The Musk Who Wants to Change The Way We Eat
Walking in Memphis with Kimbal Musk, technologist turned foodie visionary
Kimbal Musk was being careful on the day he almost died. It was February 14, 2010. He had arrived in Jackson Hole straight from the TED conference in Long Beach to spend time with his family on a ski weekend. TED had inspired him: the prize winner that year was chef Jamie Oliver, who spoke about Musk’s own great passion, empowering people by introducing them to healthier food.
Musk was in a quandary. A few years earlier, he had opened a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, called The Kitchen, devoted to that principle. But he couldn’t figure out how to make a bigger impact, and he worried that it would never be more than just a cool place to eat in The People’s Republic of Boulder. Distracted and frustrated, he’d returned to his previous world of tech companies. He’d agreed to become the CEO of one. But that wasn’t working out, either. Though he’d left Long Beach buzzing with energy about changing people’s food habits, he didn’t know how to channel it. He felt stuck.
The hill had crazy great snow on Saturday, and Musk had a splendid day of snowboarding. But he thought that taking it to the edge another day was risking injury: it was a family weekend with his two kids, and he wanted to take it easy. So on Sunday, he did an inner tube run with his four-year old. Easy, right? But at the bottom of the run, Musk’s tube suddenly did a 180, and his head was on the downhill side. The tube flipped as it hit the breaking mats, hurling Musk head-first into the air at 35 miles an hour. His neck broke with a loud sickly crunch.
At the hospital, doctors gave him bad news: It was possible he may be paralyzed for life. Even as he went through a battery of tests, he was losing all feeling on his left side. He was paralyzed for three days. He had to decide immediately on risky surgery.
He has always been close to his sister Tosca and brother Elon (yes, that Elon). They rushed to Jackson Hole. “It was a rough, rough time,” says Tosca.
The surgery worked out, and now Musk has a metal spine in his neck. After a week, the doctors released him. But he had to stay horizontal for two months. That’s a lot of time to think. Even before he got home, he had reached some epochal decisions.
Musk had never quit anything in his life. But while in the hospital, he pulled down two pillars of his life. He resigned from his Internet company. He decided to get a divorce. And he vowed to cultivate the germ of inspiration he had had at TED.
“It was the most terrifying time of my life, and yet it was the most clarifying time of my life,” he says. “The idea of working on the food culture just became this mantra in the hospital. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this. I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I’m going to do this.”
And that’s how, five years later, Kimbal Musk found himself in Memphis, Tennessee, on a quest to reform the eating habits of America’s fattest city.
It is a wet, cold January day in Memphis, and Musk is traipsing through mud in what locals boast is the largest urban park in America. His entourage includes his chef and co-founder Hugo Matheson, a few of his employees, and various pillars of the Memphis philanthropy community. A trim six-foot-four, Musk moves with a jittery energy, peppering the locals with questions as they shuttle the party to various sites in the park, known as Shelby Farms. One of the Memphians even has a Tesla, and she gamely (though unconvincingly) dismisses concerns about all the mud being tracked in its Montalbán-esque interior.
The park is undergoing massive reconstruction, partway through an ambitious plan that will reconfigure its lakes and glades and direct the construction of a visitor’s center and a large facility for events and dining. Musk is deciding whether to take on the job of feeding the expected visitors with the healthy food he believes will be transformative.
Musk has been busy since the accident. He’s returned to his restaurant, and he’s opened a newer, low-cost version, sacrificing nothing in healthiness. He’s opened similar restaurants in Denver and Chicago. He also launched a non-profit program of classroom-size Learning Gardens in those cities and in Los Angeles, on the premise that a curriculum around the elements of food production would promulgate learning and nutrition. Though his restaurant group is definitely a for-profit business — and it is profitable — it’s become more like a mission for him, a hub for a campaign to promote healthy eating and sustainable food production.
And now, in early 2015, he is in Memphis, on a visit that will ultimately lead to an innovative arrangement where various private foundations will grant The Kitchen a “community bond” — a low interest loan in exchange for a vow to establish a business that will deliver various social benefits, such as healthy meals, jobs and support for local farmers. Another consequence may be the transformation of a chemical farm to an organic one. Musk hopes the Memphis deal will lead to similar arrangements in many other cities, at a clip of three or four a year.
