Q&A With Johan Langenbick, Co-founder of Foodpairing

What ingredients go best with cauliflower? Cheese, maybe? Onions? What about chocolate?

Cocoa and cauliflower is just one of the untraditional flavor combinations made by Foodpairing, a platform that uses data analysis and machine learning to determine how well different tastes go together.

In preparation for  SKS Europe, we decided to ask Foodpairing co-founder and CEO Johan Lagenbick a few questions about how the technology works, how it could change the way we all cook and eat, and what the best flavor match is for a potato.

P.S. Register for SKS Europe to see Johan and other innovators discuss the future of food and cooking. It's all happening on June 11-12th in Dublin's historic Guinness Storehouse. We'll see you there!


Q: First off, tell us a little bit about how Foodpairing works.

A: Foodpairing provides possible food combinations based on the intrinsic properties of the flavor compounds present in the ingredients. This results in flavor combinations that are innovative and not influenced or restricted by cultural and traditional context of the products.

This independence occasionally results in surprising and unusual combinations, such as endives used in a dessert, white chocolate and caviar, or chocolate and cauliflower. Even though they are unusual, these pairings are quite tasty, because the combined food products share certain aroma components. The Foodpairing® Methodology opens up a whole new world of possible food combinations.


Q: Contrary to what people might guess, your science focuses on aroma, not taste. Why is this?

A: It is estimated that 20% of a tasting experience comes from taste, whereas 80% comes from the smell or the aroma. Based on this, a hypothesis can be put forward: if the major volatile molecules of two foods are the same, they will probably taste (and smell) nice when eaten together.

While our basic Foodpairing algorithm functions primarily based on aroma, our company has expanded its research and created advanced algorithms to determine new pairings and recipes using multiple dimensions such as taste and texture.

Q: Johan, you have a background in product development and innovation consultancy. What inspired you to start Foodpairing?

A:  The culinary world is a creative one and it’s in constant motion. When Foodpairing was only an idea it brought us into contact with top chefs like Heston Blumenthal, which definitely inspired me to develop the company. However, what really drove me was the endless possibilities that come from combining food with scientific and digital insights, all while keeping in mind that food is, above all, directly linked to human emotions and joyful experiences. A shared passion for innovation in food tech is what binds together Foodpairing's founders: Bernard Lahousse, Peter Coucquyt and myself.

Q: What makes Foodpairing valuable? Chefs and food companies have been creating innovative flavor combinations for hundreds of years using their imagination and tastebuds—why is it better to use science instead of intuition and personal experiments?

A: If you ask a chef what he likes the best in his job, they will most likely answer "recipe creation."  We assist chefs during their most precious moment: the creativity phase! We strengthen and reconfirm their intuition, and at the same time uncover white space flavor territories.

The value lies in the knowledge transfer and our ability to help chefs save time while creating. We offer science-based inspiration in seconds. A chef can gain valuable time using our tools instead of endless trial & error.

Furthermore, the market is looking for new experiences. As a chef it's a challenge to come up with new ideas constantly. 40% of new generations choose a new dish or cuisine each time they go out to eat. Unexpected ingredient combinations will become the norm, and we want to help chefs keep up with that demand.

But maybe the biggest value of Foodpairing is our ability to spark ideation for novel concepts. The Foodpairing tool has helped numerous young entrepreneurs in developing new food concepts, such as food trucks with inspiring popcorn flavors, creative cocktail spaces, and food bars.

Q: What role (if any) do you see professional chefs or bartenders playing in a future where Foodpairing technology is the norm? Do you envision any role for trial-and-error flavor testing?

A: Foodpairing is only a starting point for a recipe creation. Finding flavor combinations is easy with the use of Foodpairing; the real challenge is making that combination work into a balanced dish that consumers will enjoy. We reinforce chef's creativity and help them discover links between ingredients they wouldn’t have made themselves, but they still have to choose the ingredients they’ll pair and strike the balance between aroma, taste, and texture. As a chef, there will always be the craftsmanship that goes into making the final recipe.

On a consumer level, I envision completely different scenarios. In the foreseeable future, the smart kitchen will enable personalized foods with instant creation. A spin-off from the Foodpairing company showcases this already today, in which we combine the Foodpairing algorithms, AI and robotics to create tailor-made drinks.

Foodpairing technology matches strawberries with complementary flavors. 

Foodpairing technology matches strawberries with complementary flavors. 


Q: You state that one of the goals of Foodpairing is “to promote healthy, sustainable lives.” How do you see a company aimed at innovative flavor pairings helping to promote nutrition and sustainability in the food system?

A: Our long-term objective is to become the leading platform for personalized food recommendation. Why? Because we believe that food and exciting combinations can improve the quality and joy of everyday life. It’s no secret that our food system is out of balance. Global issues such as climate change, sustainability and obesity are directly related to food. By gradually changing the way we eat, we can restore our planet and lead healthful lives. And changing the way we eat is easier when we’re presented with flavorful alternatives. Foodpairing strives to be a part of the solution by promoting flavor.

Today our technology is available to power applications within e-grocery, smart kitchen and mobile health apps to leverage personalized recommendation that are healthy, sustainable but most of all taste delicious.  

Q: What’s next for Foodpairing? How do you see it growing over the next 5, 10, and 20 years?

A: Our long-term vision is centered around the "holy trinity" of sustainable, healthy and flavorful food.

A lot of people are stuck in a boring, single-dimensional food pattern that can lead to things like excess weight gain. 150 million citizens in the U.S. today are living with some form of a chronic disease or have special dietary restrictions. 80% of cases of cardiac disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and 40% of cancers could be avoided through improved lifestyle choices, including those related to diet. Therefore, there is a need for personalized dietary solutions, which we can provide with Foodpairing.

We also want to create a more sustainable food system. For decades, the Western world believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about our diet’s effect on the environment and its sustainability. We need a way to produce healthier, saner, less damaging and more enduring food. Our motto for this is "Eat different, eat personalized," which touches on everything from:

  • Food happiness

  • Health and wellbeing

  • Cost to society

  • Smart cooking and the digital kitchen

  • Sustainability.

So we are striving to solve health issues from a flavor perspective. We believe that discovering exciting new flavor combinations, especially healthy ones, can improve our enjoyment of food and the quality of everyday life. Flavor is the unique entry point to tackle this problem that distinguishes Foodpairing from any other players in this domain. Our ambition is to play a lead in personalized nutrition based on science.

In the future you might have a digital, personalized chef who will be always at hand, assisting you on-the-go with your mobile shopping, cooking, online ordering, and even drink pairing. Consumers want their personalized food or drink optimized for health, taste, cost, and mood. Kitchen tools will help them customize dishes for themselves and their family, but they need to be powered by software that can fulfill the customers’ needs instantly. That's where we come in.
Q: It’s winter, which in most parts of the world means a lot of root vegetables. What are some innovative flavors that you’d pair with the humble potato, for example?

A: The beauty of a potato is that it works with many flavors. One that I particularly enjoy is a sprinkle of freshly grounded coffee on mashed potatoes. It’s a recipe created by a famous Michelin chef based on data from Foodpairing (the recipe is on our blog).

Q: What is your favorite flavor combination you’ve ever created with Foodpairing?

A: The first true Foodpairing dish ever created, kiwitre. It’s a classic.

We'll be featuring more Q&A's with SKSEurope speakers over the next few months! Register now and stay tuned to learn about our lineup of all-stars in the food tech industry.