Alton Brown, a philosopher-chef? Yes. According to Georgia Tech Professor, Ian Bogost, by attending to to the specificity and complexity of ingredients Food Network star Alton Brown is engaged in alien phenomenology. Bogost explains that “Brown’s cakery embraces tiny ontology. The cake exists, to be sure. So does the Kitchen-Aid 5 quart stand mixer, the preheated oven, the mixing bowl, and the awaiting gullet. But to do so the sugars, the flour granules, the butterfat crystals, the leavener, the gas bubbles. And they do not merely exist – they exist equally, and Good Eats proves that flat existence entails equal levels of potential worth. The relationship between fat crystal and sugar, leavener and batter is just as fundamental as that between cake and and sugar, leavener and batter is just as fundamental as that between cake and mouth. The dispersion of gases that rises is surely interesting and useful as it relates to the end product (a light and fluffy cake), but Good Eats also presents the gas bubbles and the flour granules as their own end product, worthy of consideration, scrutiny and even awe.”
Alien Phenomenolgy is according to Bogost, the practice of specific speculation that helps us imagine Alton Brown attention to the interaction of ingredients, tools and process allows us to think about the relation between things or ingredients independent of our needs. While the cake maybe delicious to us, the specific interaction of heat and batter occurs independent of us. Our need for a delicious cake only sets up the conditions but the active combination of flour, sugar and heat make the intention reality. This culinary moment is significant for design disciplines. It shows the capacity of attentive construction processes to promote an object orientation that is attentive to inorganic agency. Design that considers opacity, complexity and process of things can maintain at least a partial object orientation. It gives us an appreciation or process and elements beyond the end product, the delicious cake. Bogost’s culinary example about Alton Brown’s poundcake shows us how things relate through complex encounters that we both don’t and do control.
(From my recent publication in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy entitled “Black Noise: Design Lessons from Roasted Green Chiles, Udon Noodles and Pound Cake”)