Remembering Anthony Bourdain, the Advocate
Colorado’s FoodMaven carries forth celebrity cook’s Wasted crusade
Never order the fish on Monday (1). The bread is probably recycled (2). Don’t under any circumstance ask for your meat well done (3). Brunch sucks (4). These four are among the juiciest of the culinary secrets revealed by the late Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, the breakthrough memoir that launched his globe-trotting stardom.
Despite risking excommunication on a charge of treason against his fraternity of food service professionals, Bourdain didn’t air their dirty French laundry to cash in on shock value or tawdry gossip. Sure, he was cynical. After all bone-in cynicism was a key ingredient to his bad boy chef persona. But he wasn’t a cynic. Not like that. Especially when it came to eating. In that regard, Bourdain was a hopeless romantic. He thought to be a chef, it was part of the job.
No, he wrote Kitchen Confidential as a love letter to food. A ballad of the line man or woman. An ode to cooking. Not as a gastronomical art form, but as an honest-to-goodness working-class trade. That paid heartfelt yet unflinching tribute to the sweltering kitchens, greasy checks and burn calloused hands. And not to mention honored the driving labor force of Mexican and Central American immigrants, without whom our country’s proud restaurant tradition would cease to exist.
When he left the kitchen to travel the world on TV, though he amassed great fame and wealth, Bourdain remained oriented on that same moral compass. That guided him not just to film on location in luxurious tourist destinations — grazing fois gras on the Champs-Élysées, or gallivanting around Napa Valley — but also to shed his bright light on war-torn countries and conflict zones — slurping bun bo hue in Vietnam, or exploring Palestinian suburbs and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Getting to know the real everyday people and how they lived, in large part through what they ate.
Because over his years toiling away as a cook, the job title he much preferred over chef, Bourdain came to believe that what we eat is “everything we are.” That whether as countries, regions, cities, tribes, families or singular human beings, food forms a foundational piece of our identities. One that not ought go to waste.
Yes to to the chef and his crew, food is rich with meaning. For one thing it’s their livelihood. More to the spirit though, they’re intimately familiar with the hard work of preparing it to order. A marrow-deep connection they share in common with the farmer. Through early mornings, starting long days, exposed to unforgiving elements, those that labor the earth root a deep bond to the crop they till and the bounty it harvests. “Agriculture … is our wisest pursuit,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to George Washington from Paris, in a correspondence dated August 14, 1787. “Because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals & happiness.”
Patrick Bultema grew up working a tractor on a third generation rice farm in Northern California, which his family runs to this day. Though some time ago he left for college and graduate school and a successful career in business, he’s been making his way back to the land ever since.
Around the same time Bourdain was honing his chops in the restaurant underworld, Bultema was running companies in the software industry. After spanning continents across seven stints as CEO, he seized at the opportunity to give back in the form of the Innovation Chair position at Colorado College. Shortly thereafter, a student-founded non-profit planted the seed for his next venture.
Since restructuring around a for-profit model in 2016, Bultema has built a multi-million-dollar company. As of early this year, two of the biggest names in the grocery business have signed on as investors. The Walton family, they of the Walmart fortune, led his $8.6 million round of Series A financing. Then Walter Robb, co-founder and recently-departed CEO of Whole Foods, joined the board of directors and followed with a significant investment of his own. Inbound interest of high profile backers, along with a wave of national media coverage, has flocked to Bultema seeking his potential solution to the biggest global crisis you may never heard of ( 🙋, sheepishly).
From the first frame, Bourdain makes it abundantly clear that he is totally averse to advocacy of any kind. So much so, that he “hated the idea of this movie.” But seeing what he’d seen, knowing what he knew, he felt he had to do, or for chrissakes say something. The movie is a documentary called Wasted, which came out this past fall. Bourdain narrated and executive produced. It was one of his last projects.
