Articles in Editor’s Letter
Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
At Zester Daily, we scour the world for interesting food and drink stories to share with our fans. As luck would have it, we only had to drive an hour south to Orange County, California, to find our latest discovery: Best Wines Online, a new wine e-tailer we know you will enjoy.
We have trusted the talents of founders Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon since their years managing another wine store. Their well-earned reputations as wine sleuths able to sniff out values in the obscure corners of wine’s ever expanding universe are complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Their picks reflect a preference for balanced wines that shine on the dinner table. Kyle and Tris take the time to learn the backstories of the wines they sell. With their guidance, wine shopping is more treat than chore.
When we learned this dynamic duo was opening a store of their own, we jumped at the chance to introduce the venture to Zester fans.
Discounts for hand-selected wines
Today, we are proud to announce that Zester Daily and Best Wines Online have launched a marketing partnership. Each week, Kyle and Tris will hand-select a wine they will make available to Zester subscribers at an exclusive 10% discount below the store’s already competitive prices.
Zester newsletter subscribers will find a Best Wines Online promotion detailing the weekly wine offer in our new Weekender newsletter sent out toward the end of the workweek.
On bestwinesonline.com, you’ll find detailed wine descriptions and a growing library of videos both from Kyle and Tris’ travels as well as interviews with winemakers who visit their shop. Their personal touch extends to customer service. When you call their store during California office hours, you’ll get a living, breathing human being on the phone.
They are limiting their stock to 1,000 labels — enough variety to represent the wide world of top-shelf wines along with stacks of tantalizing under $20 treats. Rare among boutique e-tailers, the pair also feature hard-to-get older vintages straight from the wineries.
We know you will enjoy getting to know Kyle and Tris and their particularly delicious take on fine wine at bestwinesonline.com. Sign up now for Zester’s newsletter so you won’t miss out on any of these delicious deals.
Top photo: Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon of Best Wines Online. Photo and video credits: Matthieu Silberstein
“People have the right to know what is in their food,” Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey told a gathering of customers at his company’s Pasadena store. And when it comes to eating genetically modified anything, he said, the folks who shop at Whole Foods have made it clear: “They don’t want it,” he says.
Mackey listens to his customers. Last week Whole Foods announced that, within five years, all genetically modified ingredients for sale in its stores will be labeled. He is the first retailer in the U.S. to take this step; the story ran on the front page of the New York Times.
In the battle over the American shopper, Mackey, a baby boomer vegan from Austin, Texas, has called out the big boys of GMOs — Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and other multinational chemical companies. If they want access to his customers, they’ll have to play by his rules.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Mackey told the group in Pasadena in February, smiling as he shifted his thin frame from one desert boot to the other. “But if the government won’t act, we will.”
Most of the corn and soybeans grown today in the United States is genetically altered, as is a growing list of fresh produce sold in neighborhood grocery stores. And while Mackey has 339 Whole Foods stores in the U.S. and Canada, he’s a junior varsity player in the North American grocery business. The Grocery Manufacturers Assn., a trade group representing major food companies and retailers, wasted now time in denouncing his GMO labeling decision.
But Mackey’s 30-plus years of paying extraordinary attention to his customers’ wants and needs have earned him a fierce loyalty that allows him to punch well above his weight. No one is counting him out in this fight.
It was Mackey’s business philosophy that took me to Pasadena last month to hear him speak during a stop on the promotional tour for “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” a new business management book he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia, a Bentley College marketing professor.
“I believe capitalism is the greatest force for good in the world. It alleviates poverty, creates goods and services and allows the culture to advance,” Mackey said in his opening remarks. His goal in writing the book was to help companies claim an individual sense of purpose, something he believes many businesses lose in the struggle to survive.
If the only goal of a business is to make money, he says, it will fail to reach its potential. In the book, Mackey writes, “Conscious businesses treat satisfying the needs of all their major stakeholders as ends in themselves, while traditional businesses often treat stakeholders other than investors as the means to achieving their ultimate goal of profit maximization.”
