Today, Eater's Future Week turns to bleaker visions of the years and decades ahead. Read on for an exclusive (and fictional) interview with dystopian New York's hottest chef.
n a warm, very yellow November morning, I met the chef Paul Nova in front of his new restaurant, Farm & Table, which is finally set to open next week after two years of intensely secret research and development. 2081’s most anticipated new opening occupies the first flood-safe floor of a six-story trapezoid of condos, but it's a remarkable contrast to the checkerboard of glass and steel that wraps around the top five stories—bright, heavy wood doors open into a room of fifty seats that's lit by scavenged orange incandescent bulbs, littered with the occasional hunk of heirloom cast-iron industrial equipment. Otherwise, the space is a collection of all-wood everything, from wall to wall to wall—festooned with the occasional animal trophy, half of the species extinct—that looks and feels sturdy and knotted, not like re-composited bamboo or synthetics, but old, lived-in wood from trees that once grew tall and strong.
Nova's exquisitely perfect reproductions of extinct fish are years beyond any other plant-based replication of seafood
Nova’s new project is both of a piece and pointedly different from his first megahit restaurant. Toro! Toro! Toro! was a revival of the clubby, twentieth-century fin de siècle sushi restaurants where Nova’s exquisitely perfect reproductions of extinct fish—in terms of fidelity of texture and clarity of flavor, years beyond practically any other plant-based replication of seafood in the last decade—revealed him as a trailblazer in the medium of engineered protein. Predictably, it spawned wave after wave of imitators, and while no one has come close to his craftsmanship or success, the rumors are that with his second revivalist restaurant, Nova is pushing beyond optimized protein to a new horizon, one that has been uncharted for years: real meat.
Are the rumors true? Is there meat afoot? And if so, how are you pulling it off?
Yeah, we're going to be doing modern takes on classic Brooklyn-American food of our grandparents' generation, and the only way to do that right is with real meat. So it's another period restaurant like Toro!, same timeframe—a throwback to the late twentieth-century, early twenty-first century—but at a much higher level. Think roasted pig's belly, lots of vegetables charred in cast iron dishes and seasoned with more pork, heirloom borecole salads, steak and beef tartare and tubers, of course, and in a couple of years, aged meats. Unfortunately, not poultry or oysters—which were key to that era’s style of dining—because they’re gone, obviously.
"Unfortunately, no poultry or oysters—which were key to that era's style of dining—because they're gone, obviously"
What I wanted to get back to again was this period of a certain kind of casual luxury, an era where everyone could afford to be inefficient, when eating meat was normal and natural, and we're taking the re-creation of that culture very seriously. After scouring the globe, we found a farmer in the wilds just outside of the Arctic Circle who was raising some legitimate breeds of cows and pigs; we took DNA from them, and working with a local biolab, we're now raising real, whole cows and pigs on a small horizontal plot of land owned by one of our investors just outside the city. What’s huge for us is that the land rights are covered under a grandfather clause allowing us to use the land to raise animals this way, even though it violates like every modern law governing land use and agricultural efficiency. Then we're going to slaughter these whole animals, and butcher and prepare them just like they did historically: slowly and with a lot of effort.
What do you guys know about raising an animal, then killing and butchering it responsibly? It sounds like an incredible challenge.
It is, but we've done a lot of historical research, especially into the specialty butcher shops of the era, and there's a lot of precedent for chefs running farms for restaurants of this caliber. And since automation has finally finished its sweep of the restaurant industry, right now there's a lot of former restaurant folks out there who are totally grateful for work that lets them keep their hands in the business in any way they can, because they just want to help make incredible food for people.
This sounds extremely exclusive.
"We're going to be the most expensive restaurant in the city, one of the most expensive in the country"
Look, there's no way around it: We're going to be the most expensive restaurant in the city, one of the most expensive in the country. Nobody else has been allowed to raise meat that has not been genetically engineered for fast growth and minimal resource consumption—and not outside of a controlled-environment agriculture setting—in decades, and it's extremely wasteful, technically speaking, so yeah, that costs a lot of money. But to the people who come here, it's really going to be worth it, because no one has had this kind of dining experience in years and years and years. And we're serious about replicating that old Brooklyn feeling down to the last detail. You should feel like you've been transported to 2007 or something.
How are you going to manage that?
The biggest aspect of it, besides the real food, will be real service. We're going a step further than Toro! Toro! Toro!, and you won't even interact with any software when you come in: We're going to have human hosts in these wonderful knit hats and chambray shirts and classic selvedge jeans who take you to your seat, another human who takes your order, and another who brings the food to you, and yet another who clears the table. I don't know any other restaurant that will have as many bodies as ours will, certainly not as carefully adorned in period dress.