So what then was the inconvenient truth that turned the otherwise aggressively apathetic Anthony Bourdain into a fervent on-screen activist … food waste. Sounds innocuous enough, but the statistics might well ruin your appetite. An executive chef’s summary: In the United States, 40 percent of the food we produce goes to waste. Some 90 percent of those scraps go straight to the dump, making up more than a third of our total landfill mass. There in the absence of oxygen, food decomposes excruciatingly slowly (a head of lettuce can take 25 years!), producing a methane which is 23x more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Now before you shutter at that steep environmental cost, just to throw our food away, consider what it takes to actually make the fucking stuff. Food production is the leading cause of deforestation, water extraction, habitat and biodiversity loss. For a human population rapidly approaching 9 billion, this is a concern, dude. And most shameful of all, while we waste 1.3 billion tons of food a year worldwide, 800 million people are starving, right now.
Pretty grim right? Obviously the natural instinct of our current moment is to determine whose fault this, and while there lays culpability at each rusty link of the antiquated food system supply chain, we are nonetheless all to blame. Bottom line, because we like our food pretty.
On the one hand, Big Supermarket should absolutely have to answer for baking 30 percent oversupply into its P&L model, content to toss aside ozone-piercing mountains of perfectly good merchandise as a simple cost of doing business. However, grocers behave this way because they know that if you or I come to their establishment looking for a specific item, and well shoot it’s out of stock, there is a 40 percent chance we’ll find a new favorite store based on that one slight inconvenience alone. For this reason precisely, the produce aisles are stacked sky high with genetically enhanced fruits and vegetables, to satiate what Patrick calls our societal “abundance expectation.” And oh yeah, those date codes on the label — you know “best used by,” “sold by,” “expires,” etc. — they’re totally meaningless! Most shoppers assume these are sacrosanct deadlines to keep them safe from salmonella, when really they’re just arbitrary suggestions sellers use for their own reference to rotate product and maintain lofty cosmetic standards.
Thank goodness then for the many virtuous people and organizations out there working thanklessly to save us from ourselves. These are the heroes Bourdain champions in Wasted. A use-conscious New York eatery that experiments with traditionally underutilized ingredients, eager to introduce patrons to exciting new taste and flavor profiles. An English non-profit that recycles discarded ends of bread loaves to brew beer. Even the South Korean government, which weighs its citizens’ food waste, and charges them a utility for processing. Beyond grassroots social activism and regulatory intervention, the documentary briefly alludes to surging private sector initiatives committed to combatting food waste, but concludes this to be an area of largely untapped potential. “I think our biggest problem,” posits one of the celebrity chef talking heads, “is that we haven’t used one of our greatest asset, the capitalist system, to make this work.”
Bultema sees the whole picture. From a humanitarian and environmental perspective, the prodigal rate at which we waste perfectly good food is a Greek tragedy. From an economic standpoint, our godforsaken mess of a food system is pure comedy. All those millions of tons piling up in landfills directly correlates to a massive sunk cost. In the US, we waste $300 billion worth of food annually. Money coming out of the pockets of the average American family, which spends $1,500 per year on food they throw away. And income lost to the American farmer, 68 percent of whom are perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy. Among them Bultema counts his own brother, who stayed in the family business, and like most independent growers and ranchers in the industrial food era, struggles to make ends meet.
If an economic problem requires a business solution, Bultema and his company FoodMaven may be our best hope yet (Walter Robb and the Waltons are certainly betting so). The pain point he diagnoses and seeks to treat is that our food industrial complex, which roots dating back to the postwar 1950s, has sacrificed any semblance of agility at the altar of sheer strength. Meaning that it’s incredibly adept to moving large quantities of perishable stock over long distances (often times across the country and back), and accordingly completely incompatible with moving small quantities, shorter distances. Think of a 747 … Great if you need to get 500 people from LAX to JFK in five and a half hours. Lousy if you got to stop off for a dozen hot dog buns on the way to Kimmy’s Fourth of July thing.
