Inge de Boer knows a thing or two about bringing people together over food. Conscious that within the realm of a city, food has always found its own space to be produced, traded, and consumed, she has launched a number of notable projects spanning architecture, gastronomy, urbanism, and the green economy.
In this Workplace Wisdom interview, Inge tells us about her multi-disciplinary profession that takes place in the streets, houses, and gardens of Milan. We also talk about what it means to design food projects with a social impact, to create live experiences in the digital age, and how Italians socialize over food (hey, aperitivo!).
Tell us who you are.
I am a Dutch architect based in Milan with a strong passion for food, its relation with the city, and the role of food in our daily life. In 2012 I left The Hague and settled down in Milan where I established Food in the Streets. With the EXPO Milano 2015 (Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life) about to start, I thought that I could find a job that combined my passion for food with my skills. In the beginning, I collaborated with the food creative agency Tour de Fork and set up Old Milano Food Tour. Then, after two years at EXPO Spa, I became a freelance food culture producer and project manager. I launched many food and storytelling projects ranging from food tours to thematic dinners on Milanese rooftops, installations of urban gardens in innovative housing projects, and thematic breakfasts.
Food Culture and Architecture
How do you envision the connection between gastronomy and architecture?
The simplest answer is: like we all need to eat to survive, we also all want to have a roof over our head. Both are essential needs. However, I’d like to expand my answer and go back to where it all started for me.
In 2008, while studying at the Technical University of Delft, I had to design a public building. I chose to make a market that could also host market-related activities, like cooking classes and urban gardens. At that time, food wasn’t as trendy as it is now, but it was gaining popularity. To write my essay ‘Food as an energizer for the public domain,’ I read the books Eat This by Dutch architects Maurice Nio and Joan Almekinders and Hungry City by Carolyn Steel. The former discusses all kinds of places for food consumption, while the latter explores the role that food had and still has in shaping our cities.
In the same period, Stroom the architectural institute of The Hague where I lived back then, started the three-year manifestation Footprint, in which they showed “crucial moments related to food, food production, and the city through the work of artists and designers.” My research made it clear to me that food, architecture, and urbanism are strongly interconnected.
Nowadays, thanks to the rise in popularity of food, architects and designers have an important role in creating eating spaces that are functional for the owner and their staff, and at the same time are comfortable for the customer. The urban morphology dictates how our food enters the city while the architecture hosts the places where we process, trade, and consume food.
How does the physical space and the digital space come together in today’s food industry?
With the increasing attention to the quality of food and the growing number of eateries in combination with the popularity of social media, food needs to exist both physically and digitally.
“The urban morphology dictates how our food enters the city while the architecture hosts the places where we process, trade, and consume food.”
Food businesses use social media to share their menus, the latest news, beautifully designed dishes, and so on. The digital space is an indispensable tool to attract people to the physical space where real food is consumed.
When Food Becomes An Excuse To Gather
Some other projects you work on are ZUP the recipe for change and ROOFmatters.
I met the founder of ZUP, Noemi Satta, in 2013 when the project turned into a ‘company.’ In fact, ZUP exists as Progetto ZUPPA (acronym of Zuppa Urban Project) since 2012. It started in Dergano, a district of Milan, with a workshop that aimed to reactivate local citizens. And the outcome was a soup, ‘zuppa’ in Italian, which explains the name. In 2013, Progetto ZUPPA became ZUP – the recipe for change, an atelier of services including strategic innovation and participation processes. During the workshops, ingredients are used as a mean to communicate. By putting those together in a recipe, those help to create a starting point for further discussion. Lately, we have been mainly working in the social housing sector to kickstart meaningful conversations between neighbors.
ROOFmatters is a long dream of mine that came true. During EXPO, my colleague and ROOFmatters co-founder Denise Houx wanted to continue the legacy of a six-month-long project about green roofs in more Italian cities, but we needed more funding. We applied to the ‘urban challenge’ competition by the Dutch Embassy and Consulate General in Italy and we were one of the winners. Thanks to the funding, we managed to realize the masterclass ROOFdinners to raise awareness about the impact of roof gardens. We organized three events that started with lectures from Italian and Dutch experts and continued with a dinner or aperitivo on an existing green roof in Milan. Eating together not only ensured that the specialists and participants could continue the discussion, but also connected people better. Because of the positive feedback, we are enthusiastic to continue spreading the benefits of green roofs in Milan.
Measuring the Impact of Food
Is it possible to measure the social impact of food? If so, in which way?
In most cases, food and food-related businesses have an evident social impact. For instance, when suddenly bars and restaurants spring up like mushrooms and turn a district into a trendy neighborhood, people are attracted to that area, rental prices go up and so on. On the other hand, though, that phenomenon leads to gentrification, with a negative impact on the poorest part of the society.
Moreover, in difficult areas where people suffer from all kinds of issues from obesity to early school drop-outs to unemployment, good food could be introduced as a way to change things. Eating better food means that people become healthier and lose weight; work opportunities increase ––maybe a vegetable garden provides employment and empowerment. There are many notable examples in cities around the world.
