Good Food, Trickling Down

Dishes that promote more sustainable food systems: (clockwise from upper left) Bone marrow & parsley salad, St. John; beet infused asian carp, Miya’s; carrot tartare, Eleven Madison Park; rotation risotto, Blue Hill.

In the recent history of fine dining, there have been a handful of notable dishes that transcend the table and make a statement about how our food system should operate. To name a few:

  • Nose-to-Tail, Circa 1994: Chef Fergus Henderson, of St. John in London, opens his restaurant and becomes a vocal proponent of nose-to-tail eating. He turns bone marrow into a luxury dish and delights farmers and butchers everywhere by getting the public to celebrate more parts of the animal, reducing food waste and bringing additional income to those who make meat.
  • Invasavorism, c.2010: Chef Bun Lai, of Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, starts serving invasive species — like Lionfish, Asian Carp, and Knotweed — on his menu as a way to use aquatic bycatch and to strengthen the local food system.
  • Plant “Proteins”, c.2012: Chef Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, mesmerizes diners with a beef-tartare-inspired dish entirely made from carrots. The dish is served tableside with your server grinding whole carrots through a meat grinder.
  • Rotational Dining, c.2013: Chef Dan Barber, of Blue Hill in New York, creates his seminal, “Rotation Risotto” dish. A mix of “soil-supporting grains and legumes, cooked and presented in the manner of a classic risotto,” it’s a delicious plate that reinforces rotational agriculture that’s better for the soil.

All of these chefs have used their platforms as restaurateurs and influencers to promote mindful deliciousness. For those lucky enough to have been to these restaurants, the ability to dine on something so pleasurable while supporting sustainability to a degree feels like you’re getting away with something.

But we (eaters, cooks, farmers, food makers, food media, etc.) can’t let the kind of food you see at those restaurants start and end there. For every cupcake, avocado toast, or cronut that catches on like wildfire, we need more dishes that feature offal, bycatch, plant based foods, and rotation crops to also dominate menus everywhere.

The above examples are dishes that only a tiny fraction of the world can experience and in their current form, may never scale beyond the small group it was designed for. It’s great that these chefs have a media platform to talk about the ideas underlying these dishes, but the food system by-and-large doesn’t feed people like this. Outside of the major metro areas, there are many who have never heard of these guys.

So how might we democratize the most high-minded food ideals practiced in Michelin starred kitchens so that everyone can have them? I’m not talking about lobes of foie gras topped with quenelles of caviar, but dishes like Rotation Risotto, which promotes rotational agriculture and biodiversity.

How do we get someone like General Mills to put Rotation Risotto in every Wal-Mart? How do we get Tyson to make offal a billion dollar consumer product? How do we get Red Lobster to serve bycatch? How do we get McDonald’s to put a veggie burger on the menu in America?

We at the Future Market explored this question with our Crop Crisp prototype product. With Crop Crisps, a mass-market cracker was made in four flavors where each flavor was based on a crop in a four-crop wheat rotation.

Crop Crisps: a Future Market concept product. Each cracker flavor is based on a different crop from the same four-crop rotational planting.

Crop Crisps are the CPG version of the Rotation Risotto, in cracker form. While our limited edition run was handmade in Brooklyn, the design of the box suggests that it was a mass produced product similar to what’d you see in a Wal-Mart or Costco. We did this intentionally because we wanted to show what it’d look like when progressive ideas make it into the mainstream, like how a Gucci sweater can eventually trickle down to the Gap.

Great new dishes that have the power to shift the food system will always pop up in places like Blue Hill and Eleven Madison Park. But for the food system to truly shift, we have to move these ideas to the masses.

Everyday eaters can help these dishes make the jump into the mainstream. How? Next time you’re at a butcher shop, ask for an “off” cut of meat. Any butcher worth their salt will eagerly talk you through how to prepare it. Next time you’re eating something with a great story like Rotation Risotto, share the story on your social networks, not just a FOMO-inducing beauty shot.

It may sound like a series of small actions, but remember that the cupcake, avocado toast, and cronut all caught on after a steadily growing stream of social posts. These trends tend to go viral once an editor at Food & Wine decides to write about why their Instagram feed is covered in avocado toast, but it all starts with the people making noise.

We as eaters have the power to decide what the next food trends are. Isn’t it time we start promoting more trends that can impact the food system?

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This post originally posted at The Future Market.