon Keats.

Twilley: You've also produced an accompanying recipe book, which showcases the healthy menu that "artfully accentuates qualities of unfiltered daylight," and the more experimental menu, which, for example, will confound plants' expectations by serving up evening violet in the afternoon. You also have an exciting-sounding third menu, which adds spice in the form of a hint of far-red light. Can you discuss these different color ingredients and their sensory effects on plants? And did you have to translate the colors on your menu to make them visible to the human eye, which can detect only a narrow spectrum of light frequencies?

Keats: A plant perceives far-red light as a signal that there are other plants nearby, because the far-red part of the spectrum reflects off the leaves of plants. If you're a plant, you don't want others getting too close because then your sunlight is occluded, and so plants have a sort of fear response to the far-red part of the spectrum.

If you think about about habañero peppers or jalapeños or those sort of spicy ingredients, we get an enjoyment out of eating them, in spite of the physiological panic that they cause, because spicy cuisine brings about that sort of panic in a controlled way. It's equivalent to catharsis in terms of theater.

So, without anthropomorphising the plants, I'm trying to figure out what part of the spectrum I can use that will give them the sort of rush that we get from spicy food. And that far-red light is outside the reach of anything that we humans know that we are experiencing. It's at the very end of the spectrum, where red shades into infra-red. In the recipe book, I've used inks that are the deepest of deep reds, in order to imperfectly, I will be the first to admit, express that part of the spicy menu.

Menu Two from The Photosynthetic Restaurant Recipe Book, showing the spicy far-red element of the meal.

Ultraviolet light is also part of plants' everyday experience and an ingredient that I'm using in my cuisine. That deep-blue-into-violet-into-ultraviolet light, for instance, is a way in which plants seem to be able to perceive the end of the day. In the case of the hearty cuisine, I'm using it at the end of the day, almost in the way that a digestif works for us, perhaps. And, in the case of the avant-garde cuisine, I'm juxtaposing it with orange mid-day light. I'm playing a little bit of a sensory trick on the plants, in the same way that chefs preparing haute-cuisine throughout history have played tricks on their human diners.

Of course, humans are sensitive to these invisible parts of the spectrum too -- for example, when we get sunburn. It's just that we tend to think about light frequencies and color in terms of something that we see, whereas plants are used to detecting it through their entire bodies.

NEXT: TV dinners for plants, plant anorexia, and why it's better to build a photosynthetic restaurant than just write about the idea

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Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, co-founder of the Foodprint Project, and director of Studio-X NYC, an urban futures network run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning.

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