A chance meeting brought Musk to Memphis. In the summer of 2014 he attended a Denver charity event where he was seated at a table with Mason Hawkins, a wealthy Memphis financier with a philanthropic bent towards his hometown. When Musk rhapsodized about his Learning Gardens, Hawkins, a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, asked what it would take to bring them to Memphis. Musk was direct: it would take $4 million to build 100 of those units.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is a poochy sounding fellow,’” Hawkins recalls. But after later vetting his dinner companion, Hawkins realized that Musk was for real. Hawkins’s foundation, Pyramid Peak, ponied up the money, and construction of the gardens is now underway. Hawkins also touted his new friend to other wealthy locals, and soon they had lured him to their city to consider opening restaurants there — and move the local gastronomic needle away from pork rinds and more towards organic Berkshire Pork.
The opportunity for change was potentially huge. Memphis, known widely as the home of Graceland, Sun Records and the Civil Rights Museum, serves up some of the most artery-clogging food in America. Nutritionists know it as the nation’s obesity capital, a toxic combination of cholesterol and poverty. (Musk’s hometown of Boulder, by the way, is rated the thinnest.) The numbers are staggering even beyond the 32 percent obesity rate. Twelve percent of the population has diabetes. Thirty-six percent of the residents in Memphis’s Shelby County have high blood pressure, and only 23 percent of those living in Shelby eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day (the national rate is 77 percent).
“The challenges in Memphis are big,” says Barbara Hyde, who with her husband Pitt — the founder of AutoZone — heads the family foundation that’s working to revitalize Shelby Farms. “There’s a massive need and urgency to this. You pair that gaping need with Kimbal’s big, huge vision to transform the food culture of a middle American city, and it’s huge! It can be a model for other cities.”
Another prominent Memphian puts it more bluntly: “If you can change the eating habits of Memphis,” he says, “you can do it anywhere.”
Running the food operation of a big park hadn’t been part of Musk’s vision — he’d been thinking of putting a restaurant in the historic downtown area and another in an area where young people congregate. But something about it stuck in his imagination. Shelby Farms has a long history — before the Civil War, an early abolitionist used it as a compound to train emancipated slaves, and for much of the 20th century it was an agricultural penal farm. But now it is being re-imagined as a Tennessee version of Central Park, where private funds might help shape a world-class urban retreat, one that would draw people from all ethnicities and socioeconomic levels.
As Musk toured the muddy grounds, the trees bared by winter, you could almost see his face light up as imagination took hold. He walked the construction sites where the visitor’s center and the event facility would be built, and toured an adjoining farm where students got lessons in agriculture. As he did so he began to picture a more verdant scenario of happy people, rich and poor, feasting on salads and sandwiches untouched by pesticides or GMOs. The Kitchen could run a sit-down restaurant by the lake, but also service a healthy fast-food outpost in the Visitor’s Center, cater events and deliver high-quality grub for picnickers. When the time the tour was over and the group reconvened in a large construction trailer, Musk dashed to a whiteboard to sketch out plans for food trucks that would deliver sandwiches to families out for a day of outdoor fun. Some of the food could even come from the nearby farm!
But as his visit continues into the next few days, Musk has to balance that option with several others, including not participating in Memphis at all. To get a sense of the challenge in this city, Musk and his team eat in about 40 restaurants, marveling at how in Memphis, even healthy dishes — like spinach — are commonly adulterated with grease or additives. Meanwhile, real estate agents escort Musk to an abundance of potential restaurant sites, including an abandoned bank (the vault would make a good meat locker) and a dingy space under some railroad tracks.
Musk also partakes of Memphis culture. He watches a Grizzlies game from Pitt Hyde’s box. He visits Graceland and the Lorraine Motel (where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot). And one night he dances until 2 am at an insanely loud nightclub called Raiford’s, ignoring a warning from his Uber driver that Raiford’s is not “for elders” like Musk, who is all of 42.
Instead of being insulted, Musk takes the remark as an invitation to chat with the driver. “Where are you from?” Musk asks him. The driver says he’s from Africa.
