Out in San Francisco, a 25-year-old engineer has created what may be the most viable food replacement created to date, with major implications for world hunger and a variety of other agricultural and health woes plaguing our world. In Harlem, a culinary incubator called Hot Bread Kitchen is home to forty-five start-up food companies owned by minority entrepreneurs. Chef and restaurateur Dan Barber just published a very thorough treatise on how we can all be better farmers, chefs, and eaters. And John Fetterman, the mayor of a burned-out postindustrial Pittsburgh suburb, thinks he can save his dying town by building a restaurant, Field of Dreams style.
Some are out to make the world a better place. Some are out to make a buck. But all of those people are trying to change their corner of the world through food.
The appreciation of and connection to food as a cultural force (and not just fuel) is now well established as mainstream. It's cool to know about food. It grounds TV shows, movies, books, and blogs. With the cachet that comes from working in the food world comes power, influence, the ability to change lives, to change the world. David Chang isn't just a food world revolutionary, sectioned off to and appreciated by the insular New York City restaurant world cognoscenti. He's a mainstream figure. He's selling Audis on TV. Tom Colicchio is testifying before Congress about GMOs.
And the public isn't just becoming aware of the food world via Top Chef-like reality shows. We are also learning about how our food system is broken. Industrial farming, agricultural subsidies, diminishing water supplies, childhood obesity. Food world personalities are becoming powerful and influential at an important moment when the public is open to and aware of the greater problems facing our globe. And there are inherent elements to food—it's essential, it's universal, it involves feeding, cooking, and sharing—that make it a natural vehicle for progress and positive change.
Which means now—right now, this year, this month, this minute—the food community is perfectly poised to affect real change. And a good number of people are trying.
So to mark the relaunch of Eater, we asked them about it. Our worst problems as a society—hunger, greed, overuse of resources—are linked to food. And so are some of our best ideas. Not just the practical, selfless world-saving notions but also ideas that are philosophical, progressive, and out-there, crazy, absurdist hilarious. What follows in this piece is a collection of seventy-two of the best ideas for how people are or how they plan to or how they want to change the world through food. A lot of the ideas are incredibly earnest. Some are ambitious beyond reason. But what they all have in common is a belief that, with hard work and good food, the world is headed in the right direction. We're inclined to agree.
— Amanda Kludt, Eater editor-in-chief
The UC Global Food Initiative, announced by Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California, is a compact for sustainability that includes changing the food-buying practices of the university. I have been put on the provenance committee, and I hope we can really support farmers. Can you imagine the impact of this? It's incredible to contemplate. There are a lot of small institutions that do this, but not any big ones that I know about, and I haven't seen any other institutions that have UC’s ambitious goal.
As part of the provenance committee, we’re trying to figure out the distribution system for the university’s buying. First we have to identify where all these farms are within the state—everybody who's doing something sustainable, whether it's raising animals or fish or fruits and vegetables. After that we have to figure out how we can go about purchasing that food and preparing it, but we need to know where it is first.
“To make the switch to local purchasing takes a moral commitment, and it takes an ability to inspire and mobilize.”This model is similar to what Chez Panisse did at the beginning. We had a forager whose job was to go out and find people to buy from, and then we started to figure how we could pick up that food. Sometimes people brought it to the farmers' market, sometimes we went out to pick it up, and sometimes we picked it up for ourselves and for other people. It just worked itself out in a kind of organic way, if you will.
To make the switch to local purchasing takes a moral commitment, and it takes an ability to inspire and mobilize. In the end, I don't think it's going to cost a large institution like the University of California more money by any means. At Chez Panisse, I thought it would just always cost twice as much to buy from farmers, but in fact, because we don't have a middleman, it never does. The labor costs are always very high, but not food costs. We pay the farmers what they ask, but we give it directly to them. Buying directly makes all the difference.
Of course, the University of California’s network of farmers isn't going to be able to be as organically grown as ours at Chez Panisse, but I think we just have to find them and sew them together. A lot of people are going to be edibly educated in the process of doing this, and it's a wonderful thing. When you start eating with attention, you start meeting a lot of different people, you start going to different kinds of restaurants, you start thinking about your life differently.
Condensed from an interview with Amy McKeever
If wines can be packaged beautifully in a way that also protects them—and there's a way to eliminate some cost while using our limited natural resources better—it's a huge win for wine producers, wine drinkers, and the environment. The best way to do that is to use less glass.
Americans consume around 3.9 billion bottles of wine each year, most of them glass, but only 30 percent of glass is actually recycled. Most bottles go to the landfill—an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. landfill by weight is glass.
A stainless steel keg that restaurants can use to serve wine from a tap has about a thirty-year life span, and the goal is to turn it over four times a year. We use 19.5-liter kegs, which hold the equivalent of twenty-six bottles. So in the course of a single keg's life span, the need to create, move around, and dispose of 3,120 glass bottles of wine is eliminated.
Another way to get away from glass is with a Tetra Pak. Seventy percent of the package is made of paper (a renewable resource) harvested from sustainable forests. By weight, the container is 96 percent wine and 4 percent package, as opposed to the average glass bottle, which is 70 percent wine and 30 percent container. With long shipping distances, this additional weight adds up to a lot of fossil fuel use. Tetra Pak cartons also use 54 percent less energy than that of glass bottles throughout their entire life cycle, from production through shipping through recycling. They create 80 percent less greenhouse gases; and, given the efficiency in their weight, it takes 35 to 40 percent fewer trucks to deliver the same amount of wine as compared to glass bottles.
More and more wine producers need to start experimenting with sustainable packaging, more restaurants should serve wine on tap, and more consumers should opt to order the wine on tap at restaurants and buy the boxed wine at their wine shops. It will conserve energy, keep glass out of landfills, and keep costs down, so you can buy more wine.
From a farmer's perspective, there's a fundamentally cosmetic component to water. I’m sure most people don’t think of water and its relationship to a fruit’s size, but there's a direct correlation—and consumers equate size with quality. The current market rewards size.
Not all commodities work that way, but some produce does, including stone fruits, which I grow. I have certain varieties of peaches that I'd love to experiment cultivating with a deficit-irrigation strategy, but I'm terrified that I could be hugely penalized in the marketplace by having small peaches. The flavor might be more intense, but the marketplace is oriented toward size, not flavor. I could go out there with my great-tasting small peaches, but if some other, more water-rich area of the country or the world is distributing giant peaches, I'd get murdered. Suddenly my tiny little voice gets drowned out, and all because water is an inconsistently distributed resource, and I farm in a place that right now has less.
“One of the most important things we can do is research whether there are more efficient and better ways we could be farming with less water.”One of the most important things we can do is research whether there are more efficient and better ways we could be farming with less water. I could do it on an anecdotal level on my farm, but I'd love to see government agencies and research institutions devoting more to it. It's not just my farm that has to adapt to a new way of looking at water—it's the entire western United States. What does this drought mean for water storage? Water capacity? How does it go from one region to another? When it rains, how can we be more efficient at capturing the water? Are we in a ten-year drought? A thirty-year drought? Should I be shifting to different, perennial crops? People are starting to grow grapes in more northern latitudes because of climate change—I’m in central California, should I start growing tropical fruit?
Water's part of that equation. Everything we eat comes from water, and what’s here is all that we have. We’re not making more. I hope an awareness of water becomes just a normal part of how we think about our food—thirty or forty years ago, being attuned to "organic" produce was a new idea, but now it's part of how people look at food. Some people are militant about it, some people are passive, but it's part of everyone’s consciousness. Water isn't part of that consciousness yet, but I hope it will be. I hope people will understand that the cost of those large peaches is more than just their price.
Condensed from an interview with Helen Rosner
At Washington State University Mount Vernon, we study and work with non-commodity grains. We don't care about the big system. If you had a big truck with twenty tons of wheat and went to the grain elevator they would look at the stuff we work with and say, "That's purple, that's a different shape, and that doesn't work for the commodity systems," which are built on the notion of a huge amount of virtually identical, interchangeable product. By focusing on non-commodity varieties, we can pay attention to things like nutritional value and flavor—things that that big commodity farmers and programs tend to not care about. For them all that matters is yield.
“What it means to get out of the commodities market is to take charge of what you're selling and to whom.”The cruelty of the commodities market is that everything follows corn. So if corn prices are way up, so is everything else. That affects chefs and all consumers. The farmers we work with are trying to get out of the commodity market so our prices aren't affected by what happens in Kansas and Nebraska.
In our Skagit Valley, the growers just come out and say that they don't want to sell into the commodity market. What it means to get out of the commodities market is to take charge of what you're selling and to whom. We grow ninety different crops here—everything from tulips to strawberries—and these farms sell to the restaurants or consumers directly. They don't want someone across the country to tell them what their product is worth.
Whether you’re a restaurant or a consumer, you should treat sourcing your grains the way you treat sourcing your meat. I look at the commodity grains like confined hogs. It's not as brutal of course, but it's a very similar system.
Condensed from an interview with Amanda Kludt
The menu is always changing at this casual Copenhagen spot. That because the chefs don't order their ingredients; instead, local grocers give Rub & Stub any surplus food that is nearing its expiration date. The restaurant is run entirely by volunteers, and proceeds go to charity.
