How Cornucopia's Digital Gastronomy Works

The Cornucopia Digital Fabricator is a "food printer" that dispenses and combines food ingredients to create a finished product.
The Cornucopia Digital Fabricator is a "food printer" that dispenses and combines food ingredients to create a finished product.

The term "digital gastronomy" conjures up images of the space-age kitchens seen on the Jetsons or in an exhibit at Epcot, but you may be surprised to learn that they are no longer just part of futuristic fairy tales. In fact, thanks to a few talented doctoral candidates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), they're much closer to becoming reality. Imagine creating complicated recipes at the touch of a button or testing every possible ratio of flour and yeast to produce the most delicious loaf of bread.

Cornucopia's Digital Gastronomy is the brainchild of two inspired designers, Marcelo Coelho and Amit Zoran, who manifested the concept into three independent machines: the Digital Fabricator, the Robotic Chef and the Virtuoso Mixer. These devices convert food ingredients into meals without any manpower. Currently, Coelho and Zoran are experimenting with prototypes of the machines, and it will be a while (if ever) before they are available to the public.

The Digital Fabricator is a three-dimensional "food printer" that converts your chosen ingredients into a delicious end product. The Robotic Chef applies an array of cooking techniques to food components that the user selects. And the Virtuoso Mixer enables rapid experimentation by allowing the user to mix varying amounts of ingredients in order to discover their preferred combination.

With the help of these tools, chefs of the future could be so precise and efficient that they'd never need to grab fast food on the go. The right high-tech products could consolidate kitchens into a few choice appliances, and food waste could be a thing of the past. In a time when digital technology makes new leaps each day, food technology could make significant strides, the likes of which haven't been seen for centuries [source: Coelho].

Read on to see if the Digital Fabricator could eliminate the need for your next refrigerator purchase and find out how the Virtuoso Mixer dreams up food combinations not previously conceived.

Cornucopia's Form and Appearance

The Robotic Chef can apply a variety of cooking techniques to food items that already exist, such as a piece of fruit or a steak.
The Robotic Chef can apply a variety of cooking techniques to food items that already exist, such as a piece of fruit or a steak.

Coelho and Zoran developed the concept of digital gastronomy with three autonomous mechanical devices, which together make up the Cornucopia. The sleek external design of the Cornucopia is just as advanced as its internal technology. Each component resembles its name.

Adorning the surface of the Digital Fabricator, or food printer, you'll see a variety of colored canisters that store and properly cool all of your favorite food components. So far, its inventors don't know how long the device will keep food cold. It could provide long-term storage, like a refrigerator, or it could just hold the ingredients you need for a specific recipe [source: Coelho]. The mechanisms that dispense and combine the ingredients into their final form are all under the lid of the printer.

The Robotic Chef is made up of numerous computerized hands that grip particular food elements. The robotic hands rotate, compress and stretch food components, producing varying results. The device resembles a microscope with a surface plate, which regulates the temperature of food components from below. While the food component is held in place by robotic hands, needles and lasers positioned on the toolhead above apply highly localized cooking methods. The needles inject chosen spice combinations, and lasers can cook portions of the food component.

The Virtuoso Mixer consists of three levels. Each level swivels like a carousel, allowing you to combine different ingredients in varying amounts [source: Marcelo]. The top layer is equipped with eight canisters that hold ingredients. The middle layer also has eight canisters, which combine and mix the ingredients from the top layer. The combinations from the second layer are deposited into the third layer, where sophisticated heating and cooling elements prepare foods.

Read on to find out how the Robotic Chef uses lasers to alter the taste of your filet mignon and how the Digital Fabricator could make the seasoned chef a thing of the past.

The Mechanisms of the Cornucopia

With the Virtuoso Mixer, users can experiment with a variety of ingredients to find their favorite combinations.
With the Virtuoso Mixer, users can experiment with a variety of ingredients to find their favorite combinations.

The Cornucopia is still a conceptual design, but its purpose is to mimic human ingenuity with the precision and efficiency of a machine. Each device is thematically tied to a design concept.

The Digital Fabricator enhances a food's form by manufacturing selected food combinations. While the exact mechanism for choosing recipes is not set yet, the Digital Fabricator's touch screen connects to the Internet. Users can also select recipes saved onto the device's digital catalog or recipes shared by other Digital Fabricator users in a database. The canisters located on top of the food printer are filled with the user's chosen food ingredients. From under the hood of the food printer, the Fabricator dispenses and then perfectly combines ingredients with the other elements laid out by the chosen recipe. A tubular system heats and cools food as it moves through the cooking process. The final product exits the printer ready to be sampled [source: Coelho].