“So am I,” says Musk.
Kimbal Musk grew up in South Africa, in a family of five. He and his brother and sister formed a tight, supportive unit, especially after their parents split. Kimbal was the family conciliator, outgoing and empathetic. “We called him the perfect child,” says his mother, Maye Musk. “Kind and considerate and generous — exactly as he comes across today.”
From an early age, he saw food as a means of unification. “When we went to the supermarket, he would smell the peppers — my friends joked that he must be gay,” says Maye, who still takes on assignments as a fashion model. (She’s the elegant lady in the Virgin America ads. ) Younger sister Tosca (now a filmmaker) remembers an excursion to the Plettenberg Bay resort, where the family took a cottage. “Kimbal had in mind to get a whole fresh fish just caught, and he was going to make dinner,” she says. “He and my cousin Russell selected the fish, and he cooked an incredible recipe with tomatoes and all sorts of ingredients, made it right there on the braai. It was one of the best meals of my life.”
Indeed, when Maye moved to Toronto and, one by one, her teenaged children joined her, Kimbal took charge of meals. “I don’t have a love for cooking,” says Maye, who actually worked as a professional dietician to support her family. “When I was married I had to cook everything from scratch. And when I got divorced I was working all the time.”
Kimbal went to college in Kingston, Ontario. His brother was already in Silicon Valley, an engineer for tech companies. Kimbal’s dream then was to be a Wall Street investment banker. But when he got a summer job at a financial firm in Toronto, he hated it: too corporate, too structured. He changed his coursework to focus on subjects that would help him start his own business. He also signed up for a program that let college students run franchises for a house painting company. He did spectacularly well — his sociability makes him a natural salesperson — but after he built the business to a $300,000 annual run rate he got bored. What’s all this for? he wondered, realizing that making money without a mission would not satisfy him. He gave his contracts away.
This happened just in time for him to join his brother on a cross-country drive. Elon had been working at a Silicon Valley game company and was going to drive back to Philadelphia to complete his studies at Penn. As the brothers spent a month making their way east, they talked incessantly of starting a business. In 1995 they did just that, a company called Zip2 that sold online door-to-door maps to media outlets, a business that anticipated Google Maps. They didn’t have much of a bankroll: in the beginning they slept in the office and took showers at the YMCA. But they made a complementary pair. “Elon is definitely the engineer,” says Kimbal. “I was more sales and marketing, helping to raise money. I have a very technical mind but I don’t love that side of it. I loved the idea of building a company.” Their customers included the New York Times and Knight-Ridder.
In 1999, the Musk brothers sold the company to Compaq for around $300 million. Elon then co-founded PayPal (Kimbal was an early investor). Meanwhile Kimbal headed to New York City where his wife-to-be was in an NYU arts program. For a few months Kimbal started a social networking company called Funky Talk, but the dotcom bust wiped it out. By that time, he was tired of the tech world.
His fiancee suggested that since he had always loved cooking, and wasn’t doing anything anyway, why not get trained as a chef? They lived only a few blocks from the French Culinary Institute. For the next year he spent six hours a day being verbally abused by master chefs. “It was a class of eighteen, and only six would graduate because the other twelve would quit because they couldn’t handle the screaming. But I really wanted to do it.”
“I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted that,” says Elon of his brother’s move. “But he had always been good at cooking and liked food, despite being thin as an ironing board.” (Elon Musk highly values his younger brother’s business acumen, however. Kimbal is not only on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX, but is also the trustee who would dictate the fate of both companies if Elon became incapacitated or lost in space.)
Musk graduated in mid-2001. And then the towers came down. He lived only a few blocks away, and as a result he had a security pass for the area, enabling him to answer a call for trained volunteers to cook for the firefighters. For six weeks he would go to the Bouley Bakery every morning and prepare a healthy meal — stuff like sautéed salmon with dill sauce — and drive to Ground Zero to deliver food to the responders. “I saw the power of what food does for community,” he says. “Even in the middle of a nightmare, you’ve still got to eat.”
