Thierry Marx was helping transform how we enjoy the purely aesthetic realm of eating. Each year, in the town of Pauillac, north of Bordeaux, within the chateau of Cordeillan-Bages, he created hundreds of new ways to prepare, visualize, and consume familiar foods. By 2007 the reputation of his restaurant drew comparisons with the two top experimental restaurants in the world, Ferran Adrià's El Bulli outside Barcelona and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck north of London.From The Lab: Creativity and Culture by David Edwards. Copyright © 2010 by David Edwards. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
That same year we had a chance to involve Thierry in an experiment at Le Laboratoire with the colloid physicist Jérôme Bibette. To explore how a chef became an exhibiting artist, we traveled down to his restaurant in July. The conversation swirled that day around wrapping flavor in particularly thin membranes. Having looked into the idea of inhaled aerosols for delivering drugs and vaccines, I brought up the idea of breathing these colloids into your mouth. Later in the fall I shared that notion with students at Harvard University. They would need to make the food particles small enough to get into the air, and large enough to avoid entry into the lungs under all conditions of breathing. We knew this much. But what did inhaling food mean? Would there be pleasure in it? After a semester of reflection, brainstorming, and quite a bit of coughing (even after designing the particles with a size to avoid the lungs, we discovered that, no matter how we breathed through straw-like inhalers, the particles flew to the back of the throat) I put a piece of tape over the paper cylinder my students had prepared to inhale things like carrot powder. The coughing stopped. And here we had the first prototype of the food inhaler we called Le Whif.
The LaboGroup was just then being formed, and José Sanchez decided we could manufacture Le Whif in the Chinese factory where we planned to make the plant filter. Six months after the idea had come up in Thierry's restaurant, we manufactured the first Whifs in China. They arrived in Paris a few days before Thierry and Jérôme's culinary art exhibition at Le Laboratoire, in March 2008. We exhibited our fledgling product over a Whif Bar imagined by Caroline Naphegyi and cosponsored by the Nestlé division Nespresso. Nespresso offered each visitor a free coffee, and we included a little brown object that looked like a tube of lipstick, by which you whiffed chocolate into your mouth.
To be perfectly frank, Le Whif didn't work well. Chocolate powder fell out if you inclined one end above the other, and you almost invariably coughed when you inhaled for the first time. But this was a lab, and we were testing a new idea--a new way of experiencing food! Two Harvard students, Trevor Martin and Larissa Zhou, had flown to Paris for the event. Jonathan Kamler, who had graduated the year before, having led the previous semester's student whiffing project, was also in Paris to work full-time for the LaboGroup. These three kept the chocolate inhalers full of chocolate powder as several hundred opening night guests tried it out.
It turned out to be fortuitous that, just weeks before the exhibition, the French government had outlawed cigarettes in cafés. This had outraged many French café-goers. Le Whif seemed a kind of inventive response. The traditional sip of coffee, bit of chocolate, and smoke that properly ended a French meal became, in this new anti-cigarette era, sipped coffee and smoked chocolate. Our guests had a ball with it. They invariably held Le Whif between their fingers as if it were a cigarette, and kept it long after the tube was empty, chatting, appreciating a novel social experience (which became, in the hands of my three little boys, something of a slightly illicit thrill).
No, this wasn't a commercial product, and nobody pretended it was. Nobody, that is, but the LaboGroup team. Why? Because the team was having fun. The hoped-for outcome of this first experiment had been observed in the public reaction to the exhibition, and now there were more experiments to be done. And, besides, if Le Whif did manage to become a product one day, magical revenues would appear. The team needed to hope for this income stream. The risk of running out of money was too palpable.
True, whiffing was even more far-fetched than filtering the air with plants. However, being far-fetched made the idea plausible as the preoccupation of an art lab, and commended the idea as a valid creative process even as it cast doubt on the eventual outcome of a valuable commercial product.
