Last month was the yearly Rethink Food Conference held in November at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in St. Helena, CA. The conference addressed what, how and why we cook and eat the way we do—and what we will be doing (or need to be doing) in the future to improve our lives, our land and the animals that we eat.
Seminars and breakout sessions were a bit all over the place, making it difficult for a food scientist like me to pull it all together. Some topics like “Foods of Tomorrow” had presenters discussing sea vegetables, crickets and fermented foods which I could relate to as future protein sources, future under consumed ingredients that we can start eating—but other seminars like The Flavor Learning Curve, while interesting, didn’t seem to really fit the program and maybe belongs in one of the CIA’s other more creative culinary science conferences.
The speakers came from all areas of the food industry and included Kirsten Tobey, the founder of Revolution Foods, Sara Burnett, director of Wellness and food policy at Panera bread as well as local bay area chefs including Stuart Brioza (State Bird Provisions) and Courtney Burns (Bar Tartine). The wide array of professional food industry backgrounds all came together as each speaker shared their views on why we mistrust technology, robots cooking our food, and how food companies need to be more “transparent” in order to regain consumer trust. Preservation methods of the past are now being revisited in bay area restaurants as a way to be more sustainable (and healthy).
Some seminars were logical and I could see the connection between what was being said and what can and will be done- like the introduction of crickets as a protein source is a reality that we are already experiencing with companies like EXO selling their cricket bars—but other topics were still “far out there” like “Visions of the Future” that discussed how technology will shape how we interact with our foods.
The attendees were just as diverse as the speakers. Key players from McDonalds were there- as well as Google team members, chefs, and Ideo (one of the major sponsors), Coca Cola, and Chipotle Grill. Yes– the big chain companies are interested in making a difference!
An interactive group ideation session that was organized by IDEO allowed us to get into groups and brainstorm questions together while writing them on sticky notes—and using those ideas to come up with hypothetical finished technology concepts. A machine that analyzes what you eat and tells you its time to stop, or more biodegradable and edible packaging—(edible spoons made out of Sorghum). The video with all the team ideas can be watched online on the conference live stream: http://livestream.com/CIAlive/reThinkFood2015
This conference hit a lot of different angles and gave me (the food scientist) much to think about. Trying to understand the role of the food scientist in this changing landscape is challenging. The food scientist is usually just an executor of whatever the marketing and CEO dictates—as well as being a pillar for quality and safety- we rarely get a say in the bigger picture decisions and are mostly part of the execution. This conference served as an introduction to bigger topics that will affect how developers create and bring new food products to market.