At the end of the experience, he told his wife (they had indeed gotten married) that they had to open a restaurant. After a long cross-country exploration, they settled on Boulder. A week after arriving, Musk’s dog slipped off the leash and nuzzled a man enjoying coffee at a local shop. This was Hugo Matheson, himself a recent arrival from England, who was about to take a job as executive chef in a local restaurant. Matheson invited Musk and his wife to a dinner, one that Musk would never forget. The fare was simple and honest: grilled fish with eggplant, the skin charred to a crisp but the inside moist and buttery. The meal was topped off by a straightforward panna cotta.
“It was completely different than what I learned in New York, where you’d spend six hours preparing and cooking something,” says Musk. “Hugo probably started thirty minutes before we ate. It was a more casual, simple way of cooking, with incredible-quality ingredients and a very simple but intense technique for cooking.” Musk begged Matheson for a job in his restaurant, and for the next year he worked there as a line cook — ten dollars an hour — absorbing that attitude and technique.
In March 2004, Matheson and the Musks opened their own restaurant in that style. The name reflected its lack of pretention: The Kitchen. Starting without a liquor license (though it had a prime location on the town’s central Pearl Street mall) the owners hoped for forty covers a night. “Everything we cooked you can cook at home, relatively easy,” says Matheson. “Nothing long, drawn out or complicated about it.” After a few slow weeks, diners showed up, and by June, The Kitchen was serving almost three thousand people a week. The secret was the honesty of its food, made simply, using ingredients from mainly high-quality local farmers and vendors. The signature dish was a deeply satisfying tomato soup, made only with tomatoes, butter and onions. When The Kitchen published the recipe, its customers were stunned. “They would go, ‘No, no, it can’t be that,” says Musk.
As The Kitchen grew, the operation began to need Musk less. Matheson oversaw the food, and other staff kept things going day-to-day. Musk couldn’t figure out what to do next. Unlike a software company, restaurants did not scale. “We just didn’t have any plans of building anything more beyond that restaurant and I just don’t think that was a big enough adventure for him in life,” says Matheson. In late 2005 a friend asked him to look into a social networking startup called Medium (no, not this one). The potential investors told him they’d fund it only if Musk would agree to be CEO. He accepted.
Musk really didn’t like the pressures of running a tech company, but he enjoyed some of the challenges as Medium pivoted a few times, trying variations on a social mapping theme. But by the end of 2009, he was hanging on only because he felt responsible to the investors. And then came Valentine’s Day 2010, when Musk’s flirtation with permanent physical paralysis moved him to end his personal paralysis.
By the time he recovered — he has since returned to activities such as skiing, but will always feel a periodic tingling on his left side — he rejoined The Kitchen, this time with a clearer mission: to build community through food.
The first step was to pair The Kitchen with an approach that could reach more people. “So we came up with The Kitchen Next Door, more of a pub style, but at much less the cost of one of those expensive gastro pubs. About a third the cost of The Kitchen.” As with the pricier original, the ingredients would be top quality and, as much as possible, bought directly from local suppliers, seeking out farmers, fishmongers and meat packers who maintained organic and GMO-free standards. (Musk won’t rule out GMOs permanently, but he feels that currently they are used in a way that encourages the use of pesticides and other chemicals.)
At the time, one of Musk’s employees had been helping to establish school gardens as a way to teach kids about where their food comes from. Musk decided to expand the small program dramatically. He had his ex-wife (the split had been amicable) design a modular classroom garden that fits into a school yard and started a non-profit operation to manufacture and support hundreds of these. Learning Gardens was introduced to its first classroom in Denver in September 2011, and with the governor’s support, over 50 more followed. In 2012 Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel got his city to donate a million towards the $4 million cost of running 100 gardens in the Windy City. The cost of a Learning Garden varies — the modular construction allows for different sizes — but the organization generally raises money at about $35,000 per unit. “It’s about one-third the price of a playground of about a similar size,” says Musk, who says that the price will drop even more if many thousands of Learning Gardens bloom.
Musk also wanted to clone his restaurants. “I told Hugo I don’t want to go back to technology — I want to do food and I want it to scale.” So they began to open pairs of The Kitchen and the low-cost Kitchen Next Door in other cities, first in Denver and then Chicago.
