Where Do We Go From Here? The Future of Food and Culinary Culture

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.” ― Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

If food is many things — cultural and biological, to name a few — then the reasons and methodology needed to produce that food, from germination to presentation, are just as varied. One thing can be said in certainty: Food is a shared experience. The production, preparation, and consumption of which assists, in its higher form, to enable family and friends (and sometimes enemies) to come together in a common cause. It connects us all.

Perspective Is Everything

Once, as a young executive chef, I lumbered into the general manager’s office in a foul mood, pushing past another person in her doorway. Filled with contempt and judgment for my fellow associates, managers, and even the guests, I ranted to her about the injustice, and failed premise of working so hard, having to endure so much for something as fleeting and inconsequential as a meal; mindlessly consumed quickly and forgotten almost as fast. Laura Brenkus looked at me with her head tilted slightly sideways, measuring her response against my conviction. Her lips curled at the ends, hinting at a smile.

When I was gassed out of words, consumed by my feigned passion, she waited a moment.

“Adam,” she started. “Do you not see the ‘God’ in what you do?”

This struck me sideways. I had a lot of names to describe what I did, but few of them could be spoken in church, let alone use the Lord’s name in vain. I waited for her to explain.

“There is sanctity in what you do. Do you not see that?” She was on a roll now.

“In this day and age, we are separated from family and friends, sometimes by hundreds of miles. There are few, if any, communities of extended family that any of us can rely on. We can spend hours and days disconnected from other human beings. We go to the bank, use an ATM, we go to the gas station and pay at the pump — hell, we even shop from home.”

Although I understood what she was saying, I couldn’t see where she was headed with this line of logic.

“What you do,” she said pointing at me, “Is bring people together. Around a table. To be in communion with one another.” The sentences came abrupt and pointed for maximum effect, so I would not miss her point.

“You’re the reason why people can be with their loved ones. You do that; you and your team offer an opportunity for people to be together with few distractions so that they can be together.” Looking directly into my eyes Laura finished. “Get it?”

Feeling humbled and bit ashamed of myself for my selfishness, I looked down at my crusty clogs, nodding. “Got it,” I told her, looking right back at her, “Heard.” As I turned around to head back through the door, I heard her call out, “And Adam, don’t forget to have some fun doing it.”

I never looked at what I did — and why I did it — in the same way ever again.

Our culture and its reason for being correctly recognized and thus elevated, it would be incumbent upon us as responsible parties, not only in the food distribution supply chain but also as agents for societal cohesiveness, to take a moment and consider where the future of food and our shared cultural history is headed so that we might be better prepared to meet the challenges ahead and keep people connected.

What’s the Future of Food?

I guess that would depend on who you ask. Everyone seems to have an opinion; some can be quite confusing and are often contradictory. With so many businesses and advocates positioning for either informational authority or an angle to our checkbooks, whom you do believe?

Human beings — your vendors, customers, and associates — are all motivated primarily and most vigorously by self-interest, and why shouldn’t they be? That being said, it doesn’t make purchasing any easier. Here are some of the trends and prognostications that have made the news lately. As with anything, if you want to gauge the veracity of any claim, follow the money. Who paid for the studies? Who stands to profit?

Bugs

Yup, you heard that right. Eating insects as a culinary staple is prevalent in some cultures, and there are some U.S. companies that hope to see similar successes in introducing them into the American diet. Their case is made by the nutritional analysis of the more than 140,000 species that are edible. It’s hard to deny the logic that if we ate more insects that it would have a positive effect on the environment, although it may be a hard sell for the U.S. market without some creative chefs to show us the way.

Lab-Grown Meat

To date, there have been “successful” attempts to create both beef and chicken cultures in a sterilized setting. The commercial ranching of animals has come under fire lately, with some advocates pointing to our proclivity for protein as the cause of deforestation of the Amazon jungle, as well as dead spots in our waterways because of wastewater and runoff from feedlots and pig farms. The recent scandal of Brazilian beef producers makes an excellent case for coming up with an alternative to traditional meat production. Although, with the negative stereotyping of genetic manipulation, lab-cultured beef and chicken may take a while — or a major catastrophe — to catch on with “Main Street” consumers.

