The food world is similar to the marine world insofar as it's a huge area of interest that's essential to human life that most people know very little about.
Take taste, for example. Just as most people are able name three or four of the world's oceans, many can readily identify a dish as sweet, sour, salty or bitter. It takes a true foodie, a transatlantic sailor of the food world, to relish the pronounced umami of a ripe tomato.
Umami is a sensation that the glutamates in many protein-rich foods trigger in specific receptors on the tongue. Known in culinary circles as the fifth taste, it gets spotlight attention in an exhibit at the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD Lab) that recently opened its doors in Brooklyn.
"There's no other museum out there that looks at food in this multi-disciplinary, interactive way," says Executive Director Peter Kim, who met culinary innovator Dave Arnold at a fundraiser in 2011 and became interested in Arnold's idea of establishing a large-scale museum devoted to food and its relation to society.
"At the time, I was an attorney at Debevoise & Plimpton, and I took on Mofad as a pro-bono client," recalls Kim. "A year later, in May 2012, I hung up my lawyer shoes and started as MOFAD's first executive director."
MOFAD Lab, which opened to the public last November on the ground floor of a renovated industrial building in Williamsburg, is the nonprofit startup's first brick-and-mortar space. It currently functions as a locus for cooking classes, industrial cereal puffer machine demos and as a design gallery showcasing exhibit concepts to the public.
Exhibit design that effectively appeals to two of the least literal senses — taste and smell — is an area MOFAD will have to excel in to achieve its goal of mixing the institutional heft of the Smithsonian Institution with a sensory safari on par with Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.
"At MOFAD, visitors don't just see and touch, they smell and taste as well," says Kim from a smell exhibit designed to enable visitors to recreate the aroma of cola by manually mixing four distinct scents using a push-button interface. "Our nose can actually detect -- some people believe up to trillions of different smells, so most of the nuance that we're getting from flavor comes from smell."
Developed in collaboration with some of America's top flavor chemists, the scent table is one of several original exhibits MOFAD Lab has developed to communicate flavor concepts directly through the senses and provide visitors with a visceral learning experience. Another is a flavor tablet dispenser configured from reengineered gumball machines.
"We're fusing together elements of historical museums, cultural museums and science museums," says Peter Kim of MOFAD's plan for raising our cultural consciousness of food and drink through regular exhibitions on topics ranging from food as medicine to space food.
"On the one hand, you've got this pop interest in food, which is at a fever pitch. On the other hand, there is an increasing focus at the academic and policy levels on issues like obesity, greenhouse gas emissions and the food system's impact on economies on both the local and global scale," says Kim from beside an exhibit created around the essence of vanilla. "It's interesting to think about what the role of the flavor industry might be going into the future."
MOFAD Lab is located at 62 Bayard St., Brooklyn, N.Y. and is open Wednesday through Sunday.