Cabbages & Condoms explains that its mission is "to promote better understanding and acceptance of family planning." And so this restaurant, decorated in prophylactics, delivers educational materials on safe sex to its diners after your meal of Thai classics.
Homeboy Industries is LA's massive rehabilitation program for former gang members. It operates a cafe, a diner, and a bakery-in addition to numerous non-food-related services-all staffed by men and women who left lives of violence. The program offers them job training and also seeks to foster relationships among those who may once have been rivals.
Maine restaurant Gather has instituted a garden barter program in which diners can bring surplus produce from their home gardens in exchange for credit at the restaurant. There's a list of desired produce on Gather's website, but if you have an unexpected abundance of aubergines or chives, they also welcome surprises.
This sandwich shop's electrical energy is powered by wind, and its used oil goes to bio-diesel engines. They're also vigilant about not leaving any waste: With its aggressive composting and recycling program, over the course of two years the restaurant produced just 8 gallons of trash-which it then turned into a sculpture, rather than discard.
OKRA Charity Saloon keeps its food and drink menu on the simple side, keeping the focus on philanthropy. With each drink, customers have the opportunity to vote for one of four selected charities that range from Habitat For Humanity and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to animal rescue operations and more. At the end of each month, the charity with the most votes gets the proceeds from the following month.
This two-year-old restaurant—one of the environmentally minded Fifth Group Restaurants' properties—is water-minded, as you might expect from a seafood-oriented spot. The installed a "rainwater pillow" on the restaurant's roof, putting the resulting rainfall accumulation towards flushing the toilets.
Social justice and the arts are more than just values at this cafe mini-chain-they're also available for purchase. Beyond offering a menu that emphasizes fair trade and sustainable products, three of their locations double as bookstores, selling literature and nonfiction focusing on civil rights, LGBTQ issues, and other forward-looking themes.
Like a lot of restaurants, this sushi spot serves only sustainable seafood, but it backs that philosophy with more than just its purchasing practices: The restaurant has donated $250,000 to create The Berry Islands Marine Preserve in the Bahamas, a home for marine ecosystem research.
After spending the summer after my senior year in high school working in a supermarket cutting meat, I witnessed firsthand just how disconnected we have become from our consumption habits. Patrons would come to a counter and ask for a giant cut of meat without ever having to consider or even see the blood that covered the counters hidden in the back. I spent that summer covered in blood, and I realized that I couldn't continue to participate in the animal industrial complex. I stopped eating meat the first day I went to college, and choosing not to eat meat has been the single most important thing I do every day to contribute to the future.
More than just health, giving up participating in the animal industrial complex has shown me the role of sacrifice to any political movement work in which one participates. What am I willing to live without in order to make change? That's a question that I ask myself as someone who is committed to writing and thinking about African American art and history and the dismantling of white power. I'm not a proselytizer for vegetarianism, but I do think being mindful about how one consumes is the foundation of any political activism-be it in the realm of culture, society, politics, or food.
As a food writer and editor, I encourage readers to join me in revelry over delicious seafood: sweet scallops seared in butter; raw oysters, bracingly cold. As the author of the book-length poem The Bottom, I describe the destruction of reefs by monstrous trawls, bluefin tuna hunted to near extinction, the seas scooped clean like a melon.
How do I square the moral complexities of my very human position? How do any of us who care about the seas and also adore the bounty pulled from them?
One thing I do is look to the seafood producers who are asking these same questions. Among them is Bren Smith. Once a long-liner in Alaska, hauling nets to fill McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, today Smith works in the waters amid Connecticut's Thimble Islands, harvesting, as he says, "the least deadliest catch."
Smith calls his endeavor "3-D farming," a sustainable network of ropes, cages, and beds that utilizes the entire water column to raise oysters, mussels, scallops, clams, and kelp. The mollusks are filter feeders; they don't need to be fed, and they cleanse the water as they eat. Best of all, they're damn tasty.
But it's the kelp that's really interesting. Seaweed is a zero-input food; it grows fast and takes little energy to produce. It scrubs the environment, soaking up carbon and nitrogen like crazy. And it makes a heck of a biofuel. Smith loves to quote a Department of Energy study that claims if we planted an area half the size of Maine, we could produce enough kelp-based fuel to replace the U.S. oil supply.
Not only that, but kelp is an awesome food. The versatile stuff is delicious in ways that span Eastern and Western cuisines. A clean, light, umami-packed kelp broth boosts the natural flavors of ingredients in everything from the Japanese custard chawanmushi to pot roast. It's nutritious. It's cheap to grow. And, with the help of guys like Smith, who has founded the company GreenWave to teach other farmers how to replicate his model, it could become a sustainable staple of our diet.
“Listen to what happens when you chew—subtle sizzles, tiny pops. Smell the difference between fresh and frozen. See the color nuances of different varietals. Feel how fuzzy, firm, slippery, or silky the texture of your meal is. Acknowledge how food grows: when, where, how, and why. Understand how it makes you feel. Use that information for good, not evil. Be the audience, not the performer.”
Here in America you and I can light a fire in a second—it’s as easy as turning on the stove, striking a match, or flicking a lighter. But in developing countries, young women and children spend their days gathering wood, dung, coal, or other biomass to fuel the fires and cook their meals. The result is that children miss out on education because they spend their days gathering wood, which then leads to deforestation. And in a country like Haiti, when the rain comes down, it washes away the topsoil, causing devastating landslides and jeopardizing agriculture. Our food system is more interconnected to our lives than we think. So by investing in more efficient cooking technologies that run on renewable energy, we can start to address these issues.
A clean-energy cookstove is one of the most innovative and important recent inventions; it will change our world. Three years ago, I joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves as the culinary ambassador. Our goal is simple: By 2020 the goal is to have replaced inefficient cooking technologies with clean-energy cookstoves in 100 million households. We have so many great supporters that really believe in this important mission. The most important thing is that we show the real value of using clean energy not only in terms of money, but in terms of demonstrating the potential to feed many people at a low energy cost with zero emissions.
Seed patenting by international companies is compromising farmers from Bangladesh to Iowa. Patents stop farmers from doing what they've done for ten thousand years: saving seeds from this year's harvest for next year's planting. With a patented seed, that simple act can bring on a lawsuit-when a seed is patented, farmers must buy new seeds each year, with the price, quantity, and distribution controlled by industry.
No single group should have significant control over the world's food production. It doesn't make sense. Curbing this seed issue is crucial to so many farmers and to all who eat.
Not long ago I sat around a table with five or so of the most talented vegetable and grain breeders in the country. I spoke about the old heirloom varieties chefs and eaters cherish. You know the ones: the Brandywine tomato, the Russian Banana fingerling, and so forth.
The group wasn't impressed. One of them finally said, "If the people who bred those varieties were sitting here now, they'd laugh. They'd say, ‘Why are you talking about varieties that are a hundred years old? We never stopped selecting—why did you?'"
He was right. Chefs may have brought innovation and modernity into the kitchen, but where ingredients are concerned, we've always privileged the heirloom and the heritage breed. It's favoritism rooted in a fallacy: that creating great cuisine today requires celebrating the flavors of the past. What we forget is that, in their day, heirloom varieties were constantly evolving through generations of careful selection and breeding.
Why stop? Why not support the continual betterment of these plants (read: make them more delicious) through collaboration with modern plant breeders?
To be clear, we're not talking about genetically modifying anything—that's never produced anything delicious to eat, and it never will. We tend to think of seeds as a black-and-white issue—heirlooms over here, Monsanto Frankenfood over there—but in fact, there's a huge spectrum that exists between those two, and the solution to our current food system lies somewhere in the middle.
So where to start? How can chefs, farmers, and eaters encourage plant breeders to create new, flavorful varieties of vegetables and fruits and grains for their regions?
There's a land-grant university in every state, which means there are public plant breeders in every state looking for guidance. I learned that several years ago, when a young squash breeder from Cornell ate dinner at Blue Hill. After the meal he came into the kitchen. I held up a butternut squash and, half-jokingly, asked him if he could create a new variety with a more intense squash flavor. He agreed that squash breeders are not unlike most modern breeders—they look for the largest market, which means breeding for yield and uniformity (and, in turn, for monocultures and mass distribution).
And then he looked at me, and I'll never forget what he said. "It's a funny thing, or maybe a tragic, funny thing," he said, "but in all my years breeding new varieties—after maybe tens of thousands of trials—no one has ever asked me to breed for flavor. Not one person."
Breeders are architects, and seeds are the blueprints for our food system. We need to engage like-minded breeders and help curate the future of good eating.
I spend most of my day surrounded by rare cookbooks, examining recipes, food writing, and publishing information from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. My primary task is researching and cataloguing printed and manuscript books, all in the hope of selling them to a small list of collectors and research libraries that purchase such things. One advantage of close contact with historical cookbooks is that it gives me perspective on what’s happening with contemporary food. It’s tempting to say that an understanding of historical food and cooking lets you see that "it’s all been done before." So many of the touchstones of modern diet—vegan, raw, Paleo, hyperlocal, and global grazing—have precedents in the distant and not so distant past.
