A few months back, we held an event at Bocuse, our French restaurant on the Hyde Park, New York, campus, celebrating the City of Lights’ famed cuisine. We asked students to incorporate 3-D printed items into their culinary creations. The results, needless to say, were pretty spectacular, and you could tell the elements provided an added layer that nobody in attendance quite expected.

In a short period of time, the students created 30 identical pieces that looked exactly like the Arc de Triomphe, one of Paris’ most recognizable monuments. It was definitely a talking point, and brought the overall experience to a refreshing and impressive level.

This showcase was a perfect representation of how the technology of 3-D printing can affect the culinary industry and why upcoming chefs should be well-versed in how to use it—and excited about the boundless possibilities.

If you haven’t seen one in action before—we use the 3-D Systems’ ChefJet Pro—here’s the basics of how it works: 3-D printing is a process where sugar is printed in what’s now referred to as a powder-based printer. Using a computer-aided design (cad) program, a chef can create the image on a screen, perhaps scanning it in, and then “print” it into edible material. The machine accepts a powder-based material, which can be a mixture of powdered sugar and maltodextrin, and you can add spices, seasonings, simple syrup, reductions, or whatever flavor profiles you wish to integrate. As you can see, the possibilities are vast. For instance, if a chef wanted to create a series of Eiffel Towers, doing so would be a straightforward and rewarding effort.

I started with baking and pastry when I graduated from the CIA in 1985, and the options a device like this offers neither takes away from the chef, nor replaces him. It doesn’t replace the food, the desserts, the breads, or the artisan. If anything, it enhances what we can accomplish with ingenuity and a little training. For concoctions that would be difficult to make by hand, or impossible to mold or carve, 3-D printing can bring them to life. It’s also a time-saver for tedious tasks that are tough to replicate on any scale. And, with 3-D printing, there’s little that can’t be customized.

Students are embracing the technology. We have a 3-D printing specialist and a lab at the CIA, where aspiring chefs rotate informally throughout the curriculum. Like anything with a learning curve, some people pick up the technology more quickly than others, but the climb is not steep by any means. Once you get into the system, learn the graphics, and learn how the machine operates, it’s just like working any other technology. Young chefs, in general being a savvy generation, seem to enjoy the forward-thinking model. It’s also easy to promote given that 3-D printing truly, and clearly, works.

We’re currently exploring even more ways to use the device, finding better techniques, and thinking up new and inventive possibilities. For the time being, 3-D printing is deeply involved in the sweet or confections side of food. That’s a great place to start, but it’s very possible that opportunities with savory foods, like vegetables and grains, could be a future area of growth.

While there’s always a certain unknown about new technology, I expect 3-D printing to be part of the evolution of a pastry chef and a necessary function for all chefs moving forward.

Thomas Vaccaro, dean of baking and pastry arts at The Culinary Institute of America, joined the faculty in 2005, after serving as executive pastry chef at the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Chef Profiles, Feature