Doing it right starts by establishing a “core value” to guide your business, he says. At Whole Foods, it is to be a financially successful retailer providing customers high quality whole, organic products.
With its core value in mind, a conscious business then considers the needs of all of its stakeholders. Meeting the needs of the customers is first and foremost, but it extends to the needs of employees, suppliers, investors, the communities around stores and the environment as a whole. When a company gets the balance right, it can improve the lives of all stakeholders.
GMO labeling follows business philosophy
Viewing his decision on GMO labels through that prism, Mackey didn’t have much choice. His key stakeholders — his customers — made it clear that they wanted to avoid GMOs. But he took his suppliers’ needs into account as well. Rather than force them to immediately comply with Whole Foods’ new requirement, he gave them time to secure non-GMO ingredients or to accept the effect of being labeled accordingly.
Mackey has made similar moves at the Whole Foods meat and fish counters. Some customers won’t eat anything but grass-fed beef. Others think conventionally raised beef is just fine. Which fish are sustainably caught or raised? The labels tell the story. And while the effort is at best a work-in-progress, he is setting a standard that other grocery stores are struggling to match.
It’s all a process, he says. A “conscious business” gradually becomes more and more aware of its “reason for being,” or its core value. Enlightenment, wisdom and all of the higher thinking implied in those words, he says, gets easier with experience.
Conscious capitalism “is about leadership that serves the higher good of the organization, a culture that helps humans to flourish and self-actualize themselves.
“We are not retailers with a mission as much as missionaries who retail,” he wrote in the book. And his mission is to spread the gospel of conscious capitalism and change the world for better, forever. An optimist, Mackey believes any company can be saved. Maybe even GMO giant Monsanto.
Top photo: John Mackey. Credit: Chris Fager
Zester Daily readers have shown an appreciation for a stunning variety of stories over the past year. A quick scan of the 2012 reader favorites reveals a yen for Ruth Bourdain’s dishes, cuisine from every corner of the world, food preservation, photography, films, wine insider news and a treasured recipe for flavored marshmallows — as well as a critique of American taste.
Snippets of the 12 most popular Zester Daily contributors’ stories, plus the five most popular Soapboxes, are below. Follow the story links to read the complete text. Follow the contributor links to read more by each author.
The stories are listed in reverse order.
Top contributors’ stories of 2012
12. THE ORIGINS OF CURRY by Raghavan Iyer: Before I try to define the word “curry,” let me create an image for you from my college laboratory days in India where I pursued a degree in chemistry over 20 years ago. As I busied myself measuring crystals of …
11. OLD-SCHOOL SOY SAUCE by Manuela Zoninsein: There’s no one right ritual or rule to guide your eating extravaganza on Jan. 23. The Chinese New Year involves a number of great food traditions. Dumplings are reminiscent of coins in ancient China and will thus bring …
10. TEN BEST FOODIE FLICKS by David Latt: If cold weather traps you indoors for months each winter, you might run through your queue of streaming movies pretty quick. Why not entertain yourself with a library of the best …
9. HOW KERMIT LYNCH TAUGHT AMERICANS HOW TO DRINK WINE by Patrick Comiskey: Forty years ago, Kermit Lynch abandoned the handmade purse industry and opened a wine shop in Berkeley, Calif., and in doing so, became one of the great innovators of …
8. WINE’S ACCUSED GRIFTER, RUDY KURNIAWAN by Corie Brown: By the summer of 2006, when I first noticed Rudy Kurniawan at Christie’s in Beverly Hills, he had transformed the market for old wine from a sleepy backwater into a high-stakes free-for-all. Only the richest wine collectors knew him. Or thought they did …
6. EATING TO BEAT CANCER: DIET MAY PROVE TO BE A CURE by Harriet Sugar Miller: Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much …
4. IN DEFENSE OF TRUFFLE OIL by Lynne Curry: Midwinter is high season for fresh truffles in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. With the help of an experienced truffle hunter (or a trained dog), I could spend …
2. CANNING JARS FROM FAUX TO BEST PRESERVING CHOICES by Susan Lutz: About six months ago, I salvaged a beautiful marinara sauce jar that I intended to refill with home-canned sweet pickles made using my mother’s recipe. And if I hadn’t taken a 12-week course to become a certified Master Food Preserver, I might have …
