More than a dash of whimsy

The Baltimore Sun

Cambridge, Mass. -- Hugo Liu says he hates recipes. The whole concept seems hopelessly antiquated to a guy who starts cooking by sniffing spices and thinking. Yet he has invented a revolutionary way of developing them.

He explores new tastes with a vengeance. To learn to appreciate kale recently, he consumed it steamed, boiled, sauteed, raw, pureed and even as a cocktail. Yet he believes the future lies in helping other people make food decisions not by mouth but with the click of a mouse. Give him your last few meals and he can virtually map your taste buds.

Chef Auguste Escoffier would be addled by the very notions, but this 27-year-old, spiky-haired computer whiz at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lab here in Cambridge is starting to shake up the food world with a combination of artificial intelligence and natural obsession. Any geek could run 160,000 recipes on the Internet through a software program to deconstruct them. How many would think to sort them not by course or ingredient or even technique but by that most ineffable of quantifiers: emotion?

His first big project, a searchable database called The Synesthetic Cookbook, brought Liu to national attention two years ago. His latest computer project, Gulp Fiction, creates recipes to order.

"Hugo was like a wet finger in an electric socket," says Antonia Allegra, who organized a food writers' conference at the Greenbrier in West Virginia in May and booked Liu after hearing him speak at the Taste 3 forum in California's Napa Valley earlier this year. "People who didn't understand a word knew what he was saying was very important."

In applying artificial intelligence to aesthetics, Liu says his overall goal is to "help people become fluent in taste." And he is clearly equipped with one of the more free-ranging minds in food today. Whereas Harold McGee brought rigorous science to bear on food, Liu contributes a combination of linguistics, imagination and fascination.

Liu is not your average food firebrand. He was born in China and lived there until he was 6. His parents, who worked for the United Nations, had family roots in different regions of the country, which meant he grew up with rice on his father's side and noodles on his mother's. He received his doctorate in media arts and sciences from MIT in June 2006.

Among the groundbreaking projects that caused a sensation at the Greenbrier are what Liu calls Taste Spaces, essentially "maps" of a sort of solar system of different kinds of foods and wines. By parsing descriptions online, he groups champagne with muscat, gewurztraminer and tokay. Morels are grouped with wasabi and poblano chiles.

One day, he imagines, "customers could order words, not food - 'Bring me some whimsical.' "

Liu says he found recipes extremely easy to parse in producing The Synesthetic Cookbook, which analyzes 160,000 recipes "clipped" from the Web and broken down by 5,000 key words for ingredients and 1,000 for descriptions (spicy, tasty).

A user searching the database, which is behind an MIT firewall today, could call up a screen with a plate on it and order dinner ideas for the whole family. "Beef" would bring up countless possibilities but could be refined with "spicy," "herbaceous" and, especially, "comforting."

The "cookbook" is a revelation not so much for the recipes, though, as for how they are ultimately summoned. Synesthetics is the physiological process in which a sensation elicits an emotion (or a sip of wine evokes a color), and Liu's work contains 980,000 aesthetic associations and 100,000 contexts, or emotions.

But while his first "cookbook" draws on recipes already in existence, Gulp Fiction is a leap into uncharted terrain. The user of this program can have it write a recipe, selecting from essences Liu has programmed as being necessary to make a French or Cajun or Japanese dish. The fun is in the context: A request for "sad" oatmeal produces a recipe with red wine, beer, gin, vodka, brandy and soda; "poetic" pizza has no crust.

Judging by a demonstration in Liu's tiny shared office in the Media Lab, Gulp Fiction at this point is more "textual eating," as he describes it, than cooks' miracle. Ask it for an enchilada recipe, he says, and it will produce "not any enchilada recipe but an essence of all enchilada recipes - it doesn't copy any recipes." While its directions are lyrical and almost hypnotic, they are also whimsical to the point of nonsensical.

Liu considers his latest work "food conjuring" and admits that "I get a kick out of reading this, but the kitchen chemistry has not kicked in." In short, it is not dissimilar from what many Internet junkies would call food porn, dishes to be drooled over rather than actually eaten.

Regina Schrambling writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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