To that end, FoodMaven is reintroducing flexibility back into the food system, filling in the gaps where waste is most prone to occur. The product, which Bultema and his team have been fine tuning over the last five years and change, is an agile logistics network. On the FoodMaven website, buyers and sellers are algorithmically matched in an online marketplace. The transaction is then fulfilled via a fleet of FoodMaven refrigerated trucks, through the company’s brand-spanking-new 22,000-square foot distribution center, and out for delivery by contract drivers. Like Uber did to transportation, or Amazon did to retail, Bultema’s vision is to “apply IT and innovation to transform a fundamental structure of society.”
As business deals go, it’s an incredibly difficult one to pull off, which is exactly why try as they might, nobody has yet done it successfully. However, if FoodMaven can prove the concept, and by all indication it’s well on the way, the opportunity is immensely lucrative to all parties involved. For sellers — food suppliers and distributors — FoodMaven recaptures revenue for merchandise on which they would have otherwise taken a loss. For buyers — restaurants, caterers, institutional kitchens, really any place where meals are made to serve — they can purchase equal-to-or-better quality ingredients at a 50–70 percent knockdown. Last but not least, since it only acts as a facilitator, FoodMaven itself nets a considerable profit margin, somewhere in the ballpark of 50 percent. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.
Better yet, where the food system is hardest on its most vulnerable stakeholders, FoodMaven provides desperately-needed relief. For small family farmers and ranchers, like Sangres Best Beef of Westcliffe, Colorado (or for that matter Bultema’s brother), who often aren’t big enough to take on national food orders, FoodMaven provides the logistics infrastructure to sell whatever they can’t on the local market. Then for independent restaurants, like 503W in Colorado Springs, the discounted prices afford significant savings in a razor-thin margin business where every cent counts. Finally, in the event of surplus inventory, hunger relief charities like Metro Caring in Denver partner to receive nutrient-rich protein and produce. After which, the small percentage remainder not fit for donation is recycled into animal feed. Needless to say, FoodMaven mandates a zero-landfill policy. Everybody eats. Nothing goes to waste.
The chef places his weekend seafood order on Friday morning, so any fish they plate by Monday night is three-day-old (1). If the previous table doesn’t finish their bread, whatever didn’t get eaten gets recycled into your basket (2). Asking for your meat well done is giving the restaurant “permission to feed you their garbage,” since hell you won’t be able to taste the difference (3). Real chefs disdain cooking brunch as a culinary purgatory, and will begrudgingly whip up whatever scraps are left over from the previous evening’s menu for you and your yuppy friends to wash down with bottomless mimosas (4).
Again, Bourdain didn’t reveal these secrets and break the sacred chefs’ code to be crass. Just as restaurants don’t do these things to intentionally sabotage their paying customers’ dining experience. On the contrary, you’ll likely notice that these tried and true methods are all, in their own way, best practices for preventing waste. “As a young cook, I came up in an old school system that abhorred waste as a fundamental principle,” Bourdain explains in Wasted. “The whole enterprise was based on the idea of use everything.”
FoodMaven is currently operational exclusively in Colorado, where it serves 700 customers, has saved 590,000 kilos of food from landfill, and in 2017 alone donated 325,000 meals to charities aiding the food insecure. Before the year is out, the company has an appetite to expand into two additional metro service areas, targeting a short list of Dallas, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle. FoodMaven doesn’t disclose revenue, but Bultema projects the refined version of the model will generate $20 million per year per city. Within 5–10 years, through incremental new market growth at home and abroad, he expects those sales to tally past $1 billion.
Bourdain closes the film with a call for tomorrow’s creative solution to end food waste. Rooted in a genuine sense of stewardship, Bultema and FoodMaven passionately believe that their greatest opportunity for impact is an economic one. To take our gluttonous food system, and exploit its weakness to all our benefit. Their mantra: “Good for profit, good for people, good for the planet.” I think any honest chef would approve. For after all, “what does a cook do?” Bourdain asks. “They take something that’s ugly and tough, and by using skill and technique they transform it into something wonderful.” Well then. Bon appetit.
Thanks for reading!
Note: all graphics and GIFs are the work of The Front Ranger, Inc. (re: me), except the pictures of Bourdain in Vietnam, Bultema with the lettuce and Oscar the Grouch.
Questions? Email the blogger! aelliman at gmail dot com.