1. FLAVORED MARSHMALLOWS MADE FROM SCRATCH by Charles Perry: When you hand people homemade marshmallows, they’re always dazzled. These are actual marshmallows, but with a lush, moist texture you never find in store-bought versions. If you want your friends to keep thinking you’re a wizard, don’t tell them how simple it is …
Top Soapboxes of 2012
5. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS IS FOR AMERICANOS, TOO by Veronica Gonzalez-Smith: In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of …
4. THE INFANTALIZATION OF AMERICAN TASTE by Michael Krondl: Though the plague of cupcake shops has not spared any city in this great union, it would be hard to find one that illustrates my point better than …
3. CALIFORNIA’S EXCITING NEW WINES BUCK THE MAINSTREAM by Eric Asimov: We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more …
2. THE FORGOTTEN QUINCE by Jane McMorland Hunter: Nowadays most people hardly know what a quince looks like. Until the 19th century, it was a commonplace orchard fruit throughout North America and Europe; now it has become …
1. RUTH BOURDAIN DISSES AND DISHES WITH ZESTER by Ruth Bourdain: It’s been more than two years since the debut of Ruth Bourdain, the sensational and often raunchy Twitter persona whose name and sensibilities are a mashup/spoof of former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and outspoken celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The true identity of Ms. Bourdain is still under wraps, but her tweets show her to be ….
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And that’s our list for 2012 … Here’s to discovering Ms. Bourdain’s identity in 2013!
Photo illustration, clockwise from top left:
Ruth Bourdain. Credit: Ruth Bourdain
Indian spices (originally published in 660 Curries). Credit: Ben Fink
Homemade marshmallows dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Credit: StockFood
Photo illustration credit: Karen Chaderjian
Jamie Geller opens the door to the kosher kitchen at Joy of Kosher, her 2-year-old website dedicated to expanding the audience for traditional Jewish foods. Author of two “Quick & Kosher” cookbooks, her site is packed with thousands of her own recipes as well as tips and insights from the best kosher chefs.
A former CNN and HBO producer, Geller founded Kosher Media Network, which publishes the magazine Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller. Founder of Jewish Culinary Heritage Foundation, Geller seeks to connect the broader international community through traditional Jewish food. She recently moved to Israel from New York City.
With the lighting of the first candles of Chanukah, Zester Daily asked Jamie to bring us up to speed on the kosher kitchen.
Tell us why you created Joy of Kosher with a brief history of your site.
Let’s start with the name. If you didn’t grow up in a house that kept kosher, you probably think it’s some kind of a restrictive diet that takes all the fun out of cuisine. To most of the world kosher has a bad rep, it implies boring and limited. You know: syrupy sweet wine and Granny’s gefilte fish.
But nothing could be further from the truth! Today’s kosher kitchen is full of exotic dishes and culinary adventure. The range of kosher ingredients is broad, and kosher wines are winning prestigious prizes all over the world. There’s so much joy in cooking kosher, but who knew? So I wanted to share the news with the world.
The site premiered a little over two years ago as a place where people could think of kosher cooking in a whole new way, and to encourage sharing among kosher cooks. The response has been incredible, not only from traditional Jewish cooks, but from non-kosher chefs who want to expand their repertoire. We’re like family now.
There is a rise in the purchase of kosher products. What’s driving the new interest?
Kosher certification symbols on the package (like OU and Star-K, to name just two of many) do not mean that a rabbi came and blessed the factory, the food or the people therein. It means that every ingredient of what’s inside the package meets certain standards. There are representatives from the certifying agency checking every aspect of production, making sure that no unidentified flying objects or ingredients sneak in.
I want that kind of supervision with my food don’t you? Apparently, millions of people want that too and go out of their way to find kosher products. Moreover, foods or ingredients designated “Pareve” mean that the product has no traces of dairy or meat. This is very important to people with allergies or lactose intolerance. And the rabbis are very trustworthy about this. Another reason is that many Jews who never kept kosher before are turning back to tradition and want to keep kosher now. You’re talking to one of them. I didn’t grow up kosher. But I am now.