Clearly there were things to improve. The design needed to prevent all the chocolate from spilling out as you moved Le Whif around after filling it and before inhaling. But the product needed to remain simple; especially, it needed to avoid the unattractive trappings of pharmaceutical products. Le Whif needed to reliably deliver enough chocolate to satisfy taste but not so much as to fill your mouth with dry powder or provoke a spasm of coughing. The LaboGroup launched a second version of Le Whif in the fall of 2008 with the opening of the new LaboShop. The public could come inside and enjoy a whiff of chocolate with a cup of espresso. Whiffed chocolate came in mint chocolate, raspberry chocolate, and pure chocolate flavors. We invited the public to opine on the result and help us design a fully commercial chocolate inhaler that we would launch within the year.
We said that whiffing was a new way of eating, and proposed Le Whif as a kind of inhaled fork or spoon--and we believed it. Until now, nobody had reliably put food in the mouth through breathing. First there were the hands, then chopsticks, then forks and spoons, and now Le Whif. Yes, we were starting with chocolate, but you could inhale many other things, too, as we did during private evenings of experimentation in the FoodLab--with cheese, mushroom, exotic teas.
From the fall of 2008 into the winter of 2009, our local LaboShop clientele included young professionals, kids, and an occasional celebrity, like the French actress Isabelle Adjani, who would sneak in and out, sunglasses donned, enjoying a private pleasure. This eclectic group, probably fewer than a hundred people, returned regularly to the LaboShop, defining for us the commercial potential of Le Whif and rarely leaving before posing the same impatient question: When could they actually buy Le Whif and take it home? The LaboShop team would, when asked this question, point to the upcoming product launch, whose date we kept moving out further into the future as we tried to improve the design of Le Whif, now a third time, and work out a business model in the absence of a huge demand.
The team geared up for the commercial launch over regular late-evening drinks at the neighborhood café. Production costs needed to be lowered, simplicity improved, and more chocolate added, among other things.
With so much happening then at Le Laboratoire--the global financial crisis having fully settled down on us--our product development was spotty and informal. We did the best we could with limited time and resources. After many delays, the date of the launch was set for April 29, 2009. There would be a world tour to bring Le Whif to major cities and accustom people to the notion of breathing chocolate. We put together communication materials and planned a launch that resembled the opening of an art exhibition, which was the only kind of opening we knew. Our message was philosophical. Breathe chocolate and experience food as an artistic act. If chocolate failed, we had other ideas--inhaled spices, inhaled steak, inhaled coffee. Thierry Marx began to think about it all.
Four weeks before the scheduled launch in Paris, something very surprising happened. In his first months working for us, when he was still living in Cambridge, Tom Hadfield helped us put the business plan of LaboGroup in shape. In the midst of this he sent a note in early April saying that he was about to start a buzz campaign by Internet. Distracted by the challenges of the launch, we didn't take special notice. Tom's note probably arrived on a Thursday. The campaign was to begin the next day, he wrote.
On Saturday morning Tom reported that some blogging had started and the traffic on the Internet site had doubled. We received another note from Tom on Sunday. Internet traffic had doubled again. Similar messages came on Monday and Tuesday. By then Internet orders for Le Whif were flooding in. Several major blog sites picked up the story midweek, and on Wednesday the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe wanted to do interviews. "The world has been waiting for breathable chocolate!" Tom wrote ecstatically in one of the many emails now zipping across the ocean. By the end of the week the Today Show, Good Morning America, and CBS Morning News had asked for the product to test. We had waves of orders and media requests from England, Germany, Italy, Spain, South Africa, India, Thailand, Japan, Poland, and other countries.
