CAGLIARI — Danilo Spiga isn't your everyday chef. He is a trained engineer and all the dishes he cooks are crafted by 3D printers.

None of the diners were sick after Spiga's meal at a laboratory in the Italian city of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia. No one suffered from allergies or food poisoning or even a mild stomach ache.

"Everything we ate was great. Can we have seconds?" asks one woman, who had been skeptical at the start of the meal. "If I hadn't seen the dishes prepared with my own eyes, I would never have believed this crostino was made by a 3D printer. I had heard about it on TV but I imagined it would taste like plastic."

The crostino was made with vegetable charcoal enriched with cream cheese. It was delicious despite its artificial origin.

Spiga replaces recipes with engineering projects and substitutes chopping boards with machines. Doing so, he gives life to bold new creations while still using traditional ingredients.

Apparently, in the kitchen of the future, cables and hard drives are more necessary than forks and knives.

The dinner menu was rich and varied, including at least 10 types of pasta. "The ingredients are the same as regular pasta, flour and water, but in different proportions," says Spiga. "There are still limits to the process, and the pasta still needs to be cooked after we've printed it. The printer cannot cook dishes and we're still researching how this can be done but many plates come out of the printer ready to be eaten."

The pasta still needs to be cooked after it was printed — Photo: Scuola di Pasta

Spiga works at the laboratories of Sardegna Ricerche, which is run by the Sardinian regional government. Researchers at the lab have used their creativity to produce traditional Italian dishes that look and taste exactly like their handmade counterparts. Their mozzarella is one such example. "So far, it's been the most difficult to create but the final product is excellent and we've been able to produce it in extraordinary shapes and sizes," says Spiga.

"It's an understatement to say that everything we ate was delicious," says Valeria Casti, one of the guests at the tasting dinner. "This meal dispelled any notions we had that industrial food is tasteless and inauthentic."

For all the advantages of the 3D printer, Spiga's kitchen still requires traditional instruments like a ladle and a stove. He is an engineer but the chef's role is anything but obsolete. The printer takes commands from a software program but the ingredients must first be prepared by an experienced cook. Just like regular printers, food printers need the culinary equivalent of ink in their cartridges — a special component prepared by a chef.

Tradition doesn't fear technology because you can still maintain the same level of quality.

This new type of food is made possible by tweaking the proportions of ingredients in traditional recipes. The "ink" is inserted in a syringe-shaped capsule and placed on the printer's nozzle, which enables it to print the recipe.

3D printers would allow chefs to make ingredients "in shapes that a human hand cannot create" — Photo: Sara Milletti

Sardegna Ricerche has produced more than just pasta and mozzarella. The lab has created 3D-printed versions of ricotta, torrone nougat, almond paste, and even chocolate. All of these creations look different from hand-prepared versions but they taste nearly the same. Leonildo Contis, a guest at the tasting, and a pastry chef who runs a bakery opened 90 years ago by his grandparents, approves of the lab's innovative approach to dessert.

"Tradition doesn't fear technology because you can still maintain the same level of quality," he says. "I could see myself using one of these machines in my own pastry shop. It would add a lot of imagination to our products and allow us to make them in shapes that a human hand cannot create."

Roberto Flore, a celebrated Sardinian chef based in Denmark, observes this experiment from a distance but refuses to taste the food. "I'm very curious about this but I don't think that culinary tradition should bend to the whims of technology," he says. "The only way to transmit a dish's millenary taste from the recipe to the plate is with your own hands."

Unlike Flore, researchers at Sardegna Ricerche see few temporal limits to their culinary ambitions. They're already experimenting with printing the traditional Sardinian fish roe, bottarga.

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