Why should someone who doesn’t keep kosher seek out kosher foods?
Because they’re good, and they’re reliable. Whatever is on the label is really there, and nothing else. You can have confidence in a kosher product. And remember all those people going kosher that I mentioned earlier? Often, when there’s a family get-together, many hosts will try to use only kosher foods to accommodate their newly kosher family members, guests or friends.
If you had to choose between Ashkenazic or Sephardic cuisine, which would you choose? Why?
No fair! That’s like asking me which of my kids I love the most. I adore the bold, bright, spicy Sephardic foods, and I’m mad about their music and culture. I often play Sephardic music when I cook, dancing round my kitchen, channeling my inner Sephardi. Did you know that in a past life I was a raven-haired Sephardic princess? At least that’s what my hubby thinks; says he has to watch out for my camel in the driveway.
On the other hand, Ashkenazic food brings me back to my grandparents table, sitting on telephone books, with my feet dangling off the floor. In a flash I can taste their incredibly rich, clear chicken soup, their mile-high perfect potato kugel, their homemade kishka. All of that is what we call “heimish” — literally homelike, but so much more. It’s like every bite comes with a big, warm, cuddly hug.
Now that I live in Israel, I’m culturally engulfed by Sephardic food and my palate is changing: I think everything is better with humus and tahini; I eat falafel for breakfast and sautéed eggplant with cumin and cilantro for a snack and baklava when I have a sweet tooth. I guess, eventually, it will all balance out.
Among the most frequently requested kosher recipes on your site, what surprises you?
Can’t say I’m too surprised by anything anymore. But I do see that kosher folks keep trying for kosher versions of foods that are inherently non-kosher and even more popular — they want tips for turning real decadent dairy recipes non-dairy.
Let me just tell ya, you can’t sub heavy cream with coconut milk and call it a day. And of course we have stuff like imitation bacon (called “Facon”) and mock crab, and you can melt soy cheese on a beef burger, but you can’t really sub out everything in a recipe and expect it to taste spot-on like the original. So while I’ll occasionally cook “mock” versions, there’s no sub for genuine ingredients.
What keeps the kosher cuisine on the sidelines of the international restaurant scene? I don’t think a kosher chef has been recognized by Michelin as among the top in the world.
Well, they should be. I think part of the reason they’re not recognized is that old stereotype about kosher food I mentioned earlier. People just don’t expect to find creative, tantalizing innovations in a kosher restaurant. But kosher chefs should be given a second look: They do real miracles with food, using only kosher ingredients. For instance, Moshe Wendel, at Pardes Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, is doing kosher progressive French food like you’ve never had it before (read: the likes of which has never before been done in the kosher world). Check out places like Solo and Prime Grill (both in NYC) and you’ll find plenty of award-worthy dishes.
What have you learned from JoyofKosher.com that has stunned you, really knocked you for a loop?
Jews love to eat even more than I thought! Everyone loves to eat more than I thought. And I used to think it was only me. I also found that food, especially kosher food, is serious business. And while we all enjoy a fun night out at a restaurant, where we can try new dishes, I discovered that hundreds of thousands of people want to experiment right in their own kitchens, serving up all kinds of fascinating cuisine day in and day out to their families. The demand for new and better recipes keeps us cooking on all burners. I’m always experimenting and tasting, and tasting, and tasting. That’s why I look this way.
Photo: Jamie Geller. Credit: Kosher Media Network
This Thanksgiving, welcome your family into your kitchen and let the adventure begin. This is the story of the Hinton-Brown family’s adventure.
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Fresh from law school at the start of a promising legal career, Norrinda Brown longed for a creative outlet, a way to keep her pressure-filled professional life in balance.
More than anything, she wanted to bake cakes. Growing up in her grandmother’s kitchen, every day had been baking day, layers of fragrant pound cake cooling on the counter, bowls of fluffy frosting in the fridge, butter was the essential ingredient in everything. Mothers baked with daughters, grandmothers with grandchildren. Baking by yourself, for yourself? Who does that?