"Our human hosts will wear these wonderful knit hats and chambray shirts and classic selvedge jeans"
You'll even get the bill written down on paper—we found a lot of these GREAT vintage Moleskine pads, very period—and you'll pay a separate small fee, like twenty percent, to the servers if they do a good job. (It sounds weird, but people used to do this routinely! We're including a keepsake booklet for every guest that explains how to figure out the amount.) We're even chucking dynamic pricing for this restaurant. The only things that'll be different than how it used to be back then is that you can't pay with paper like people used to, because of the blockchain, though if we could figure out a way to make that work, we totally would.
You're not worried that people will find this too decadent?
Look, our parents' generation had it really rough, and given the world that their parents and grandparents left for them, they sacrificed a lot to produce the optimized world we have today, where basically everybody subscribes to exactly as much they need to survive. Not everybody can return to the way that things were, with personal cars and private homes and meat on every plate. But in general, I think we can start celebrating what we have, especially if you have a bit more than most, since, if you think about it, the people who've had to hide their value from the world have suffered most of all, you know?
So none of the meat will be engineered then?
I thought about bringing over the "oysters" from my sushi restaurant, and then we thought about doing poultry, in the interest of fully replicating the classic Brooklyn experience, because raw oysters and roasted chicken were such a core part of the cuisine. But no matter how perfectly we were able to engineer anything, we decided it had to be real food all the way through. And we want people to have the taste of the really real. This era was all about the authentic, and that's what we really want delivered: Nothing here is faked or put on or a pretense, and even if you want to argue that it is, at one level, if you really think about it, because of where it's coming from, spiritually, it is true to us, and our feelings, which makes it as authentic as it gets, you know? Thinking about that every day—authentically creating something that is real—that is really inspiring.
"The flavor profile matches the most rapturous descriptions of chicken written by historical food bloggers"
And like, while almost everybody coming through will be meat-eaters, no one is doing it at this level—and for the people who save up to be able to come and get to experience meat and fine dining for the very first and probably only time, the food is going to be really real, which makes it even more special.
That said, I can tell you about what we're doing next: The research methods and techniques that we developed for Toro! Toro! Toro!, which allowed us to replicate two dozen totally different kinds of seafood, down to very fine details like giving the "toro" a sensation of cleanly melting in your mouth or the having the "uni" give off a complete sensory experience of what the scent of the ocean used to be like—all of them have a wide range of applicability. One of the things we cracked while working on Farm & Table was producing a really beautiful "chicken" that is like nothing else out there: If you brought a piece of this in a time machine back eighty years ago and cooked it up for somebody, one the foodies of the period would swear the meat had come from a free-range bird, not plants. And we figured out a composition that makes it extremely, extremely cost efficient.
How do you know when you've nailed the engineered chicken?
Well I can't tell you how we actually make it for competitive reasons—a lot of people have been trying and, fortunately, failing to reverse engineer our techniques—except that this is our most advanced food yet. The composition of the protein strands and the way that they're woven together produces a flavor profile and chew that perfectly matches the most rapturous descriptions of chicken written by historical food bloggers. It's just really fucking delicious.
So it sounds like you're going to do another restaurant that's more accessible?
Yeah, it's going to be in the style of a vintage artisan fried chicken joint. At the end of the day, I want to have a restaurant for everybody, including the people on Soylent. Even the middle class deserves to eat solid food at least occasionally. Even if they'd have to really optimize their labor and consumption to save enough to come in for a special occasion, having eighty percent of the population suddenly able to visit a restaurant once or twice a year is a lot of customers.
"Even the middle class deserves to eat solid food at least occasionally"
I don't think any company or restaurant has offered engineered chicken at the level we're going to do it, especially not at the price we're going to offer it. The guys who got their start in the early part of the century, who were the first to really produce optimized protein for the masses, before meat became really unavailable even, are very good at what they do, which is feeding a lot of people with something that is nutritious and tastes reasonably good, especially if you don't have the context to compare it to, which most people don't. But those guys just don't care about the little things like we do—our "chicken" has an essence, a real life to it that nothing else out there does.
It sounds like you think it has a lot of potential.
Tons. Infinite. Before the epidemic that led to the culling, a lot of people ate poultry at every meal, so even if most people haven't been alive long enough to remember what chicken tastes or feels like, everyone has heard stories from their grandparents. There is so much curiosity and nostalgia that the mass-market potential is huge: No one has had chicken in so long, whether you're one of the few who can afford to eat real meat or you're on Soylent, so this is going to be something that everybody wants, which means we can scale it out forever.
Matt Buchanan is the co-editor of the Awl and he can't wait for everyone's diet to consist entirely of venture-capital-funded foodstuffs.
Editor: Meghan McCarron
Photoillustration: Shutterstock/Helen Rosner