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 has no formal background in food or drink, only a passion for both. Yet he has developed a radical new method of categorizing both ingredients and wines.
He explores new tastes with a vengeance -- to learn to appreciate kale recently, he consumed it steamed, boiled, sautéed, raw, puréed 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.
Escoffier would be addled by the very notions, but this 27-year-old, spiky-haired computer whiz at the MIT Media 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. He is still trying to explain it -- most recently at food-world conferences in Napa and West Virginia, where both times he caused a stir -- while moving on to more daring concepts. 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 the Napa Valley earlier this year. "People who didn't understand a word knew what he was saying was very important."
Allegra, who described Liu as "the most other-worldly speaker we have ever had," adds, "If what Hugo is saying and doing is feasible, it won't be necessary to have a human writing recipes in the next five to eight years."
Liu has many other ideas on his plate beyond sparing cookbook writers weeks over a hot stove, however. In applying artificial intelligence to aesthetics, he 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.
Within minutes of meeting him, he might be cupping his hand over his ear, asking whether "you listen to what your body is asking" and launching into a mini-lecture on how rats understand innately what to eat to keep themselves healthy. He might be offering you herring-shaped Dutch salted licorice and noting that it is among the few licorice products that actually contains the pungent root. And he will definitely be explaining that what drives his interest in food is a desire for connoisseurship, plus the fact that "I have a lot of vices: I eat foie gras too often for my heart; I smoke pipe tobacco; I drink lots of Scotch and sake."
Olives and durian?
Liu is not your average food firebrand. He was born in China and lived there until he was 6. His parents, who both 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 (as an undergraduate, he minored in baroque music).
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 (32,000 of wine alone), he groups Champagne with Muscat, Gewürztraminer and Tokay. Morels are grouped with wasabi and poblano chiles; foie gras with Cognac and ambrosia; and olives with durian and shiitakes. Human intelligence would balk, as Liu has found, particularly among longtime food writers, but sorting them by common descriptions or contexts online simply puts them together.
He can draw up a similar map of a food writer's taste buds by running recipes or articles through his program and determining which ingredients and words turn up most often.