But Musk really dreamed of opening in many cities, turning The Kitchen into part of a national operation that could make a real impact. In 2013 he joined the Chipotle board of directors, and was able to see what influence a big operation could have in raising consciousness around how people think about food. (Fun fact: Chipotle’s board members do not have a card that entitles them to free burritos in any outpost.)
“This feels like what 1995 was like for the Internet, which I saw exploding in potential back then,” he says. “I think that 2015 is going to be that year for food. I don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s going to be great.”
But can it happen in Memphis, Tennessee?
On a coal-grey afternoon mid-way through his visit, Musk discovers Crosstown. This is the moniker bestowed upon a giant abandoned Sears distribution center, about a million square feet of post-apocalyptic ruin. Now it is the subject of seemingly Quixotic hopes. Poised at the edge of a somewhat, um, poochy neighborhood, the hulking building was bought in 2006 by a foundation created by Staley Cates (Memphis financier Mason Hawkins’s partner). The foundation unsuccessfully attempted to transform it into an annex of a local college. More recently, Cates has teamed with a charismatic local art history professor, Todd Richardson, to try to transform the building into what Richardson calls “a vertical urban village,” with a dizzying array of entities including an arts center, a health care hub, a retail complex, apartments, schools, and, of course, restaurants and cafes. “It’s a microcosm to inform the macrocosm of Memphis,” says Richardson.
“No real estate developer who is sane would attempt this,” admits Cates. “But it’s good for a philanthropic organization.”
The Kitchen would be a most welcome tenant.
Musk took to it instantly, seeing past the battered façade and envisioning how he could serve healthy food to the low- and middle-income people who might live in and visit Crosstown — as well as millennials and students who might be drawn by The Kitchens’ hip cred.
And so his plan began to take shape. Musk would indeed sign on as the lead provider of food for Shelby Farms, with a sit-down destination restaurant, a café in the visitors center, and a catering presence. He might even take over its farm — on the condition that he could transform it from its current chemical-fertilizer-and-pesticide approach to an organic operation. And he would open an outpost of The Kitchen at Crosstown. In the next few years, as opportunities arose, he would open more restaurants, either The Kitchen or the lower cost Kitchen Next Door, in emerging areas of the city.
All of this growth will be funded by community bonds. This investment approach — some call it social impact investing — has itself become a passion of Musk’s, who disdains traditional capital funding for mission-oriented, for-profit businesses like The Kitchen. His frustration is that there are so few examples of the social investing he seeks. It’s necessary, because a business like his takes huge risks when prioritizing change above profits. “It’s highly questionable as an economic decision,” he says of the Memphis move. “If we didn’t have the social aspect, we would go to Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles and places like that.”
As of late April, Musk was finishing off the contracts for the community bond arrangement. Musk, believing that transparency is critical in social investing, shares some details: For a ten million dollar low-interest loan (with $4 million approved initially, and the rest coming as the project develops), he will open as many as five community restaurants — including the Shelby Farms operation — and possibly even take over the farm on the property. In exchange, he vows to deliver a specified list of social benefits to Memphis (when the entire operation gets rolling): an annual boost to the local farming economy of over a million dollar; an additional $1–2 million to the “real food economy (fishmongers, bakers, etc.); 600,000 guests per year served with “food that is better for you”; $140,000 of the yearly proceeds donated to the Learning Gardens (which had already received its initial stake, largely from Mason Hawkins’ Pyramid Peak foundation); and “up to 270 quality, mission-driven jobs.”
“The impact will be enormous,” says Cates. “If this thing rings a bell with our loan help, it is going to pick up everybody’s game in Memphis’s restaurant world — not just for places that serve good food but the healthy part, too.”
Even before inking the Memphis deal, Musk began exploring similar ventures in other heartland cities, with four specific ones on his radar. (He won’t publicly divulge which ones.) “Memphis will be the poster child for every city,” he says. “We’ll need enormous partners.” And though he can’t say who yet, he confirms that he’s hopping around the country, meeting with them already.
It’s a tall order for Musk and The Kitchen to really change the food culture of America, or even wean Memphis from the fare that Elvis gorged on in the Jungle Room. But Kimbal Musk is giving it a go, carrying on a culinary crusade that began a half-decade ago, with a flipped inner tube in Jackson Hole.