If your food history comes from Twitter, you might think kitchen garden cooking started with Alice Waters, but you might take a look at Nicolas de Bonnefons’ Les Délices de la Campagne, Suite du Jardinier François, published in Paris in 1654. Not only does the book provide instructions for the cultivating, preserving, and cooking of fresh garden foods, it encourages that the food be prepared simply and that the ingredients be allowed to speak for themselves. This type of gardening and cooking was a common practice, but here was a book expounding farm-to-table as a truly desirable approach.
"What persists is that food changes, and that the forces shaping the food of any time are large and manifold "When I’m annoyed by a restaurant diner snapping iPhone pictures of a nicely plated dish, I recall the tiny engraving in a volume of Grimod de la Reynière’s Almanach des Gourmands, some of the earliest restaurant criticism. In the engraving, a group of men dine at a restaurant table, while adjacent, a secretary at a small table records their thoughts and criticisms. There’s a food career long gone.
But the "nothing new" approach is an oversimplification. What persists is that food changes, and that the forces shaping the food of any time are large and manifold: the economy, social mobility, migration, crop failure, markets and prices, scientific advances, ideas about health and nutrition, and of course war and the dislocation it brings. While food is always subject to grand forces, it is itself a grand force. Among the earliest writing, Babylonian tablets now 4,500 years old contain lists of foodstuffs and simple recipes for beer. They are the original food writing. Ancient writing like this is the province of kings and rulers of empires, and reminds us that food itself—the ingredients, the recipes, and the way we share meals—while subject to so many outside influences, is itself power.
One can hope that one day in the distant future, in a much-changed world or on a distant planet, people will notice again that food is a subject worth thinking about, worth debating and sometimes arguing over. And if they do so, let’s hope they don’t think they’re the first to do so, but turn to the twenty-first century—or the eighteenth or the third—for some perspective.
Look, we're all doomed. None of this will last. There are too many humans on this planet and we live too long and eat too much meat and temperatures are rising and the ice caps are gonna melt and oil is running out so we'll be lucky if our grandkids can get a job shoveling fuel on the rocket ship that takes the world's ruling class into outer space in search of a planet we haven't yet ruined. In the meantime, our best bet is if Monsanto puts something into our GMO food that keeps us mellowed out and agreeable, like cattle. In fifteen years, when the East Coast is underwater and we're all in government camps surviving off packets of peanut and corn gruel, it would be helpful if some kind of chemical compound in the food subdued our natural impulse to hit our annoying neighbors over the head with a rock. This sounds a bit like a dystopian young adult novel, but I would love it if my body released endorphins instead of anger every time the people who live below me threw an after-party for a rave.
“The best thing that could happen to the world and food is if we got rid of the word ‘foodie’”A slightly less depressing answer is that I think a lot of problems would be solved if more people ate dinner together. Let's all look each other in the eyes and talk! I was raised eating as a family but now as an adult I mostly make eye contact with my TV. There are just so many shows to catch up on. What if I don't stay current on a serialized drama and then misunderstand a tweet? God forbid.
But this would all be easier if everyone's relationship to food was a little less precious. The best thing that could happen to the world and food is if we got rid of the word foodie. Every time I hear the word, it makes my skin crawl. It divides the world into foodies and normals; and it's so condescending and diminutive, as if paying attention to what and how we eat was a novelty, not an essential component of human existence and a key part of being a responsible person on this planet. I throw this one back to Monsanto: I'll eat your gigantic tomatoes if they make anybody that says the word foodie vomit immediately.
Like many towns in America's Rust Belt, economic opportunity has been on the decline in Braddock, Pennsylvania—located just east of Pittsburgh—for years. Since he was elected mayor in 2005, John Fetterman has worked to revive the community through projects like the Free Store, which distributes discarded food and clothing to those in need. Now Fetterman is teaming up with chef Kevin Sousa on a crowdfunded restaurant, Superior Motors, that will open in 2015 to provide Braddock access to both quality food as well as job training opportunities.
Braddock is an extreme example of the American Dream gone bad. Andrew Carnegie opened his first steel mill here in 1875, and it was the Silicon Valley of its day. Nobody could have conceptualized what would happen more than a century later: Braddock lost 90 percent of its population. When you lose 90 percent of your population, you lose 90 percent of your businesses. You lose 90 percent of your homes. You lose 90 percent of your buildings.
“We’re doing it because it's the right thing to do, not because it’s trendy or fashionable.” The restaurant Superior Motors will bring people into the community and provide incredible food, much of it sourced within a twenty-five-mile radius. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do, not because it's trendy or fashionable. We just want to make really amazing food accessible.
We're able to offer a completely unique building that has a roof garden and is a block and a half down from a two-acre urban farm with its own small apiary. We're taking things that some might consider undesirable—like being across the street from a steel mill—and embracing it. It attracts other people to the community too. It hits on so many different cylinders. How can we reimagine Braddock? And how can we take advantage of what Braddock has to offer?
Superior Motors will also have an educational component for those who can't afford culinary school or don't know which direction to go professionally. There are a lot of people in Braddock with an educational level somewhere between the fifth and seventh grades, so there's a huge need for job training. And once a chef like Kevin Sousa signs off on your kitchen skills, you can get a job anywhere in Allegheny County, no sweat.
Kevin's earlier restaurant, Salt of the Earth, helped change the restaurant landscape in Pittsburgh. And now the restaurant landscape in Pittsburgh is helping change Pittsburgh. It's impossible to overstate the importance of restaurants as economic drivers. One good restaurant can help people reimagine a space, a street, and a neighborhood.
Condensed from an interview with Amy McKeever
If we shift our national conversation about food from meditations on natural resources to reckonings on human resources, we can begin to pay down the debts of pleasure and sustenance that our forebears accrued and my generation deferred.
I'm hopeful. Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United are now crafting and winning arguments for better farmworker and restaurant worker pay, benefits, and living conditions. In my neck of the woods, Southern consumers, awakening to the linkages between slave and sharecropper pasts and this present, are now starting to base their buying decisions on those natural resource imperatives.
We have a long row to hoe. But for a nonprofit like the Southern Foodways Alliance—focused on collecting, sharing, and interpreting the life stories of our region's working-class farmers, artisans, and cooks—we believe it's spadework worth doing.
One of the central issues of food in a globalized scene is the ethics of appropriation and the principles of culinary justice. Elites have always protected secret and sacred recipes and still do. Locked behind walls of national pride, terroir, memoir, and legalese, protections and designations exist to keep a gastronomic caste of artisan makers, producers, and chefs—mostly European and white—"safe" from anyone claiming to do or produce their work. Cured meats, beverages, cheeses, breads, and oils have all garnered zealous protection. And yet, if you are in the nonwhite world, it's not unlikely that your cuisine—whether Peruvian peasant potato dishes or the court art of Japanese sushi—will make a white male chef famous, a champion, a scholar-cook, and, likely, a brilliant entrepreneur. From food trucks to multistar restaurants, it is not the traditional artisans who are shining; it is their cover artists and first-world doppelgängers.
“From food trucks to multistar restaurants, it is not the traditional artisans who are shining; it is their cover artists and first-world doppelgängers”This is not to say that chefs shouldn't or can't borrow across cultural lines or cook dishes drawn from the broad perspective of their experiential palate. But those plates of food can't exist in a vacuum. We need to have a conversation about where these recipes and traditions are being sourced, and how we can share these culinary legacies without disenfranchising and disempowering the cooks and chefs of impoverished or oppressed communities.
There are two necessary elements to this process: the willing participation of both the disempowered and the privileged. And each group has its own set of tasks to achieve this end. The disempowered must first explicitly want to reclaim (or maintain) ownership of their culinary traditions. They must produce "native" scholars and experts who are willing to record and teach within the community, and teach and interpret outside of it; they must strategize ways to protect and responsibly market their foods and food culture; and they need to use legal, social, cultural, and culinary justice strategies to correct imbalances or injustices when encountered. This means organizing and creating standards that protect the unique character of our foods and highlighting and promoting culinary artisans who might not get the exposure or respect of the mainstream.
That's a tall order for any community to take on, but it's a model that works. In my own work chronicling the African American culinary tradition, I've been part of a larger resurgence of scholars, growers, artisans, and chefs who are not willing to take gastronomic gentrification sitting down. We own the pain behind our food culture—we know what it cost to get to the table and we tell those stories. I go to the length of actively interpreting slavery through food in the fields and kitchens of the plantations in the Old South. I grow the food as it was grown, harvest from nature, and use historic methods to cook the food. I've made it my mission to join an expanding network of growers committed to producing and marketing our heirloom crops and learning to manage natural areas where wild foods unique to African American communities still thrive. Our activists are branching into the conservation of ecosystems, agricultural and natural sustainability, and learning as much as we can about our history—from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom—and we are reaching the next generation and passing it on through community gardens, cooking demonstrations, and collecting oral histories. Our ancestors sang: "We raise de wheat/dey give us de crus'/We beat de corn, they give us de husk/We peel de meat and dey gives us de skin/And dis de way dey they takes us in." Well those days are, shall we say, gone with the wind.
