Let's face it, you've looked at what people do with the Japanese lunchbox meal known as bento and you've died a little on the inside. You've fawned over the adorable nori covered pandas, the Angry Birds and even the freakishly accurate Piglet bust. You repinned all of these things knowing full well there's no way in hell you're waking up at 4 AM to churn out one of these for your spouse or children. Well prepare to die a little more because someone has brought a goddamn industrial laser cutter into the bento box game.
Matthew Borgatti is an artist and designer who acquired a $5,000 laser cutter for work and then promptly put it to good use carving molten images into toast. Beyond the fancy cut seaweed though, the bento also features grilled octopus, beef shumai, winter squash and tempura shrimp. The image in the seaweed is drawn from an anime called Princess Jellyfish, which defies an simple explanation.
We had a chance to speak via email with Matthew and he shed a little light on his process.
1. What's the process for making something like this? Do you start with a digital drawing? Scan something in? It started with research and sketching. Numi and I gathered pics of bentos, measured the bento box I've got in my kitchen, and started building a plan of attack. We wanted to create something pretty that would contrast well with an illustration. The original idea was to integrate the laser cut elements with the bento ingredients more organically, but nori doesn't stand up to moisture well and we had to scrap that plan.
After we made a shopping trip to pick up colorful bento ingreedients, I hunted around online for a good image to play with. The picture I found was originally in color and much more detailed, but it had to be scaled back to work in nori. A lot of the work went into adjusting the illustration to work in seaweed. Since the laser works by burning away the material you're cutting, a rectangle in the final material will come out smaller than you'd mocked it up on the computer. Also, since the nori is so delicate, it is important to have supporting structures and bridges for all the different areas so they don't snap off and can be easily laid on the rice. It's a lot like making a spray paint stencil.
2. How much tweaking did you have to do to make it work with the nori (about how much time did you spend burning nori before you found the right amount of etching). It was a time consuming process, but wasn't all that much work once I'd made some experiments and dialed the laser in.. maybe three hours total. The confounding factor of the etched part was that the nori varies in thickness. It's not like a sheet of paper, which is really consistent. Nori wobbles and even has little holes. This meant that my first tries in etching ended up with lace thin nori that came apart in my hands save for a few stronger spots. I tried some new halftone patterns and playing with the settings, and eventually found that just barely scoring the seaweed had as much of a visual effect as trying to go straight through. For future revisions, I might switch to lots of holes punched straight through at various powers rather than trying to raster a pattern on.
3. Any plans for any other laser cut foods? I used to laser cut random foods at every possible opportunity when I worked over at Instructables. I etched pictures on cream cheese bagels, tried to cut through a raw egg (a mistake in retrospect), and generally made a mess daily. Now that I've got a laser living in my home, mere feet away from where I'm writing, I can continue the experiments. I've already done a series of portraits on toast. I've got plans to make a laser powered Candyfab in the near future, but it's not the most urgent project on the list.