On Friday, February 6, I attended bitten: a food conversation – a conference in SoHo that focused on the exciting culture of food, featuring thought leaders and entrepreneurs that shared their stories and ideas for the changing food industry.
While each speaker brought a unique perspective on the industry of food today – from restaurants to food trucks to products to media – one key message rang true throughout the day’s presentations: food is a universal, common connection that is evolving with our culture, and becoming an increasingly important part of it.
Chef vs. Home Cook: the gap narrows as chefs take on other roles
Anthony Bourdain wrote in his book Kitchen Confidential that the idea of a “celebrity chef” baffled him because most chefs chose the career because they were introverts wanting to hide behind a kitchen. However, that book was published in the year 2000 and Bourdain is now more much more a media personality than chef. Speaker Dorothy Cann, founder of the International Culinary Institute, recognized this change by saying “A chef’s place is as much outside the kitchen as it is behind the stove.” A culinary revolution in the 70s took chefs from blue collars workers and turned them into a face for charity events, and then with the foundation of the The American Institute of Wine & Food, chefs became artists worthy of both press and high honors.
So while chefs take on celebrity status and public relations gigs, the ones responsible for their popularity, their fans – the home cooks – have become an educated audience. To this I can relate – I am a twenty-six year old food blogger with no formal culinary training going to a conference on food and eating up every word these industry professionals are saying. Companies like Plated make it easy to cook with high quality ingredients from the comfort of your home, and as co-founder Nick Taranto explained, they aim to fix the broken American food supply chain system one plate a time. And for those of us not fortunate enough to inherit cooking skills, popular demand has solved for that as well. Speaker Lisa Gross founded The League of Kitchens, enabling anyone to take cooking classes from immigrant local grandmothers – young home cooks learning simple meals from experienced home cooks, which would otherwise be too humble to serve at a restaurant.
And with this desire to learn comes a demand for better, innovative food, including some laser focused specialty brands. Trevor Nelson of investment firm Alliance Consumer Growth says the food movement is driven by consumer awareness and consciousness about what we are eating and has led to more availability of alternatives. “Change happens when consumers vote differently with their money,” he said, and this could not be more true as we watch the changing landscape in New York. Eric Demby, founder of Smorgasburg and Brooklyn Flea, brought small time food vendors and outlet to showcase their products once a week at a food flea market. By cutting out the NYC real estate, Smorgasburg enables talented entrepreneurs to bypass this barrier of entry and turn a hobby into a business – culinary training or none.
Culinary media: print, digital, and experiences
America’s obsession with media is no different when it comes to food – when we aren’t watching chefs on TV we are talking about food in every medium and social outlet. Musicians Chris Stang and Andrew Steinthal started their restaurant review blog, The Infatuation, after friends were constantly asking them for restaurant recommendations. They describe it as an outlet for people who are really serious about food but don’t take food so seriously – and their audience is growing. They mention their popularity on Instagram but admit, this doesn’t bring traffic to their site – people just love to see beautiful images of food. And it is for that reason that food photographer Daniel Krieger not only takes beautiful pictures for cook books, but also established a one-man brand by offering his services to restaurants who pay him to post to his 112,000 Instagram followers. (I am one of them.) It’s why food stylists like Claudia Ficca are so important – not only for sourcing and preparing the perfect ingredients, but for arranging the food for the camera in that perfect mouth-watering way. The importance of the camera in relation to food is undeniable.
While the panelists agree that the importance of digital is essential to what we consider “new media”, print is still not dead. Cook books will continue to be irreplaceable, even if there is a strong shift to digital and mobile. Peter Meehan started the food magazine Lucky Peach and considers his platform “old media,” although considers the message “new”. Regardless of the venue, Helen Hollyman of the website Munchies expresses food media today is about bringing unheard voices into the food channel.
And if the platforms seem endless, both traditional and digital, innovators encourage us to continue to think differently about food. If chefs have become artists in the kitchen, artists like Emilie Baltz feel that food is a universal language and allows one to experiment with the senses. Peter Kim takes this to the next level with his construction of the Museum of Food & Drink, a food museum opening in New York City. Food is not only a profession, a hobby, a medium – it will soon be an experience.
Food is a Community
Carolina Santos Neves, who runs two restaurants (and catered the event), brought the idea of the dinner party to her restaurants to make people feel at home and comfortable by never kicking anyone out – diners are free to stay 90 minutes or longer. The sense of “community” was an important element to their restaurant scene, so much so that they were willing to sacrifice turnover (and profits).