At the same time, high-profile cooks—not to mention food writers with a platform—have their own set of responsibilities. Even as they draw on the wealth of material and food heritage that their neighbors possess, they must simultaneously engage with those communities in ways that respect the communication process as established by that culture, and they must provide opportunities for the communities to learn to metaphorically fish for themselves and participate directly in the booming food scene. They need to understand—and act on—the importance of forming real relationships with members of these communities, crediting them for their contributions and paying forward their collaborative successes by giving those individuals the ability to succeed through their own cooking.
So what does this peaceable kingdom look like? If we establish formal efforts to protect indigenous foods, educate people about food sovereignty and culinary justice, and decrease the stigma that cooking—not cheffing but cooking—is menial labor, I see a world where chefs of all colors volunteer their time educating, sharing, opening doors for young children of color, and instilling pride in a heritage of culinary achievement and creativity. It's a world where the fruits of culinary success are reinvested into programs that reconnect young chefs of color with the foods of their near or ancestral homelands and empower them to be scholars and inspired cooks with a mission to preserve, sustain, and innovate. There are ongoing dialogues about culinary borrowing, inspiration, and appropriation, and schools that go beyond the European vernacular to include African, Native American, and Latin food cultures—and the philosophies and cultures behind them.
Culinary justice can bring us together and embolden us to respect the importance of cultural legacies, both others' and our own.
Too often, food lovers focus on the environmental impact of their meals-they consider carbon footprint, not the aching feet that worked 12 hours in a field to pick a local strawberry or the minimum wage worker that diced that precious berry.
But the food manufacturing industry is among the largest employers in the United States. More than seventeen million people make their living growing, preparing, or serving food. Too often those people don't earn a living wage or aren't afforded benefits necessary to live a dignified life.
In order to create sustaining livelihoods, we need to invest in the workforce that feeds us: providing a living wage can only translate to better food and happier, healthier neighbors in the long term. For employers, this means putting dollars back into the pockets of their employees; for consumers, this means adjusting to the true price of quality food.
Knowing where the ingredients of our food come from is critical, but I want to challenge consumers to ask who handled those ingredients and recognize the critical role that food workers play in creating quality products.
Growing up as a dairy farmer, I watched as urban consumers grew distant from farmers, landscapes, and even from rural America. Many of us older farmers recall the 1980s "farmer justice" movement that worked to blunt the forces sweeping away hundreds of thousands of farmers. At that time, talk among farmers was that someday urban consumers would rue the loss of America's farmers. We hoped for a day when consumers would want to know us, our lands, and all the people that it takes to bring food to the urban table. We of deep rural "farm country" hoped for respect.
“We lost 90 percent of America's dairy farmers with hardly a peep from the public”In my lifetime, we lost 90 percent of America's dairy farmers with hardly a peep from the public. Drive anywhere in deep rural New York, and you will see some of the three million acres of lands formerly used in farming-now abandoned or little used. In the past five years, another one hundred thousand farmers (mostly midsize farms) were lost, even as the urban food movement grew.
If I could use food to change the world, I would insist that consumers fight for farmers and fishermen and the people who work alongside us. Real food connects our urbanizing public with the hearts and hands of those who produce food, whether on land or sea. And, for us as farmers and fishermen, it brings great satisfaction and a feeling of a life well lived to know that we have steadfastly fed our fellow citizens.
To change the world, I would like people to think of food as a connector, rather than a divider. Food and water are starting points for shared values and conversations. I do not care about global corporations, for they will never love the land and sea as those who work with natural resources do. I would urge consumer wariness of marketers maximizing profits from farmer "litmus tests" and single solutions. Farm families around the world are dedicated to their farms. Most hope and pray that the farm will continue on into future generations. I would use food for a world where farm families connected to their farms and satisfied consumers provide the solid basis for global food security.
“The literature of the food movement virtually expunged the history and the role of the millions of farmers who operate beyond "local" farmers' markets and direct sales to consumers”To safeguard the future of food, I would use food to encourage farmers and fishermen. I would tell them to look at food as it leaves their hands and dream of a world where consumers would demand to know us. I believe that soon we will see a breakthrough and consumers will be willing to speak with farmers and fishermen to know our concerns, our policy problems, the prices we receive, what it will take to sustain family farms and grow new ones. We are already seeing a bit of "food as connection" in the media.
The food movement has arrived with the best of intentions. However, the literature of the food movement virtually expunged the history and the role of the millions of farmers who operate beyond "local" farmers' markets and direct sales to consumers. I ask concerned consumers to continue their love of their local farmers, but to also plunge far beyond into the farms of deep rural America and the fishing towns of our coasts. Compassion and concern centered around the people who bring in our daily food will carry us all through to a better future.
Not all waiters are compensated equally. Service industry employees in states like New Jersey and Texas earn as little as $2.13/hour, provided that tips bring them up to the full federal minimum of $7.25, while waiters in seven states—Alaska, California, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Washington, and Minnesota—must be paid no less than the the full federal minimum before tips. The city of San Francisco, in turn, boasts the country’s highest paid waiters, who by city ordinance make—not including gratuities—an hourly wage of $10.74, which might go up to $15 by 2018.
But do these wages result in higher prices at restaurants? And what happens a waiter still earns less than the minimum wage after tips? Eater’s Ryan Sutton spoke with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United’s Saru Jayaraman, one of America’s leading labor activists for hospitality industry employees. Jayaraman, a graduate of Yale Law School and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Behind the Kitchen Door, works to bring these issues to the attention of the American public.
RS: Do you go out to eat a lot?
SJ: Yes, I do. The nice thing about San Francisco is I can eat there as somebody in my line of work, because wages and benefits are so good. Everybody, universally, is what we call a "high-road employer" in San Francisco because the minimum wage is so high, and everybody has paid sick days and even health care.
It makes me wonder: Just as modern diners are willing to pay more for local food or for the peace of mind of knowing that the animals that died for their enjoyment lived good lives, wouldn’t consumers also be willing to pay more for food delivered by waiters who are better compensated?
That kind of change can happen if consumers were to speak up, express their values, express their concerns around wages and working conditions. But consumers don't have to pay a much higher price. The minimum wage is $9 across the board in the state of California, and it’s going up. I promise that your food prices in Fresno or Bakersfield are not higher than they are in Washington, D.C., where the minimum wage is $2.77 an hour. We've got high-road employer partners around the country who have reasonable, affordable menu prices at all levels: small mom-and-pop shops, very large restaurants, fine dining, casual dining, quick service.
There’s a San Francisco chef who tells me his tasting menu would be $20 cheaper in New York because waiters in California earn the full minimum wage on top of tips. Adding to that problem is the fact that you can’t really redistribute tips to back of the house. That restriction makes sense in New York, where the tipped minimum is $5, but that restriction is less compelling in California, where at the very high end, you have waiters making more money than cooks. That's also a problem, I would argue.
It is a problem. But I don’t at all buy that it would cost a restaurant $20 more because there's no tip credit. That's just not true for the vast majority of restaurants in California. Restaurant prices in all of the state of California are not generally $20 higher than they are elsewhere.
But the issue of inequality between front and back of the house—I definitely think that's a problem at fine dining restaurants. But it’s not true for the vast majority of restaurants in America and for the vast majority of workers in America, who don't work at those kinds of restaurants. They largely work at the Denny's and IHOP, Applebee’s and family restaurants, and government data shows that at restaurants like those, the median wage of the front and back of house is almost exactly the same. Of course, it’s a poverty-level wage, so if one day we made it to some utopian world where there's no tips at all and everybody just gets a livable wage, that would be wonderful. That model actually does exist in other countries—in Australia, the wage for restaurant workers is the equivalent of $17 an hour, and in Norway it’s $25 an hour.
“If one day we made it to some utopian world where there's no tips at all and everybody just gets a livable wage, that would be wonderful”But that’s not the world we're in here in America, where the minimum wage is actually not a livable wage. You need tips in order to actually remunerate servers at a level that reflects the professionals that they are—and they are professionals in this industry. In any other profession—health care, education—there's a ladder you can move up to reflect higher levels of skill. The fact that you could move within the hospitality profession from being a server at a Denny's to being a server at a high-end San Francisco restaurant like Saison, where you're making five times more, well, in any other field that would make sense.
But there are a couple of reasons why this is a problem in the hospitality industry. One, the industry doesn't see serving as a profession, and therefore hasn't created a real ladder. We’ve created training programs that help people move from fast food or casual serving into fine dining, but the much bigger problem is not only is there not a ladder, there's a very severe glass ceiling, especially for people of color and women and immigrants. You're very unlikely to ever see a person of color move from the back of the house or from serving at a Denny's or Red Lobster into a fine dining server position, because the industry and consumers have so universally accepted this norm that a fine dining server is a certain kind of person who has a certain kind of look.
The assumption that the guy from Mexico in the back of the house could never be that fine dining server—that's the real problem. It's not that there are gradations in income. In any profession, there are gradations of income. The problem is when you block certain groups of people from getting to the higher levels in the profession.