The Robotic Chef transforms food components that already exist. It's about the manipulation of form, not creation. For example, you could apply a variety of cooking methods to a steak using the Robotic Chef. The device holds the steak between two robotic arms, while the toolhead arm above simultaneously alters the taste by inserting syringes filled with spice combinations. The plate located below where the steak is held in place heats the meat to the intended temperature. The benefit of the device is that you can apply a particular cooking method either locally or holistically to your food component.

The Virtuoso Mixer determines all possible ingredient combinations in an effort to find the best one for each chef. For example, if you were making a loaf of bread, you could experiment quickly with combinations of yeast and various flours, producing the tastiest loaf. The mixer dispenses ingredients from 16 canisters. The top layer distributes the ingredients using precise scale methods, and a second layer crushes and combines the ingredients. The machine heats or cools the ingredients after dispensing them into the third layer, where an insulated glass cover allows for quickly baking or modifying the temperature of the mixture to produce a sample.

Read on to see why environmentalists and health nuts will love the Cornucopia.

Goals Behind the Concept of Digital Gastronomy

After examining the futuristic descriptions of the Cornucopia, you're left wondering about the purpose of it all. Why did Coelho and Zoran come up with the concept in the first place?

The Cornucopia enhances at-home food preparation. While food technology has advanced in food factories and for the master chefs of the world, most of these technological advances aren't accessible to the at-home cook [source: Coelho]. Digital Gastronomy makes cooking at home easier and more appealing in a time when more and more people eat out and let others control the content of their food.

Sustainability is more a byproduct of the Cornucopia than a primary purpose, but even so, its ability to decrease consumption is welcomed by some environmentalists. Because the Cornucopia dispenses ingredients with precision, food waste is minimal. The Cornucopia also consolidates the tools necessary for running an efficient kitchen and leaves little need for excess appliances. The result is a reduction of waste and consumption, amounting to increased sustainability.

But the true value of the project is that it provokes a discussion about the future of food [source: Coelho]. The designers are specifically interested in users having complete control over their initial ingredients, and, therefore, the end product. This is an opportune time for such a discussion, because these days people are often left in the dark about the ingredients that are in the foods they eat and how those ingredients will affect overall health [source: Coelho]. The goal of the Cornucopia is to provide the user with complete control over the nutrient density and quality of the end product. According to the designers, the more information people have about the food they're eating, the more likely they are to make better choices.

Read on to see when the Cornucopia will become a reality.

Will the Cornucopia Be a Reality?

An innovation like the Cornucopia may seem unrealistic at first, but Coelho and Zoran have begun building prototypes of some of the canisters and vaults used for food storage. They've experimented with each device's interface and control panel, and they've worked with some of the heating and cooling mechanisms of each machine. But the two are still experimenting with which portions of the Cornucopia are feasible and which will remain in the futuristic realm, at least for the time being.

Coelho and Zoran are not at the stage where they can discuss a release date for the project, or even if the project will ever become a reality. It's similar to a concept car show that displays futuristic cars in an effort to learn what works and what doesn't. The majority of cars in a concept car show are never seen driving down our nation's highways, and this could also be true of some aspects of the Cornucopia. But even so, the project provokes a discussion about where food is today and where food could go as this technology evolves [source: Coelho]. It presents the idea that amateur chefs can have the tools at their disposal to take gastronomical techniques to the next level, while completely controlling every facet of the food that they produce.

For more information on food science and appliances, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • Alter, Lloyd. MIT's Food Printer: The Greenest Way To Cook? March 16, 2010.
  • Bayne, Martha "It's like a James Bond movie meets Chitty Chity Bang Bang meets Woodstock". March 17, 2010.
  • Coelho, Marcelo. Inventor of The Cornucopia's Digital Gastronomy. Personal Correspondence. March 21, 2010.
  • Coelho, Marcelo. Inventor of The Cornucopia's Digital Gastronomy. Personal Interview. March 26, 2010.
  • Coelho, Marcelo. Cornucopia Concept Designs for a Digital Gastronomy. March 16, 2010.