Food Tech

Don’t’ be fooled by the label. This is simply GMO 2.0. In a breakthrough in genome research, a new technology had been developed for genome editing called CRISPR. This technique holds a crazy amount of potential for biological engineering, regardless of current debates on the morality of the technique.

What is almost certain is that this technology will be first used for food before it’s directly allowed on humans. There are those who would argue for and against GMOs as a way forward to deal with rising populations and the loss of arable land with which to grow the amount of food necessary to feed 11 billion people. There will always be those that will pitch “food tech” to us as consumers and supply chain components.

Hyper-Local Sourcing

The trend of restaurants and resorts growing their own food, whether in a vertical balcony, rooftop, or on an adjacent farms, will increase. The movement has already given consumers and homeowner’s ideas of their own, switching from finely manicured lawns to installing "patriot" gardens. (Although, some municipalities are trying to push back with zoning restrictions.)

Increasingly, there are even organizations like Farm Your Yard, which pair urban farmers with homeowners to reap the harvest equally, creating an economy where once there were only lawn clippings. It makes sense. With supply chain interruptions happening frequently, why wouldn’t an enterprising chef harness his local assets to ensure a steady supply of fresh, local, sustainable, and seasonable products, while engendering more community in an increasingly fractured and separated society? Chris Newman’s engaging article on Medium.com shares a vision of what the seasonal outlook might be for such an organization. What’s old is new again.

Biodynamic Farming

This is a permaculture philosophy and farming technique which uses animals, grasslands, and forest in a symbiotic relationship that is responsible and promotes the health of the organism as a whole. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is its primary advocate. He has been joined by the chorus of other passionate voices such as Chris Newman, another Virginia farmer who has coined the phrase “food forests” because of the biodynamic approach that utilizes every aspect of the woods to enhance the whole operation, whether for swine or fungus.

There are certainly other aspects of food production that are inspiring and could represent significant inroads to the challenges that face us as professionals, parents, and citizens. Aquaculture, or the farming of both fish and plants in a sympathetic system, is promising.

Hydroponic techniques have advanced rapidly over the years, now requiring less and less water to grow plants without soil. Even Algaeculture is getting more press as food uses for algae increase in variety and availability. While these and other breakthroughs hold the potential to feed more and more people, who gets to sell the idea to the masses?

Who Gets to Determine the Future of Food?

Bioengineers? Scientists? Advocates? Vendors? While they might be the ones to bring us these new kinds of foods, it will be us — the culinary professionals — who ultimately determine what foods we will serve, introducing them into the culture of consumption first before many of it gets into the aisles of your local Stop ‘n’ Shop.

The National Restaurant Association’s final tally of sales in 2015 topped $709 billion. Given an adjusted average food cost of 33 percent, our combined food purchasing power was $233 billion. One of the largest food distribution networks in the country rang up $23 billion in sales for that same year. To put it bluntly, we have 10 times the purchasing power together than one the largest mainline purveyors in the country.

We are all so very busy. Often we look to purveyors and vendors to assist us in finding solutions to the ever-present issues of rising food and labor costs, so they go out and find them for us. How many of us are actually asking the questions that matter to us personally and professionally when these products hit our door?

Each one of us gets to determine what is most important to us, our customers, and our staff. Profit, community, environmental awareness, sustainability, artistic expression, pride, heritage, history, respect, admiration, or notoriety are all strong motivations for purchasing and preparation decisions. Each one of you gets to run your operation to the best of your ability given what the mission might be and how you want to achieve it. But make no mistake. Just outside our doors, there are issues that we all must face and succeed at, both personally professionally.

When those challenges reach your prep table and your menu, just remember you are not alone. The collective good of our culinary culture and the longevity of our craft demand that we take part in charting the future of food in the country.

Who gets to decide the future of food?

We do. It’s going to take all of us. Together.

Get out of your kitchen. Get connected, get informed. Then tell the vendors who serve you, who depend on you for their livelihood, what you think is important enough to stand for and buy.