A picture is worth 1000 words. Which I think means I now have to write 1000 words, right? This is my favourite picture from the last Ravintolapäivä pop-up restaurant day (I've written about Ravintolapäivä before) As someone commented on Instagram, "I wish I could open 10000 Instagram accounts so I could like this photo that many times."
This is a local Argentine living in Helsinki talking to my friend Lucas's daughter. The woman is dressed as a human empanada, in order to convey that you can get empanadas here. "Here", being their second floor window apartment, using the same basket-pulley-cash-food technique that the egg-and-bacon-muffin lady pioneered for the last Ravintolapäivä.
And this edition of RP was just as good as the others. Although we didn't use Kalle's pop-up coffee shop to conduct research this time, we did use Kalle's pop-up coffee shop. We also enjoyed the empanadas, and much Italian food served off the street near an (oh the irony) closed kioski at Johanneksen kirkon puisto.
As before, the streets of Helsinki were alive in ways they usually aren't, full of people you don't usually see eating food you can't usually get. It's really like a vivid new Helsinki emerging from within the hardened chrysalis of the old.
But you'll also know, if you've read my previous entries, that the only problem with Restaurant Day is the Day After Restaurant Day. It is a tactical intervention, rather than strategic. It relies on pop-ups, which, of course, pop-down again as easily as they pop-up.
So our new project aims to help resolve this. Called Open Kitchen, it's a kind of start-up incubator but for the small food business, and particularly the kind of "everyday food"—street food, small cafes, coffee shops—that materialises on Ravintolapäivä. We want a few of them to stop dematerialising!
Here's a short introductory video:
This is about the small percentage of those Ravintolapäivä pop-ups that would like to really do it for a living; to take those temporary pop-ups and try to make a few stick. Or perhaps you've never done Ravintolapäivä but you've always dreamed of opening an cafe—yet you have no idea how to go about it. You know how to cook, but don't know what permits you need, how to run a team, how to design a space, how to organise the finances, how to deal with customers, how to source local and organic ingredients ... Open Kitchen explains all of this, and reveals the tacit knowledge, from practitioners who have really done it, that will help you through this most challenging aspect of starting a successful food business.
Open Kitchen is staffed by the those in the know. And that means not us! So we're running this in collaboration with Antto Melasniemi—who you can see in the video above, and who has opened several successful and utterly transformative food businesses in the city (Kuurna, Atelje Finne and Putte's), as well as producing the travelling HEL YES! extravaganza, the Solar Kitchen and much more—and Elina Forss, as well as Ville Relander from the City of Helsinki. Antto and Elina are selecting the best of Helsinki's food scene to be teachers and advisors on the course.
It's running at the fantastic new Kellohalli space, part of an amazing reworking of the old abbatoir space in Kalasatama into a food destination. Kalasatama is perhaps Helsinki's most interesting regeneration project, and this new market is at the heart of it.
The structure is simple, running from theory in week one (which is really about concept, logistics, permits, training, running a team, legal issues, funding, sourcing etc.) to practice in week two (the group collaborating on their choice for the design and build of a restaurant space at Kellohalli) to REAL practice in the last week (actually running that restaurant as a real, live restaurant with real customers.)
We don't think there's anything quite like it here. While the fine dining scene in Helsinki has improved to the point of being competitive with most medium-sized European cities, if not better given the New Nordic Cuisine agenda, but almost all of the "everyday food" scene is as poor as any previous populist conception of "Finnish food" would imagine. (Read more about that here.)
Yet Ravintolapäivä suggests there is a much broader scene that could emerge, a much richer, more diverse set of offerings, and that the people of Helsinki have a genuine appetite for this.
Now for a brief note on the back story, for those more interested in the practice than the project itself…
A fair proportion of our strategic design work in Helsinki pivots around food, and particularly everyday food, as we use food as a token for all kinds of deeper systems, perhaps most of all cultural diversity. But Open Kitchen is also another example of our "dark matter probes", interventions designed to flush out and make visible the city's dark matter, such that we can work with it as a material. Then, we might help shape the city's processes, structures and cultures to enable rather than prevent, to help create the conditions for effective cultures of decision-making, particularly in an increasingly diverse, rapidly changing city. Ideally, this is done with the municipality itself. Change that builds flexible resilience can only come from within.
Remember that the original driver behind RP was that it was too difficult to wrestle with the bureacracy around this end of the food business - so they started a festival instead. The festival became so successful at being a festival that the original problem—that it's too difficult for small businesses to start a food business—was never addressed.
Yet we've always been more intrigued by that original driver. How can we make it easier to really open a sustainable business, to really make a living from it, to really diversify Helsinki? Can we build an interface on the front of the city's dark matter, and reveal its seams and fabric in a useful, productive fashion?
Bryan has nicely summarised our strategic thinking in terms of how we ended up here. That story also indicates how, when exploring without a map, you have to stay fleet-of-foot and open to opportunity. When you're having conversations with the Deputy Mayor, or a local chef and entrepreneur, or getting people to sketch what they'd like to see in disused kiosks, or running sustainable design workshops at Aalto University, or working on Low2No, or learning from City of Sydney's successful food truck tender … well, you're never quite sure of the effect you're having, or the route you'll take next. Try telling that to a project manager. It's been a long and winding road, and it's good to see it coming to fruition.
Either way, all our work in and around food over the last couple of years has led to us helping create this dark matter academy sorry, a kind of incubator for food start-ups, a kind of cooking school without the cooking, a rapid-fire 3-week immersion in every aspect of starting up and running a cafe, restaurant, kiosk, whatever—the kind of stuff the system doesn't teach in catering school, or anywhere else for that matter. It's one of our interventions in this area—Low2No and Brickstarter being others—that are all examples of how a strategic design approach might be useful in shaping governance cultures and behaviours, in creating newly productive interfaces between citizens and municipalities, in finding ways forward where there is no clear road map, no prior knowledge, too much analysis and not enough synthesis. Again, we're creating matter—in this case Open Kitchen—in order to flush out and shape dark matter.
As I wrote in Dark Matter & Trojan Horses—where you can also perceive the seeds of Open Kitchen—this is about taking interventions, absorbing their strategic value, and making them deliver systemic change.
Again, as I say during the many public talks I've given about this in the last 2 years: in this case, Open Kitchen isn't about getting falafels on street corners, though that would be a nice thing.
Funny. And though it's hardly fair to do so, compare and contrast with this rudimentary iPhone video I shot at the August Ravintolapäivä around the corner on Albertinkatu, featuring a couple of pop-up cafés across the street from each other, as well as an impromptu street performance out the back of a van.
But, as I was saying, these projects are not about falafals. It's actually about what the city is for, who the city is for, and who decides. It's about who decides what the street is for, what our contemporary conception of street life is. It's about exploring the systemic nature of food, in terms of positively influencing our patterns of living, working and playing, or in terms of influencing our approaches to agriculture, logistics, mobility, urban planning, waste, entrepreneurship, immigration and nationality, local cultures and global cultures, sustainability more broadly ...
All our projects explore this idea of how we might shape our cultures of decision-making for the 21st century, rather than the often 19th century mode our institutions were framed in, and often still work in. Food is an extremely productive way in to this conversation, as it's something none of us can avoid, all of us have opinions about, and is a symbolic product as much as a resource. The presence of Ville Relander at the City of Helsinki gives us great hope that the municipality will be able to observe and participate in projects like Open Kitchen, and begin to shape its operations and culture accordingly.
For now, please check out Open Kitchen (and you should know that I'm desperately resisting the urge to close with a food-related pun at this point...)