Meet Richard Mitchell: our New Zealand correspondent

“Effective food and eating design has the potential to make us more human again.”

Dr Richard Mitchell is a Professor in Food Design at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand. Richard has been researching and publishing on tourism and hospitality consumer behaviour, business collaboration and design thinking for food and culinary arts education for more than two decades. He has also presented at academic and industry conferences in more than a dozen countries and is active in working with a wide range of industry partners on wine, food and hospitality projects, including being a current management committee member for Eat New Zealand and a former chairperson of the New Zealand Food and Wine Tourism Network. His food design practice is in two main fields. Firstly food experience design and performance, and secondly using experience design to reshape classroom experiences in the culinary arts. In 2014 and 2016 he was convenor and creative director or the International Food Design Conference and Studio held at Otago Polytechnic.

Why does food and design interest you?

I am curious about (actually, obsessed by) understanding how people live their lives and how they make sense of the world. Food is at the core of our lives, from sustaining us – the banal – to our most meaningful experiences – the sacred, and so I have inevitably gravitated towards food and eating to help me learn more and to design experiences that make people’s lives richer and more meaningful. Recently, I have also become very interested in the central role the food and eating experiences can have in transitioning us from our globalised capitalist consumption model to a local, community-based regenerative model.

There is a lot of talk about the food system and how design can help us to be more regenerative in our approach to the consumption of the Earth’s precious resources, but I believe there is more to be explored in the way food can used to spearhead the regeneration of communities. In particular, I believe food has a central role to play in bringing people together to rebuild the structures of society that we have lost over the last 50 years – sharing and reciprocity, communities of care, the (re)invention of local customs and rituals, reinvigoration of local craft ecosystems, new economic systems for the exchange of labour, the development of new communities of learning and even reinforcing civic obligations for the effective functioning of society. In short, effective food and eating design has the potential to make us more human again.


What do you see as your role in food design?

I work in Commercial Food Experience Design – this applies to everything from culinary arts classrooms to restaurants and cafes, from an intimate personal experience to a large-scale retail experience, from consumer behaviour research to narrative and story-telling. The precursor to Commercial Food Experience Design has a long history that reaches back as far as the time of Louis XIV and the extravagant banquets lavished on the rich. However, it is only in the last two decades or so that formal design practice has been developed. Chefs like Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Rene Redzepi, the Rocca Brothers, Grant Achatz and Andoni Luis Aduriz have begun to publish (across many forms of media) their processes of development for recipes, dishes, menus and dining experiences. Prior to this, the processes for developing ‘new’ outcomes were a closely guarded secret by chefs with only the resulting recipes being published. This is a new era of sharing and it has revealed a sophisticated set of design practices and processes that can and has been applied by others. At the same time, there has been the emergence of designers such as Marije Vogelzang, Emilie Baltz, Chloe Morris, Honey and Bunny and Michael Cirino developing food experience practices using their design background. It is the confluence of these two movements that I operate within.


What misconceptions about food and design would you like to oppose?

Like all design disciplines, most people that I encounter believe that (food) design is about the aesthetic – ‘the pretty stuff on the plate’. This is something that our graduates also struggle with when applying for jobs. Food design is a way of thinking and making that starts with the end-user/diner/consumer and a problem and works backwards from there. This is such a massive departure in thinking in the food service (restaurants, cafes, etc) and FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) world that people really struggle to understand the value that robust design processes can add in these commercial contexts.


Can you tell us a bit about food and design in New Zealand?

In New Zealand, food design has emerged over the last decade or so. This is evident in commercial, educational and academic realms and is supported by a government policy environment that supports design as fundamental to good business. In the commercial world several large food companies have begun to embrace a user-centred approach to their product design, for example: Silver Fern Farms – a meat processor; Fisher and Paykel – a kitchen appliance manufacturer designing food experiences to help build a brand community, and Verkerks – a small goods producer that puts user-data at the core of their entire design process. Recently some smaller companies and individuals specializing in food design and food experience design have emerged, such as Giapo Haute Ice Cream or Caitlin Le Harivel, a food performance designer. At present, there is also a food design cluster emerging in Dunedin (South Island) for small food businesses that are based around Otago Polytechnic and a soon to be launched food incubator.

Some high/secondary school food curriculum also has design at its core. This is the food technology curriculum (adopted by some schools, while others use hospitality or health-related food curricula), first introduced in the mid-1990s, which now teaches students how to develop food products to a design brief. More recently, Otago Polytechnic established the design-led Bachelor of Culinary Arts in 2011. This teaches students a broad range of food design approaches including those relevant to dish design, food experience design, restaurant concept design and FMCG product design. 

Otago Polytechnic also established the Food Design Institute in 2014 as a logical outgrowth of the Bachelor of Culinary Arts. The Food Design Institute has worked with clients such as Silver Fern Farms, Fisher and Paykel, Sanitarium, Whitestone Cheese, Enterprise Dunedin and the Otago Museum, and delivered food experiences for a range of corporate clients and at arts and community festivals around New Zealand. One of the experiences design by the Food Design Institute is the International Food Design Conference and Studio held in 2014 and 2016



Read more about Richard on his LinkedIn or see more on his research here.