Back in my restaurant-work days, I recall making less than $20 during a lunch shift because of a snowstorm. If tips don’t bring servers up to the full federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, employers are supposed to make up for the difference. But how often do employers actually follow through on that?
That’s a widespread problem in the restaurant industry. The Department of Labor has said that it has found an 83 percent violation rate with regard to restaurants actually making up that difference between the tipped minimum and the regular minimum. We've surveyed about 6,000 workers nationally, and I have only ever encountered one worker who told me that her employer went back and counted every hour to make sure that tips made up the difference between their subminimum wage and the regular minimum.
What changes have you seen in the livelihoods of front-of-house workers in states like Washington, California, and Alaska, where restaurants have to pay employees the state's full minimum wage rather than a tipped minimum? Are workers’ lives improving?
Absolutely. We’ve found in the seven states that require full minimum wage that there are far lower rates of poverty among restaurant workers. There's also a higher restaurant sales rate per capita on average than in the forty-three other states. There's higher overall job growth in five of the seven states than there is in the restaurant industry nationally. We're just finding that there’s a better ability to survive among all restaurant workers in these seven states, servers in particular. There's also less of a gender pay gap in these seven states in the restaurant industry. On almost every measure, these seven states, they're doing better.
We see servers in some states arguing against parity in wages because they've been told by the National Restaurant Association that raising the wage will end tipping as we know it. I've had restaurant workers call me from all over the country saying, "How dare you argue for the end of tipping!" I tell them that I'm not arguing for the end of tipping. I'm demanding a wage, a real wage for everybody in the industry.
But also, tipping rates are definitely not lower on average in the seven states where there’s a full minimum wage. In fact, the state with the highest tipping rate is one of these seven states. People don’t tip less. I don't tip less. I'm sure you don't tip less when you eat in San Francisco. Everybody just tips at 20 percent. It’s what you do.
Food and cooking allow us a way to connect people to cultures and history in ways that they might otherwise never happen. Sharing traditional dishes from communities outside our own gives us a way to understand how much all people have in common, rather than focusing on conflict or unfamiliarity.
When we share a taste of really wild wild rice with a customer, that allows us to talk about the culture of the Ojibwe people, for whom that grain is so critical culturally, culinarily, and economically. Serving Carolina Gold rice allows us an opportunity to discuss the struggles of enslaved people in North America, and about the traditional foods and culinary traditions of West Africa. People who might not ever have thought they'd be interested in the history of the Italian Riviera could be interested to learn more after they taste a terrific pesto sauce, finding out that pesto became prominent in Ligurian cooking in order to provision the oceangoing merchant ships of Genoa with a source of vitamin C for sailors who were at sea for months at a time without access to fresh fruit or vegetables.
Sitting with someone of any background and sharing a meal made of dishes that matter can quickly elevate any interaction, making it one of connection, understanding, and respect, rather than anger, ego, and conflict. People sharing good food together are rarely at war. You can't sit and share truly delicious traditional food without having some kind of constructive connection. And those connections build positive feelings, deeper understanding, and a calmer, more creative world.
Two years after founding Blue Marble Ice Cream, Alexis Gallivan and Jennie Dundas launched a philanthropic arm of their company, Blue Marble Dreams. Through it, they build ice cream shops with women living in areas recovering from natural disasters and conflict, including Rwanda and Haiti. Hear about their story above.
Given the increasing frequency with which people eat out, and the many adverse effects of most traditional fast food, we need to displace traditional, heavily processed fast food served by most chains and replace it with real food. This is a lofty goal and requires a deep understanding of all sorts of issues in the nation's complex food system. But at the core of our mission at Chipotle is the fundamental understanding that we must source great-quality whole ingredients and transform them into delicious food through simple cooking.
As we've worked to redefine fast food in this way, we have always maintained that the more people know about their food and how it is produced, the more they would choose to eat better food. It appears that is exactly what is happening: In a recent Consumer Reports study, the magazine's researchers asked more than 53,000 fast-food consumers to rate fast food based on its deliciousness. Chipotle topped the list, while traditional fast-food restaurants didn't fare so well, scoring at or near the bottom in every category.
Of course, for the way people think about and eat fast food to truly change, other brands will have to adopt a similar model. We are in the early stages of developing two other concepts—ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen and Pizzeria Locale—that embrace the same principles that have led to Chipotle's success, and are encouraged by their early acceptance. We are similarly encouraged to see other upstarts embrace a similar ethos.
Fast food has become an integral part of American culture. And if done in a way that respects ingredients and the people who raise them, that honors classic cooking, and that makes food available and affordable, fast food can and should contribute to America's food culture rather than serving to erode it.
The New York restaurant world has evolved in so many ways over the three decades I’ve been in the business, but the four legs of the dining room chair haven’t changed one bit. Today, just as in 1985, the exact same four restaurant stakeholders—who are so intertwined and who so need each other—are still the sine qua nons of our industry: (1) food producers and growers, (2) chefs and restaurateurs, (3) food journalists and media, and (4) restaurant patrons. It’s just that now, the game has been ratcheted up several competitive notches, for each of those stakeholders, and expectations of one another are at an all-time high.
This is a good thing for quantity and, in many cases, quality too. There are simply more people playing and innovating in every category, and it’s more exciting than ever. If you’re reading this, you belong in at least one of those four categories, so you should relate to the following.
At no time in the history of the world have people with means had more opportunity to experience more good food and drink. And at no time have we ever been so obsessed with eating and learning about what we (and others) are eating. People are growing it, cooking it, writing about it, and consuming it in epic proportions.
In 1985, if you wanted to dine really well, you’d really need to dress up in your finest, head to a Le, La, or Il sort of restaurant, act politely and subserviently to the tuxedo-clad maître d’, fork out all kinds of money, and hope to count on a special occasion experience. Today, people still love dining well (and even occasionally in great comfort), but above all, they like eating well. And they expect the food to taste good and the welcome to be warm at any address, price point, level of comfort, and irrespective of what kind of uniform the server is wearing. The biggest winner in all this is anyone who loves to eat.
The biggest loser—and this is a good thing—is the rapidly declining category of captive audience dining (CAD). CAD preyed on helpless diners by serving the lowest common denominator food possible at the highest possible prices. CAD lived in museums, sports stadiums and arenas, hotels, jazz clubs (remember the "food and beverage minimum"), business towers, department stores, theaters, airports, airplanes—really anywhere you needed to get food, but had no choice but to eat what was being offered and to pay whatever was being charged. Today, people have zero tolerance for parking their taste for good food at the door, simply because they are eating while enjoying some other facet of their lives. And they are unwilling to pay exorbitant premiums just for the convenience of eating somewhere that is not a traditional restaurant. We want and expect the best quality and value wherever and whenever. And if we can share the experience with our friends via Twitter or Instagram or Foursquare, all the better.
My colleagues and I have been privileged during the past decade to bring good cooking and warm hospitality to many venues that formerly proffered CAD. And our aim has always been to provide a product that is so compelling that you’d want to go there even if it weren’t in your favorite park, museum, ballpark, or airline. As a restaurant professional, it feels so incredibly good to share our gifts to heighten people’s enjoyment of the something else they really came to do. And it is a wonderful experience for us to learn about different worlds and how they work. How wonderful to get to know museum security guards and curators; ballpark ushers and vendors; flight attendants and pursers; jazz musicians and agents; and hotel doormen and concierges.
For both businesses and diners, there’s no going back now. CAD in its old incarnation is dying. And as the movement toward high-quality, exciting, delicious food continues to expand—bringing truly good food to nontraditional places like hospitals, college campuses, and movie theaters—the forecast for food lovers looks better and better. No matter which of the four stakeholder groups you belong to, you can help the movement by creating, promoting, and patronizing places you actually love, irrespective of where they are. Everything else follows from that.
For a diner, being a responsible part of the culinary ecosystem goes well beyond skipping heirloom tomatoes in January and downloading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app. We’re not saying you’ve got to follow all ten of these rules all the time, but the more you can fit into your dining habits, the better the world will be.
Drinking local beer, wine, and spirits conserves resources—hauling kegs and bottles from point A to point B uses up a lot of gas—and it also helps prop up small businesses and hometown ingenuity. Plus, a close-to-home brew is likely to be way fresher than a bottle that’s been rattling around a truck for a week followed by a few months sitting around in a dusty distribution warehouse.
Make an effort to eat at restaurants that are locally owned. Neighborhood restaurants are community anchors and employment drivers, and—unlike chains and huge multi-restaurant groups, whose tremendous cover rates require bulk purchasing from massive distributors—their relatively modest buying practices allow them to purchase ingredients directly from small farmers and producers, and to more nimbly revise their menus.
Step away from the tacos, croissants, and pad Thai and give the rest of the world a chance. If a restaurant opens in your neighborhood serving an unfamiliar cuisine—Bolivian, Burmese, Tunisian—drop by for a meal, ask the owners what’s good, and contribute to the worthy cause of global culinary egalitarianism. Food is a great uniter—and it’s also a great historical and geographic storyteller. One bite of a giant, pork-filled Siberian pelmeni and you understand immediately how it’s a gastronomic bridge between Eastern European meat pierogi and Chinese jiao zi.
