Posts Tagged ‘tomato’

The Farmer, the Chef and the Scientists

Monday, October 5th, 2015

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.

Co-Creating Tomatoes

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

It all started on a whim about a year ago. In the day time, I was the very serious manager of a management education and consulting firm that practices co-creation, the art of getting members of complex business ecosystems to work and grow together. At night, I was having fun running a shared kitchen that houses food trucks and food product entrepreneurs in Malden. Nobody knew of my double life, which allowed me to look inordinately sophisticated for a kitchen guy or strangely practical as a consultant.
I blame it all on my friend Steve Whalley, formerly head of sensors at Intel and now Chief Strategy Officer of the MEMS Industry Group. He invited me to give a keynote at the MEMS Executive Congress in Scottsdale, Arizona and suggested I talk about the application of co-creation to the agricultural and food chain. Together, we challenged this august technology group to develop a new way of working together using the latest sensor and Internet of Things technologies. We proposed that they join us in tackling the transformation of the entire Tech-Ag-Food value chain, starting with a specific product (tomatoes) in a particular region (the Boston area).
While we both pretend we’re doing this in the interest of technology, we are mostly motivated by our hope to get access to better-tasting tomatoes. I remind him periodically that the Frenchman that I am has more legitimacy than the Brit that he is when it comes to culinary matters, and we typically settle our argument by agreeing that Italians are better than any of us when it comes to tomatoes. Sadly, this fusion of my two jobs into one has also resulted into brain confusion I still have to recover from.
We became the Three Musketeers when Rob O’Reilly, senior scientist at Analog Devices (ADI), showed up at a breakfast meeting and announced he was spear-heading the development of a technology at ADI that could act as the core platform for our tomato project. Even more importantly, he described his unconventional mode of prototype development as “making up new stuff on the fly live with customers and technology partners, start gathering some data, then try to make sense of it”, which, he agreed, lacked a bit of marketing pizazz. When exposed to the principles of co-creation, he discovered we had been traveling companions, decided we were all on the road to co-creation and Steve, Rob and I have been project buddies ever since.
We’ve been working on two major issues so far: how to help local farmers develop new practices that improve their tomato yield, and how to measure taste in the “finished” tomato, with the goal of eventually connecting the two, i.e., figure out what agricultural practices improve not only yield, but also taste. (With industrial tomatoes, the two issues of productivity and yield are never addressed together, which is why most American tomatoes taste terrible). There is something both surreal and exciting about the dialogue between the analytically-minded ADI scientists (they showed up at the Malden kitchen with equipment worthy of the Rolling Stones) and the (mostly) intuitive farmers or chefs/cooks we are working with (“you just know when your tomato is the right one”). Because some of our chefs have done better than others at the analytical validation game, a new social order appears to be emerging in our kitchen (“I told you your puree was too watery, and the ADI guys proved it with their conductivity meter”).
On Thursday, August 20th, our ADI scientists will be collecting some data at the 31st annual Boston Tomato Contest. Our measurements will not participate in the evaluation of the tomato entries, but will allow us to understand further how taste as measured by taste judges correlates with analytical measurements of specific compounds in the tomato. Welcome to the Internet of Tomatoes!