Beyond the local restaurant is a desire (and a environmental need) for sustainable products but also for products that are socially responsible. Alexis Miesen explained how Blue Marble Ice Cream not only manages the Brooklyn-based ice cream shop, but also opened a location in Rwanda to create a place for the community after the genocide, and employ and empower women while also supporting local farmers and producers. Their second project opens soon in Haiti.
Makena Cunningham of charity: water (a non-profit I have supported) emphasized the power of marketing, especially at her company where they have a $0 marketing budget. She showed a video that tugs at your emotions, encouraging the audience to get involved without making potential donors feel guilty.
Whether it’s bringing immigrants together with locals to learn traditional dishes like in The League of Kitchens or connecting businesses in America with causes across the globe, the desire to connect communities extends well beyond the dinner table.
This year, Michael Whiteman of Baum + Whiteman says food trends vary according to what publication you read, but he predicts the rise of “restless palate syndrome” where both chefs and consumers crave a “cacophony of clashing flavors.” Bitter chocolate opened the door for us (and our palates) to consume more edibles like broccoli rabe and arugula. He predicts fresh horseradish to be the next big “bitter” food. He also sees the merging of cocktails and desserts, and palates shifting from sweet to savory (e.g. vegetable ice cream). He calls this the “unruly food era that breaks all the rules of cooking school and knows no boundaries” and recognizes experiments like cricket flour (more on this in the next section) but also hybrids like kimchi burgers and tuna wasabi Mexican nachos.
Chef Carolina Santos Neves reiterates this, saying the magic is in the mix of the ingredients and admits that “nothing is too crazy of an idea” for their restaurants.
Product and Supply Chain Innovations
In addition to taking social responsibility, equally as important is environmental responsibility. Mike Lee, creator and predictor of the Supermarket of 2065, feels that this is the future, rather than a trend, and his fellow speakers present innovating products and technologies that support this. Lee first presented a product concept of a fictitious sustainable snack called “Crop Crisps” that takes crop rotation into account so that no two flavors are available at the same time.
Meanwhile, new sustainable super foods are already emerging, although it’s hard to say which will take off and which will be a temporary sensation. John Foss founded the Chia Company by taking the farmer’s market concept of knowing where food is throughout the supply chain and wanting to take it global and providing the world with a seed rich in Omega 3 and protein.
But if chia isn’t your style – how about crickets? Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz founded Exo, a company that makes and sells products made of cricket powder. They claim bugs are the protein of the future because they are uniquely sustainable and are high in nutrients. While we may think this is disgusting, they remind us that 50 years ago sushi was considered a disgusting new food as well. As for the taste, they brought samples and I can say the peanut butter and jelly protein bar tasted like … a regular protein bar.
But of course we don’t think meat will become a thing of the past. Andrew Forgacs, co-founder of Modern Meadow, says “the future is cultured, not slaughtered,” presenting a mind-boggling technology that will grow meat. He explains that it’s unnecessary and not environmentally responsible to raise and slaughter the whole animal when we can simply take cells from that animal and then grow the cells into meat that we can eat (or leather that we can wear). Not only does it leave the animal unharmed, it’s better for the environment and is nutritious. He explained cultivating food isn’t new – we do it with wine and beer already – it’s just an extension of that idea.
And while this had the vegetarians sitting behind me saying, “Hm, I guess I could technically eat that,” there are major technological advances in growing vegetables as well. AeroFarms, co-founded by David Rosenberg, is growing plants without soil or sun, and with more nutrients, in half the time. By only using the spectrums of light plants need and stripping out what they don’t, pests become blind to the plants, eliminating the need for pesticides. Additionally, by oxygenating the roots, there is no need for soil, and they are able to stress the plant to produce more antioxidants. He calls it “engineering horticulture meets data science” and they are already building the largest vertical farm in the world in Newark, NJ.
As the process of growing vegetables is being revolutionized, we already see a shift in how we purchase them. With the popularity of farm shares and CSAs, Benzi Ronen founded Farmigo, a way to solve the problem of demand from consumers, and supply from farmers, by building a network of locals that order produce weekly directly from the farmer (like a CSA with more control).
While these innovations may or may not catch on, how and what we eat in the future will surely change, and that comes with the need for change in our food system. Being more responsible with how food is produced is equally as important as how it is consumed. Bill Yosses calls himself a “recovering pastry chef” after retiring from the White House kitchens. But after working closely with Mrs. Obama to educate children with tours of the White House vegetable garden, he has taken on a whole new mission of educating children here in New York City and opening them up to the science of food, hopefully with the result of getting them to eat better. Education is a key element to the changes in our culture that need to happen, as well as those already taking place.