Drink from the tap
Of course you should get tap water—but you should also order tap beer (and, when it’s available, tap wine). A steel keg holds anywhere from five to fifteen gallons of booze. Plus, unlike glass, it can be reused for decades, keeping uncountable tons of glass out of landfills. Save the bottles for special brews and special occasions.
Look beyond the spotlight
Destination restaurants like like Noma, the French Laundry, or D.O.M. can overshadow nearby businesses with more modest menus. Instead of dropping into town for your fancy dinner and jetting as soon as the check is dropped, spend a day or two having meals at other restaurants in the area. (Bonus: Location-inspired tasting menus are markedly better when you understand them in context. Eat your way through Spain’s Basque region—and not just at the handful of fooderati-approved pintxo bars in San Sebastian, okay?—and your 18-course lunch at Mugaritz will take on thrilling geographic depth.)
Know what time it is
Is it December? Don’t order the stone fruit galette—but keep in mind the seasonality of other ingredients on the menu as well. Chef and writer Dan Barber makes the case for considering meat on a seasonal cycle: If you’re consuming pasture-raised animals whose feed varies with the time of year, it’s likely that the cows were slaughtered in fall, so they’re best eaten in colder months. Chickens, on the other hand, are a spring and summer animal.
Don’t be jaded about sourcing
It can be tiring: Chefs showing off their buddy-buddy relationships with farmers, restaurateurs who constantly Instagram their visits to the local rooftop garden, and menus where a third of the page is dedicated to a humble-bragging laundry list of the farmers, ranchers, growers, and purveyors whose wares make up the contents of the walk-in. But we’d rather see it than not see it—transparency is a great thing, even more so when it shines light on good practices and great products.
Tip like a grown-up
Complain all you want about tipping—just don’t do it where your server can hear you, and don’t be that jerk who puts her money where her mouth is and stiffs the staff to make a point. Good tippers make for good servers, which means our favorite restaurants are staffed by people who want to be there and whose quality of life is good enough that they don’t resent their patrons for dropping $18 on a plate of spaghetti. (For that matter, you can be the agent of karmic reward yourself, by going out of your way to support restaurants who treat their employees well.)
Be willing to pay for it
Good things cost money. The price of your $8 taco isn’t derived from just the street value of an ounce each of corn masa, pineapple salsa, and shredded pork. That may be the food cost, but it’s not the true cost. There’s also the quality and provenance of the ingredients, the location and decoration of the space, the training and wages of the staff, and—if the owner is lucky—enough of a profit that all the work continues to be worth it, and she doesn’t close up shop and take her delicious tacos away.
Complain. Definitely complain. To the manager, on Twitter, in the letters section of the local paper, to the Eater tipline—but don't be a total hater, or a blindly endorsing cheerleader. Share the good news with the bad news, and everything in between. Remember that restaurants are people too. Or at the very least, they’re run by people—who, if they’re taking their jobs seriously, are always looking to make sure things are as good as they can possibly be. If something goes awry during a meal, say something to the staff. In most cases, they want to fix it. Everyone makes mistakes, and by complaining responsibly, you give them an opportunity to turn that experience around.
Food is medicine. We knew this in medieval times—when people were obsessed with the humoral balance of different ingredients—but it seems to be something we have lost sight of.
When it comes to our current diet predicament, food is both the poison and the antidote. No previous society has ever seen so much ill health caused by overnutrition, as opposed to starvation. Yet the solution is not abstinence from eating. The only way out is helping populations to develop better food habits, starting with children. Many of us have learned to eat in ways that are deeply dysfunctional, whether it's binge eating or yo-yo dieting. We keep looking for solutions in restrictions of one kind or another—no carbs, no fat, no salt. This perpetuates the belief, as widespread as it is wrongheaded, that food can only be delicious if it is unhealthy. I blame Homer Simpson: "Mmm, fattening!"
But here's a thought. What if it were possible to enjoy roasted carrot and cumin salad more than pink doughnuts? The change will only come when we learn to harness the pleasure of eating to the cause of health. Food—moderate helpings of real, whole food, most of it plant-based—is what our bodies need. The greatest way food can change the world for the better would be if we could rediscover the simple fact that good eating and good health can be one and the same.
“For fun, try to figure out how much water you use daily in cooking, eating a tomato (which Dan Barber calls the Hummer of the vegetable world), and your daily thirst needs. Just that one ecological fact will make you humble and mindful of how we need to conserve for the future. One person in nine billion can make a difference. ”
If we cannot persuade people to buy better-farmed ingredients to improve their health and save the planet, maybe we can convince them to consume more flavorful and delicious food. I truly believe that once you have eaten a juicy, sweet, ripe carrot, there is no way that you will go back to the industrially manufactured ones, which are, sadly, found in supermarkets around the world.
Writing about food is the only way I've found to get Americans to talk about class without being jerks. That's my meta-objective: to foster cross-class understanding so we can fix problems like poverty and education. That's a high bar, though. I'd settle for seeing fresh, healthy food be as cheap and accessible as junk food is today.
I'm not really a typical food-world person. When I started my reporting career I thought food writing was a bunch of elitist snobs gazing in turn at their navels and their dinner plates. I only started looking at food after I'd spent several years covering poverty and welfare and did a story on food access in New York City.
“The idea that the poor might be a lot like them, only faced with different choices, was incomprehensible to most people. ”I did that food access story in 2004, and even though it was about poverty, people talked to me endlessly. That was completely new for me. Back then, getting people to talk about poverty required exploding their idea of America; I had to convince them class existed in the United States. Or, if they would talk about poverty, I'd spend a lot of time answering questions about what exactly the poor had done to get poor. The idea that the poor might be a lot like them, only faced with different choices, was incomprehensible to most people.
Writing about supermarkets and farmers' markets was different. Even though that was a story about class and poverty, everyone got it. They understood that if a supermarket wasn't nearby, it would take more work and effort to eat a healthy diet. So I started poking around more about food issues.
You can write about food and be a jerk, too, of course. Lately I've heard a lot of talk about how poor people just prefer bad food. I can't say I've never seen anything suggesting that in fifteen years of reporting on the poor, but the word preference is almost Orwellian in its vagueness; your assumptions going in are going to predict your answers at the end.
If you start from a place of thinking that the poor are juggling cost, convenience, culture, history, habit and health-the same as middle-class people-you get one kind of story. But if you think that being poor makes someone a fundamentally different kind of human-that the poor only care about cheap food and not health, and that food preference for the poor is about innate tastes, not the history or habit we understand to middle-class tastes-you're going to get a different story.
I can't say I always succeed, but I try pretty hard to take the first approach. Otherwise, I'm just using my subjects to tell a story I already decided before I got there. That's not just lazy reporting; it robs my subjects of their humanity. At the root of it, I try to use stories about food-a great universal, one thing that everyone has in common-to remind Americans of something our culture makes easy to forget: that the poor are human, just like all the rest of us.
We're living in a new reality. I call it "start-up nation." There's not a single area that's not being disrupted—new companies, new food products, new websites, new stories, new medical innovations. There's all of this change happening in every industry, and because of that, we're all living at a very fast pace, and there’s more and more of a blur between what counts as work and what counts as a personal life. That's only going to get more intense in the years to come. And considering that, there's tremendous importance to learning now how to turn away from the screen, sit down with people, and enjoy a meal together.
You need eight hours of sleep a day, you need a vacation every few months. We always need to set aside time to reboot and anchor, to reorient ourselves to the present, and a meal is a vital part of that practice. As much as Europe's been running on smoke and mirrors, economically speaking, for the last fifty years, they were really on to something with the idea of stepping away from the day to experience meals, sitting down to enjoy food and wine and good company. Take one night a week—more, if you can—and sit down with friends and family to eat at home. Put away the phone, turn off the TV, and focus on the people at the table. Enjoy the meal, discuss the week, talk about the world at large or the week ahead. Unwind and enjoy the moment. Have a real, human interaction.Condensed from an interview with Helen Rosner
“In such a fast-paced world, gathering people around a table to share a meal allows everything to slow down. I would ask people to sit at least once a week around a table and just enjoy each other's company. Give them the time to talk, laugh, and fill their bellies. It seems like a small thing, but it can bring so much joy to so many people. ”
A Texas pop-up (but soon to be permanent) restaurant that serves as a paid post-release internship for juvenile offenders, teaching critical skills to vulnerable kids.
"Everyone we told our idea to had stereotypes in their minds as to who these kids were: thugs, punks, gangstas. They were convinced that it would never work. Not only have we broken through all of those stereotypes, but also more importantly, we are changing lives."
The thirty-two-year-old company, founded by the Old Hollywood heartthrob Paul Newman, donates 100 percent of all profits from the sale of its products to charities. More than 250 Newman's Own products are now sold around the world, and more than $415 million has been donated to thousands of charities.
"By supporting nonprofit organizations that provide fresh food access and nutrition education, we are focused on helping to improve the health and quality of life for children and families in underserved communities...We recently allocated $11 million for this purpose, not to change the world, but to change the lives of people who, in turn, will go on to contribute their part."