If you had to choose the 3 most meaningful projects you have done so far, what would those be?
1. The garden in Cenni di Cambiamento with ZUP and Orti d’Azienda in 2014. This project is vital for Milan and Italy as it has been one of the most published social housing projects of the 21st century. Thanks to the funding from the EU project Life Ecocourts, we were able to support the inhabitants setting up the vegetable gardens on the four shared terraces. After three years, the neighbors are still maintaining the garden and sharing the harvest.
2. The wake-up talks launched in the spring of 2016 with ZUP. We invited a selected group of ten to fifteen professionals to join us for breakfast at Cafe Gorille, underneath the famous building Bosco Verticale. During the event, we asked an expert to present a case-study related to housing and then opened the discussion. Some of the most important things that made it successful were the location––a beautiful and homely bar realized in a typical Milanese apartment block called casa di ringhiera–– and the high-quality of the food. We created a cozy atmosphere to wake up and have a good discussion on what could be a challenging topic.
3. The Old Milano Food Tour created by Food in the Streets and Farming the City. It’s unique because it combines the narration of the history of the city with the attention to traditional, artisanal, sustainable, and local food. We bring producers in touch with small shops and show their work to tourists from all over the world. Each tour is different because each participant has various interests and expectations. Eventually, all the visitors are enthusiastic about the stories I share and the food they taste. And I’m proud to call Milan ‘my city.’
What’s the most memorable workshop participant interaction you have experienced so far?
Many workshops or tours come to my mind. One great example is a ZUP workshop that we organized for a heterogeneous mix of old and young inhabitants in a rural Milanese suburb. I must say that a ZUP activity is not easy to explain. In fact, the participants understand it only by doing it. That’s why usually the first five to ten minutes tend to be a bit chaotic. Also, this was the case. However, as soon as they got into the flow and understood in which direction we were pointing, they started to take us seriously. To give them the chance to get to know each other better we made them co-design a vegetable garden.
Despite the generational issues, they came up both with a sketch for their ‘ideal vegetable’ garden and with the first suggestion for managing the work and the harvest. It was incredible to see how they turned into a coherent group willing to collaborate in such a short time. When a few months later we received the pictures of a flourishing garden with an abundant harvest, we knew that this short workshop was still having an impact on the group.
How do you think has Milan changed since Expo 2015? Where is the change most visible?
When I arrived in the summer of 2012, many locals were skeptical about everything that the municipality promised. And I could understand why. Despite the talk not much seemed to happen. Getting closer to the opening, things began to change, starting with the addition to the infrastructure: a new metro line, a bike sharing system and later also different providers of car sharing.
On the food business side, Milan has become a strategic location in Italy. In fact, many traditional food businesses have opened up a branch in Milan. Many innovators also use the city as a tryout for new concepts. Overall, the number of tourists who stay longer than a few hours has increased with positive repercussions for local businesses. It seems like that the city has become attractive both for tourists as well as for professionals.
Food Culture at Work
From your perspective, is food culture playing a role in shaping the places in which we work? If so, in which way?
In my experience, it could play a more relevant role. For example, the EXPO offices at Molino Dorino had no place to have a homemade lunch. We had to eat lunch either in one of the meeting rooms (but none was happy with that) or in the nearby park. It was okay during the spring and summer, but more challenging in the other seasons. Since we spend at 1/3 of our day working, the office could become the place to connect with teammates. That’s a missed opportunity.
Where I currently co-work, lunch and other breaks are often moments to gather, to chat, to get to know people. And the co-working owners understand the impact those moments have. Often they organize a simple gathering over breakfast, lunch or ‘aperitivo’ with food cooked by my coworkers.
The Berlin-based designer Olafur Eliasson has understood the importance of food at work. In his book The Kitchen, he and his team show that the investment in hiring a chef and allowing his staff to take a serious break from work pays back. I hope that other employers will follow his example.
Do you have a daily eating routine when you work?
In general, I tend to be disciplined and eat healthy as it makes a difference in how I feel. For breakfast, I usually eat cereals and/or dark bread, while some days I prefer brioche at the bar. Usually, I cook lunches and dinners at home. When I’m on the go, I always bring some fruit to enjoy in the late morning and afternoon. However, I love biscuits and ice cream. So, of course, there are days in which I do enjoy some less healthy stuff.
Is there any food/drink that is never missing from your desk?
Especially in summer, I love to eat fresh fruits. I always bring some with me no matter whether I go to the office or have a work appointment. I also often eat a handful of raisins or dried fruit. When meeting people in a bar, I have difficulty to resists home-baked cakes and biscuits, because I love them. And in summer I have an ice cream at least once a week. However, not just from an ice cream shop. I am quite critical of the quality, so I choose very carefully which ice cream shop I am going to. Perhaps, it is because my great-grandfather was an ice cream maker and seller.
Interact with Inge:
Linkedin: Inge de Boer