The world had awakened to the idea that we had a new, surprising commercial product. But we actually didn't. We were unprepared. The day before the April 29 launch I was in Washington, D.C., to give a talk at the National Institutes of Health on work I was doing related to infectious diseases. On my way from the airport I received an email from Jonathan Kamler explaining that Le Whif had arrived, filled with chocolate and properly packaged. But, when he took it out of its packaging to test it, Jonathan discovered it didn't function properly. He couldn't even open it. Out of a hundred Whifs, perhaps thirty worked. In a lightning decision, we decided to hand pick the new product, throw out the defective ones, and launch the next day. Thankfully, the surprise of the product, the suddenness of international public reaction, and the bizarre atmosphere of the FoodLab, with Thierry Marx presiding over lunch, helped everyone ignore that day how unreliable this first product actually was.
The team was invited a few weeks later to the Cannes Film Festival to help animate the beachfront terrace café of the Majestic Hotel. For two weeks young women walked between café tables from noon through mid-afternoon. Shoulder straps held serving trays from which they offered free Whifs, like vendors selling hotdogs at a baseball game. Later that month the team traveled to Chicago for the All Candy Show. This went relatively smoothly, and by the end of the month we ran out of the first faulty stock--15,000 Whifs.
A new shipment arrived in July, and until October 2009 it performed mostly as we wished it to, particularly in the hands of those educated to use it or patient enough to learn how to use it even when it dusted your knees with chocolate, or when the chocolate flew into your mouth in one quick burst, or when the inhaler arrived empty, because of some glitch in the filling, packaging, and transporting process. While we received many disappointed notes from customers who received Le Whif and either did not understand it or experienced a malfunction in one of these ways, we also received notes from at least as many customers delighted by the product, who understood Le Whif even with all its youthful blemishes, and who remained hopeful about ordering more, particularly once we'd figured out the issues of manufacture and supply.
The experiment continued. In October we produced an even more reliable chocolate inhaler that began to sell in Lafayette Gourmet within the flagship Galeries Lafayette store. Helped by a brilliant chocolate expert, we completely changed the packaging and marketing of the product to better signal our commercial intentions while preparing the launch of a fully commercial Whif at the end of January 2010. This final product was launched at Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum, and later that spring in Dylan's Candy Bar in New York City and other locations around the United States, such as the gourmet shop Cardullo's in Harvard Square. That same spring the product launched in England within the House of Fraser in London and in many other cities and towns around the United Kingdom.
Le Whif's commercial appearance mobilized the entire network of artscience labs. LaboGroup ran the business, Le Laboratoire curated the idea through exhibitions, The Laboratory at Harvard introduced the product during its opening in 2009, and the Idea Translation Lab at Cloud Place organized a few high school whiffing parties. Through sales, Le Whif would benefit all the artscience labs eventually; but this was not the reason why Le Whif went on exhibit in Paris or animated parties in the United States. The labs participated in this experiment mostly because Le Whif was a surprising idea, conceived with students at the intersection of aerosol science and culinary art, and, while fun, it also expressed something essential about what each lab did, or wished to do, with students, creators, and the public.
More than a commercial product, Le Whif carried the creative process outside lab borders. We wished the product to be understood in its original art-as-process context. This was signaled by the launch parties in Paris and, later, at the Cannes Film Festival, in Chicago, in Cambridge, and elsewhere. It was signaled by the early silver balloon packaging we used, and by the "airline tickets" we handed out to explain what we had in mind with the "world tour" promotion. Our sales approach reflected a lab sensibility; it did not reflect a reasoned analysis of the market.
Le Whif traversed the entire idea funnel. It started as a catalyst of education, soon became a catalyst of cultural exploration, and went on to be a catalyst of commercial sales revenue that helped keep our labs running. It also inspired new culinary art and science experiments, from whiffed coffee, which launched in the spring of 2010, to whiffed vitamins, scheduled to launch later within the year. And on the horizon was yet another design, Le Whaf, which I conceived with the French designer Marc Bretillot as a new way to "drink by breathing." This was a new form of food--a standing cloud of flavor that falls between a liquid and a gas, just as whiffed food fell somewhere between a solid and a gas.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.