As the largest domestic nonprofit hunger-relief system, Feeding America's mission is to feed the nation's hungry though a network of food banks and engage the country in the fight to end hunger.
"We believe that food is just the first step to ending hunger. But it’s not the only one. By partnering with other organizations we hope to help the people we serve build a complete path out of poverty. Working together, we can solve hunger, and at the same time we can also change the world."
D.C. Central Kitchen recovers food from restaurants, supermarkets, wholesalers, and local farms that would have gone to waste. They turn that product into 5,000 meals a day sent to social service agencies serving D.C.'s most vulnerable populations while also providing meals to schools and fruit and vegetables to stores in food deserts. They also run a culinary job training program for men and women with histories of incarceration, addiction, homelessness, and chronic unemployment.
"We share what we do with thousands of visitors every year so that people around the world can implement similar programs in their communities. When people from all sectors, walks of life, and communities are collaborating and innovating, we can use food as a tool to combat hunger and create opportunity."
With the goal of eradicating childhood hunger, Bush Lauren launched Feed Projects in 2007, selling burlap and cotton tote bags emblazoned with the word "FEED," whose proceeds each provided meals to one child for one year. The company now sells dozens of products, sales from which have provided school-age children in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America with more than 84 million meals. This fall, they're launching an initiative called Feed Suppers, asking individuals to host dinner parties and encourage each of their guests to donate the cost of ten meals (a very manageable $1.10 each) rather than bring wine or dessert.
"We've seen the potential of uniting our followers and partners to move the needle on hunger in a collective way. The premise of Feed Supper is simple: by sharing food with people we love, we can help bring food to people in need."
Started by a mother whose child died of cancer, Cookies for Kids' Cancer is at its core an organizer of bake sales. Through sales held by volunteers across the country, it's raised $9 million for childhood cancer research.
"No doubt, there is a very strong connection between food and love."
I’m well aware that changing the world is about more than just making television, so I started to really think about how food can change lives. I do a lot of work with supermarkets, which have the power and the customer base to reach a huge number of people. At the moment I’m working with two forward-thinking supermarket chains—Woolworths in Australia and Sobeys in Canada—both of which are committed to helping their respective communities to eat better. I’m talking higher animal welfare standards, better farming, sourcing the very best local ingredients, and generally upping the ante across the board. They’ve made an absolutely fantastic commitment and a huge move in the right direction. My dream is for these early adopters to be joined by more international supermarket chains in the next few years, so that together we can make the world a happier, healthier, and more sustainable place.
We can't see it, but we can certainly taste it: the microbial world, the microscopic collection of bacteria and fungi that transform our planet and our food. Microbes are key to every step of the food system, from soil health to food safety. But one of their most treasured roles is fermentation. Beer, bread, wine, coffee, chocolate, cheese... all delicious, all fermented. Fermentation is ancient, and for tens of thousands of years, humans have been unknowingly, until recently, cultivating diverse communities of microbes in order to preserve food and transform simple ingredients into a vast universe of flavor and aroma.
I have an amazing job. In my lab at Harvard, we are diving into this wonderful world of fermentation microbes. We're beginning to understand how many different types of microbes there are in traditional fermented foods such as cheese. We're understanding how the traditional methods for making fermented foods that have been perfected over thousands of years are really just clever ways to grow certain types of delicious microbes. We work with some of the best producers of fermented products, who are both keeping traditions alive and innovating, manipulating microbes using new ingredients, science, and ideas. And in the lab, we work with some of the most advanced tools available to study living things.
The reason I'm so interested in food microbes is not because they are essential for the production of fermented foods, but because as they are growing in food, they work together, they fight, and they communicate. All things that happen in communities of microbes everywhere. The problem is that most microbial communities, for example those trillions of microbes in our gut, are incredibly complex and difficult to study. As microbiologists, we face a huge challenge. Over the past few decades, we have been able to see the microbial world in much greater clarity. We know that there are thousands of species in every gram of soil, and even more living in and on every one of us. But we still don't really know how these thousands of species interact with each other to produce functioning communities.
That's where food comes in. These delicious, ancient fermented foods are home to highly reproducible, simplified communities of microbes. In my lab, we are studying these communities in their natural setting, such as a cheese cave, and then bringing them into the lab to dissect them. Microbes can be picky eaters, which is part of what makes them hard to study. But, we know how to grow microbes from food, we know what they like to eat, what temperature they like, how salty they like it. This allows us to deconstruct and reconstruct entire communities, to learn how microbes respond to their neighbors, what it takes to build a community, and fight off invaders. The benefit of the science is partly increased knowledge of how communities work, but could also be useful in thinking about how we might manipulate microbial communities promote beneficial properties in our food, our environment and the human body. It's a completely thrilling time to be a microbiologist, and I can't imagine a more fascinating thing to study than the microbial communities of fermented foods.
Technology is transforming every industry; it has and will continue to revolutionize food. One major shift has been the emergence of new business models that enable food entrepreneurs to launch, market, and sell their products and services much faster and cheaper than ever before. It's paving the way for a new food economy that's decentralized, collaborative, and has the potential to be profitable for all.
Just look at the growing number of restaurants, food brands, and farms that use crowdfunding platforms to test and raise capital for their concepts. Since 2009, close to three thousand projects have raised $41.47 million through Kickstarter alone. Or look at the throngs of chefs and home cooks using platforms like Kitchensurfing, Feastly, and Dinner Lab to build their business, rather than launching a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Facing big challenges like feeding the world, managing resource scarcity, and strengthening communities, we need innovators to succeed at upending the status quo. We need to improve access to better food. We need a more financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable food system. But despite the proliferation of new technologies and business models, the barriers to success in the food industry remain so high that most entrepreneurs fail. On average, 60 percent of restaurants close within their first three years of operation, farmers are going out of business at a rate of 9 to 10 percent annually, and small food businesses only have a likely success rate of 11 percent.
To overcome these odds, we need to arm entrepreneurs and businesspeople with skills and strategies to make this happen. Online education companies like Coursera, Udacity, and Skillshare are revolutionizing the way people educate themselves about everything from computer science to design to finance. It's time we bring this revolution to food. My company, Food+Tech Connect, is on a mission to empower food entrepreneurs with a platform that makes food-business education affordable and accessible for all. Courses taught by industry experts, seasoned entrepreneurs, and investors will help entrepreneurs cultivate core skills-like business planning, marketing, and fund-raising-that will give their businesses a better chance at succeeding. And in the end, their successes will make the world a better place.
Over a decade ago, before I was in the food business, I figured out my life's goal was to open the Museum of Food and Drink. Back then, I had no way of making that happen. Now I have a dedicated team working to make the museum a reality. In less than two years, we will have our first brick-and-mortar gallery space, and we are already launching pop-up exhibits and hosting educational seminars and debates. Much bigger things are to come.
The idea for the museum hit me while I was visiting the American Museum of Natural History. I realized that the world should have a museum of the same scale devoted entirely to food. Why? To help us learn about people and cultures in a more meaningful and immediate way than looking at artifacts. When I want to get to know someone, I break bread with them. Food is culture. More than that, food is a fantastic lens through which to view history, social issues, economics, science, and technology. It is a lens we all share and that most of us are interested in. Food is the perfect medium to explore most of the big questions of our lives.
Why a museum? Food is still something that must be seen, smelled, touched, and tasted. At the museum, we will offer those experiences in a way no virtual learning portal, cookbook, or TV show could. At the museum, you will not encounter shellacked loaves of bread in a static diorama. When we tackle bread, you will see firsthand how grains have been milled over the centuries and how those technologies shaped the development of whole cultures around the world. Then you'll smell and taste the results while you learn the science behind the miracle of leavening. As a nonprofit institution free of corporate food ties, we will present these topics in a way no trade show, restaurant, or venue with a primary profit motive ever could.
We aim to tackle subjects that are appealing to everyone—not just food snobs—in a way that makes our visitors think more about what they eat and why they eat it. I'm not just talking about teaching sustainability, or about the health implications of the food we eat. I'm not talking about teaching people to be connoisseurs of the minute differences between arcane ingredients (although I happen to think that pursuit is interesting). Instead, we will show the history and production of the foods we eat in an unbiased and open way. For example, when we present breakfast cereal, you will learn how a food invented by religious health gurus became the giant business that today sells almost three billion boxes of supersugary product in the United States every year. All the while, large clattering machines will spew out ready-to-eat samples for you to try. Breakfast cereal is one of the great alchemical foodstuffs. It is hard to imagine how you can start with grains and end up with Cap'n Crunch. Visitors will learn something of the history of advertising and marketing, and how they affect our food choices. When we take on coffee you'll understand that the cup of joe you enjoy every morning is the result of a long and complicated chain that mostly still begins with an actual human being picking individual coffee cherries by hand. Those handpicked cherries then become part of a hugely important commodity traded on the open market. Whole nations have been plunged into devastation for the sake of coffee, while on the other end of the chain, the coffeehouse has been the cultural breeding ground of many big ideas and revolutions. When you know more about the foods you eat it will make your life richer, and, eventually, it will help you make better food decisions.
