Questlove’s new book somethingtofoodabout is a series of wide-ranging conversations with ten innovative chefs and food people. We pulled together some of their thoughts on the future of food.
I’m fascinated by chefs, people who have decided to devote their lives to food—to making it, but also to thinking about what it means to the broader culture. How does it make us who we are? How much is it a product of, or a producer of other parts of our culture? Or is it both, which means that it’s almost unimaginably complex? That fascination led directly to this book: a series of conversations with some of America’s most innovative chefs. I wanted to talk to them about their training, their ideas, their relationship to creativity and to change, and their hopes (and fears) for the future. I spoke to chefs about every aspect of their business. What is a restaurant? How can a chef ensure that a visit to their restaurant is something special? What is their philosophy of food? How do they make that philosophy work? What have they learned over the years? What have they unlearned? Where do new ideas come from? How do old ideas change? –Questlove
What do you think food preparation and service will look like in ten years? In fifty?
Dominique Crenn: We live in a world where environmental problems like global warming are very scary things. People need to be conscious and aware. We need to rethink the way we’re doing things. The meat industry is overproducing, and there are consequences. Look at what they’re doing in South America, all the deforestation. If you take those trees down, you’re killing the planet. If we kill the planet, how are we going to feed people? Technological advances don’t help us connect more fundamentally with nature. The population in the world is growing faster than ever, and there’s not very much awareness of the problems that will bring. I can get angry about the way people don’t think.
Eleven Madison will change, as you say. But the overall food world will change, too. What do you think will be the biggest difference between the food world now and the food world in a decade?
Daniel Humm: I think there will be a widening of the gap. At the high end, restaurants are going to become more expensive. People who eat at places like that are going to have to be willing to pay more for meat and for seafood. And the lower end will expand, too, because it’s cheap. At the same time, I think vegetables will come to play a bigger role. There just aren’t enough resources to keep going at this rate that we’re going. Whatever the changes, I really hope that food can become much healthier without becoming more expensive. There are chains like Chipotle who do a good job at turning this conversation. And they are big enough to affect how things are grown and raised.
Q: You’ve been doing this for a decade or so. What do you think will be the biggest change in the coming decade in how food is grown, prepared, and served?
Michael Solomonov: I think people are getting really good about produce in strange places. Agricultural things like urban farming in urban environments, like old factories and hydroponics. I think we’re going to have lots of ecological limitations. I think we have a huge issue: fish that are getting farmed out. Meat is reliant on things like wheat and corn. Land is disappearing.
And the population is only increasing. That’s a problem. The only way for us to continue is to get creative. I think there’s a larger divide between the upper and lower classes and the middle class, and that’s going to really create options.
Q: When you’re planning your next Next menu, can you actually tell what’s next in the food world? That’s the most confusing question I’ve ever asked, I think, so let me rephrase it. You’re trying both to reflect trends and also trying to ride those trends out until they’re over. Does working at Next help you forecast trends in dining?
Dave Beran: We’ve seen so many come and go, both for us and for all the other restaurants in our community. There was a trend a few years ago where we saw the whole chalkboard restaurant scenario. Then there was a period where fine dining is overly casual, where the staff wears aprons and sneakers—but bespoke, hipster aprons and sneakers. I think in a few years there’s going to be a resurgence of major overthe-top opulent dining, the kind of thing where you have hundred-thousand-dollar chandeliers. I don’t know how long it’ll last, though. People love those kinds of extreme styles because they’re different from what came before. The exciting thing about Next is that before you have a chance to kill an idea, the idea kills itself.
Q: How about the future of ingredients? Will there be fewer and fewer good ingredients? Many chefs have said that fish, for instance, are in shorter and shorter supply.
Donald Link: We’re lucky here, because we’re on the water and have lots of connections. The Gulf is a pretty well-maintained fishery. But worldwide, I do think that farm fish will come into play. With other meats, like pork, there has been lots of movement. When we started making bacon, it sucked, so we got a relationship with one pig farm, and we sustain them. Our business alone accounts for about $7,000 a week. And there are lots of local farms that profit from those kinds of arrangements. We have a girl on staff who does nothing but work with farmers. She’ll go and say this is how much we’ll buy, this is our usage, this is how it’s spaced out. The result might be fifteen cases of arugula every week, or ten pounds of squash, and we can start directing them as to what to plant and when. But the truth is that this is only a sliver of the larger picture. We’re not going back to Wendell Berry’s utopia of small farms. The best that can happen is that this kind of behavior from restaurants will pressure the bigger producers to behave more responsibly and make better food. You’re not going to feed millions and millions of people with small community farms. I would like to tell everyone to buy chicken from local farmers, but that’s not economically realistic. You’re only going to make a big-picture difference when the major agricultural industry starts to shift, when labeling is more honest, when politicians get past rhetoric.
Q: Do they ever? Plus, there’s the matter that bespoke eating isn’t for everyone. Think of audio equipment. I might know that a certain audio system sounds good, but the truth of the matter is that most people are going to be listening to music on their computer speakers, or through earbuds.
DL: You can’t be a stickler and say that there are only two choices—either locally produced organics or starvation. And while you can tell kids to eat healthy all day long, imagine a single mother in the middle of the country with no access to ingredients. Most urban farmers’ markets are for yuppies, for hobby cooks. There are exceptions.
When I was in San Francisco, I would go to the market, and it was large and cheap—there were lots of Asian foods that were being used by real people. You could cook for twenty people for five bucks or less. Some Latino communities are the same way. There’s a way to stretch food and eat better, and it’s not necessarily this utopian yuppie idea of local and organic.
Reprinted from somethingtofoodabout: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs. Copyright © 2016 by Ahmir Khalib Thompson and Ben Greenman. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Kyoko Hamada. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.