The Farmer, the Chef and the Scientists

11. The farmer, the chef and the scientistsFrom left to right, JP O’Connor and Rob O’Reilly, Analog Devices; Jim Ward, Ward’s Berry Farm; David Stein, Executive Chef, Heritage Truck Catering

It’s not easy being a Frenchman that has neither a good palate, nor any culinary ability of any kind. Having had my deficiencies exposed on numerous social occasions, I did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances: I started a food business (with the help of some of my friends). The enterprise is called Heritage Truck Catering. Heritage is a food truck we use to test on the streets of Boston the most recent culinary creations of our chef David Stein (“Chef David”), and this leads to the creation of food products that utilize local farm products.

On Saturday, October 3, at the Let’s Talk about Food event on Boston’s Copley Place, we unveiled our first product: a tomato sauce made from local New England tomatoes. Jim Ward, from Ward’s Berry Farm, contributed the tomatoes: a mix of his world-class heirloom, field and plum tomatoes. Chef David originated the concept of a local tomato sauce (his specialty is sauces and soups), and the actual development was led by Edith Murnane, former Head of Food Initiatives for the City of Boston, who led the project across its culinary, production and marketing aspects, with Adam Frawley taking the lead for production and quality at the Commonwealth Kitchen in Dorchester, with the support of a talented prep crew.

Simply put, we want to transform tomato agriculture and food consumption in New England, by progressively displacing the imported tomato sauce made with “bad tomatoes” from places without water (California), without soil (Florida) or places with dubious ethical and environmental practices (you know who you are). We believe these imports will gradually be replaced by an indigenous sauce made with “good tomatoes” that are locally grown, sustainable from an environmental and social standpoint, and offer a unique match with the soil of New England, what my country fellowmen call “terroir”. Because the best farmers in New England grow heirloom tomatoes, heirlooms constitute the distinctive feature of our tomato sauce. We were honored to receive positive feedback on the freshness of our product from a large number of visitors who came to our tent at Let’s Talk about Food, including a couple of nice endorsements from Boston celebrity chefs. A few homeless people stole some of our tomatoes, which we took to be a further form of approval.

Perhaps less gastronomically apparent lies a secret sauce behind our new tomato product: science. More specifically, a team of two Analog Devices scientists (Rob O’Reilly and JP O’Connor) are working with us in developing technologies that analytically track tomatoes from their growth at the farm, their transportation across the distribution chain and retailing, and their processing and eventual consumption. This project, called the Internet of Tomatoes, was also featured at Let’s Talk about Food and attracted great attention. We showed how sensors can be used to monitor the growth of the tomato plant at the farm to optimize irrigation or pest control (this is the cute little red birdhouse on the right of the picture). The data is aggregated locally through a sensor hub (appropriately called Fenway, even the technology is local!), then sent to the cloud, and finally analyzed through proprietary software to suggest new farming methods (“algorithms” in the jargon). In the Internet of Tomatoes approach, farmers control their own data and work together to create new insights as a community, without any risk of seeing large agricultural companies take control of that data to advance their agenda.

At the consumption stage, we are now in a position to analyze the contribution made by each individual tomato to the taste and texture of our tomato sauce, with the help of Analog Devices’ instrumentation and analytical ability. Heirlooms, in particular, offer a particularly wide range of sweetness, acidity, salt, or water content, which requires careful weighing of the dosage of each tomato in the final mix. While many heirloom buyers simply enjoy the idea of eating local heirloom tomatoes irrespective of their characteristics, we fingerprint our various tomatoes and combine them in each batch to get to the desired taste (yes, our chefs are a bit geeky!). We do this today with a mix of destructive techniques (i.e., we extract a liquid from the tomato and analyze it) and non-invasive optical technologies (view this as shining a light on the tomato at various frequencies and getting its full analytical profile from the way the tomato reacts to that light). For Star Trek fans among you, the idea is to eventually develop a Tricorder device that will allows consumers in the produce aisle at Whole Foods to use the device to decide whether to buy the produce or not.

All this, of course, has allowed to re- insert myself into the gastronomical discussion in spite of my kitchen limitations. I may not have the palate or the tour-de-main, but with the help of my Analog Devices colleagues, I am now at the culinary table, liberally sharing advice on the need to let the tomato ripen for a couple more days, or reduce the plum puree by another 10%. This has restored my French culinary credibility, and for that, there is no price.

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