Why hasn't such a museum happened yet? There are some quality food—focused museums out there—the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, for example—but they tend to tackle specific subjects, and some are run by companies that manufacture the featured food. We will take on the proverbial whole enchilada. The subject is so vast, so important, that to do it justice you not only deserve a museum the size of the Natural History Museum, you require it. It is really difficult to start a museum of this scale all at once—it would take inordinate amounts of money. But a small museum that tries to cover all of food will never cover it well or say anything really important. So here is where my big idea comes in—a thought experiment: Start small. Create individual exhibitions as though they were exhibitions in a larger museum, even though the larger museum doesn't exist yet. Make every exhibition as thorough and impressive on its subject as the Temple of Dendur at the Met or the hall of rockets at the National Air and Space Museum. Start with one exhibit; then, a couple of years later, get a space big enough for three. And maybe forty or fifty years from now we'll be opening the full museum.
Agriculture is intrinsically wasteful. The photosynthetic efficiency of even the most efficient crops may be around 1 percent. And it takes an entire growing season. It takes acres and acres of land that you need to spray down with water. It takes fertilizers and pesticides and labor. And while we produce enough calories globally to feed the world, around half of it ends up being wasted because our food spoils. We can take measures in the short term by focusing on more efficient crops and focusing on plant protein over animal protein. But I think that in the future we will be able to take the necessary parts of food production—the biochemical pathways that produce the nutrients we need in plants and animals—and synthesize them directly with meal replacement powders like Soylent.
Meanwhile, in the developed world, everything is out of balance. We have obesity and diabetes and prediabetes. Food in the United States is really poor because it's largely designed for pleasure rather than utility. And all these things that you have to worry about—the number of calories you're consuming, your blood sugar, cholesterol—it's just too much work to keep track of on a daily basis. If we could deliberately design something to meet the nutritional requirements of a human in a balanced way, it would be much easier to keep track of what you're consuming because it would be measured out so precisely. You wouldn't have to worry about missing out on vitamins and minerals. You wouldn't have to worry about getting unhealthy extras like cholesterol. And you would be much healthier overall. Soylent makes healthy eating achievable.
Certainly I think we need to educate people about where things are coming from so that they can make rational choices, but I don't think that people should have to worry about the health or the cost of every meal. I think it's a lot to ask for people to understand all the complexities of nutrition and sourcing and manufacturing and cleaning on a day-to-day basis. There's a balance to be had. Being healthy should not be a job. It should not be a burden. I think it's a human right.
Soylent is one piece of a much larger trend in improving efficiency and transparency in the global food system. But we want to help in any way that we can.
Condensed from an interview with Amy McKeever
Believe it or not, one of the most powerful—and easiest—ways we can change the world is by cooking food more often.
When families cook at home, they often consume healthier meals than when they eat out or eat ready-made meals. Meals cooked and consumed at home on average have more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains; fewer calories; and less sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. One study shows that home cooking is actually a better predictor of how well families eat than their income. And when families share meals together, there are added benefits for kids, including improved academic performance, lower rates of drug use, and better relationships with their peers.
The main barriers to families cooking at home are lack of time and basic cooking skills, as well as the impression that cooking is more expensive. In order to combat these barriers, we are working to build opportunities for kids and families to learn basic cooking skills, so that they're confident in the kitchen and can prepare meals in less time. We're also working to shift negative attitudes around cooking and remind families of the benefits of home cooking and its ability to be affordable, accessible, and fun.
For many years, Colombia was deeply divided by internal strife. When I was a child, the regular car bombings and militant guerrilla aggression made it impossible to discover the richness of Colombia's regions. The diverse landscape extend from the Amazonian region to the beautiful Pacific region, with the Andes in between, where the famous Colombian coffee beans grow. In recent years, the security of the nation has improved dramatically, so that now one can safely drive long distances. I have been able to travel from Bogotá to other cities and the countryside to discover their undiscovered gastronomic jewels. With the help of government-sponsored agriculture programs, indigenous foods—like hearts of palm, Amazonian fruits, and local green peppers—have all become more accessible to me and the rest of the nation.
In 2010, my sister Iris and I created the Bogotá Wine and Food Festival as a way to promote these discoveries both locally and to the world. We began inviting renowned international chefs and press to mix with our own Colombian chefs. The festival has inspired an entire movement of chefs and restaurateurs proud to share their interpretation of traditional recipes and the use of Colombian ingredients. Now other regions and chefs have been motivated to create their own festivals and be proud to showcase our food.
Still, there are thousands of young people who grew up in the jungle during the years of war, and the only tool they know how to use is a gun. Alberto Escobar, the director of Escuela Taller de Bogotá, founded a technical school to teach new skills, including cooking, to the war-torn generation. One hundred percent of the proceeds from ticket sales at our festival go to the gastronomy school at Escuela Taller de Bogotá. In 2011, we were able to help build a restaurant to make the school self-sustaining and to allow a place for students to gain experience. The following year we continued the project, with a second school in Buenaventura, an area still plagued by high levels of violence due to resilient drug trafficking. To date, we have brought a restaurant and a bakery to the town. We are now planning the addition of a fish shop to teach local fishermen how to manage the cold-fish chain to avoid health concerns, which we hope will restore an industry to Buenaventura that has otherwise moved to central Bogotá.
The Bogotá Wine and Food Festival also works with the local restaurant community to open the doors of their kitchens to the graduates of the Escuela Taller so that they can practice their culinary skills and ultimately find jobs. We collaborate with international chefs to open apprenticeship opportunities for the school's graduates who agree to give back to the next generation by returning to the school as teachers.
This food festival is changing lives and improving the culinary expertise of a country, beginning with cultivating knowledge and an appreciation of our own treasures, while helping teenagers trade in guns for aprons and uniting Colombia through an exchange of regional flavors. By sharing our efforts with the international community, we hope to encourage more people in our country and in other parts of the world torn by war and conflict to be creative and unite people with common objectives.
Eating is anything but a private act. It is ethically and politically relevant. We bet our destiny on it. When we put something in our mouth, we are not just putting gasoline in a car to keep it running. We have the power to make political and social statements with those decisions.
As autonomous decision makers, we can make a difference by buying subversively with a conscience and eating logically. We are all responsible for transforming our habits and lifestyles. It might not be enough to change the whole world, but as German artist Joseph Beuys said, "Everything seems to be out of order: a new direction is needed. This is where it all starts... it starts with the salad we eat."
The Era of Restaurant Transparency started in 2000 with the publication of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. For those of us not in the dining industry, the book pulled back the curtain on a strange world that we all interacted with, but hardly understood. And from that point forward, for the newly in-the-loop diner, a few well-selected lines about a restaurant in a Zagat Survey review would no longer be enough.
Checking the lineup of annual Zagats on my bookshelf, I find that it was right at the turn of the millennium that their spines abruptly shift from well-worn to near museum-quality. It should be noted that Zagat didn't get worse during this span—Zagat's always been great, in its way. But the game was changing.
Chowhound had started up on the web in the late 1990s, and in the early part of the next decade, it was joined by even more obsessive message boards like eGullet. Then in 2004, began the first wave of personal food blogs—and Yelp launched. And lo, across the web, a thousand million amateur restaurant reviews bloomed. It was into this increasingly noisy conversation, in the summer of 2005, that Eater put up its first post.
“To this day, each city's tipline remains a crucial part of the Eater lifeblood”The early days were a blast. But what my co-founder Ben Leventhal and I found most amazing was the interactions we had with the nascent Eater community. The Eater tipline became the source of many of our best early stories, whether it was a tipster letting us know that Graydon Carter's remake of the Waverly Inn was opening that night, allowing us to snag some of the first (and only) photos of the interior; or that in its early days, Del Posto faced an unbelievable eviction. (It also became the source of much typo-correction and Eater-bashing—this was, unbelievably, the days before Eater had comments on posts.) To this day, each city's tipline remains a crucial part of the Eater lifeblood.
Some mourn the loss of the world in which restaurateurs and the PR people who love them had complete control over when and where news of a restaurant's opening got broken. (A shoutout to the PR person who emailed us in the early months of Eater claiming we didn't have his permission to post an exterior photograph of plywood at his client's restaurant, and so could we please remove it from the blog immediately?) But as the blogging ethos spread, so did the desire of the chefs and restaurateurs, too, to tell their own story.
“The flow of information now goes every which way, and back again”Some, like Momofuku's David Chang, launched an entire—Lucky Peach—media empire. Others tell their stories every day on social media. Some of my favorite Instagram accounts belong to chefs like Andrew Carmellini who offer candid looks behind the scenes at their restaurants. And Twitter has made it easier than one could have ever thought to directly interact with the chefs who make our food. The flow of information now goes every which way, and back again. I love this.
So where from here? The community that this Era of Restaurant Transparency it has engendered have made huge strides in bettering our enjoyment of and understanding of our food, but there's more work to be done. Food sourcing, for instance, remains disappointingly opaque in most circumstances, despite the top-flight work of journalists like Eric Schlosser, Paul Greenberg, and Michael Pollan. The meat industry is still very much an industry.
Progress on fronts like these is possible, even probable, given the tools for transparency we now all possess. That's reason for even greater optimism as this next decade of transparency unfolds.