Talking with her mother Linda Brown and grandmother Betty Hinton, an idea took hold that grew into a plan that became an obsession. Together, they could bake to their hearts’ content if they opened a cake shop.
Crazy. It was crazier than it sounds. Norrinda Brown Hayat had a full-time job as a lawyer. Her mother was a public school teacher. And her grandmother had long ago sailed past her 70th birthday. None of them had been businesswomen or worked in commercial bakeries.
Faith. Norrinda was convinced this was a particularly good time to open a bakery in their hometown of Philadelphia. Most of the city’s bakeries were Italian cannoli cafés. Competition in her family’s Southern layer cake culture was limited, as many of the older stores had gone out of business. More encouraging, the traditional pace for these bakeries was leisurely. It was common for cake shops to close in the late afternoon and stay closed Sunday mornings and all day Monday.
Recipes. No one made cakes like Norrinda’s grandmother, who baked by instinct and memory as her mother had before her and her mother before her.
By Linda Hinton Brown, Norrinda Brown Hayat
(Wiley, 2012, 192 pages)
Research. Together they were able to capture their family’s sense memory in recipe and for six months tested their creations on groups of friends, then groups of friends of friends, community gatherings, country club parties, women’s groups. They served their cakes with a chaser of questions. Sweet enough? More butter? How do you like the strawberry cake?
Brown Betty Bakery opened in 2004; its name is a play on her grandmother’s first name, her mother’s married name and a sly reference to Apply Brown Betty, a signature menu item.
Luck. “We stumbled into a really supportive community,” says Norrinda. An abandoned manufacturing area in the Northern Liberty area of Philadelphia was being revitalized with small shops and businesses. Spaces were small, rents were low and the tenants helped each other survive. “Almost all of our neighbors were first-time, one-off female-owned businesses.”
Oops. They needed all of the help they could get. Norrinda had misjudged Philadelphia’s bakery market. “A lot of the older bakeries had closed. And I didn’t fully appreciate why,” says Norrinda. Rather than retiring, as she had assumed, they’d collapsed, unable to keep up with the quickening pace of retail.
Customers patronized shops that were open early and late, every day of the week. “We weren’t ready for this,” says Norrinda. “I didn’t know how hard it would be. Baking had always been relaxing. I underestimated how successful we’d be and how demanding it was to serve the public.”
Sweat equity. For the first three years, Norrinda and her mom ran Brown Betty Bakery by themselves with only one extra employee. Betty came in every Friday night and left Saturday morning to test new recipes and oversee quality control. If that meant fewer cakes than buyers, so be it. “We did everything so we could keep overhead low,” she says.
It wasn’t until Norrinda Brown became Norrinda Brown Hayat that they broke down and hired more staff. “We knew we couldn’t continue to be the ones who took out the trash and swept the floor.” And, of course, as soon as they delegated more work to others, business grew quickly.
Success. There are two Brown Betty Bakeries in Philadelphia now operated by a staff of 25 with plans to open more shops as well as an online store. But what has them “traumatized,” says Norrinda, is the book. “Mom really didn’t want to do the cookbook and give out the recipes.” “The Brown Betty Cookbook” (Wiley), released last month, is the first time they’ve shared their family’s secrets.
“We’ve stayed close to what baking means to our family. It brings us together.” Though she is 89 years old, Betty still creates new cakes. Linda has yet to retire from teaching. And Norrinda never gave up her law practice.
And they’ve never stopped making time to bake together.
Top photo: Three generations of bakers, Norrinda Brown Hayat, Betty Hinton and Linda Hinton Brown
Food is a mirror of who we are, Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright told the more than 700 food professionals attending the 15th annual Culinary Institute of America Worlds of Flavor conference last week. Rather than a single reflection, “food is a constantly changing picture of where we came from and where we are going.”
And with these words, Wright opened CIA’s annual international festival at its Napa Valley campus last week, a three-day event jam-packed with lectures, demonstrations and cooking lessons featuring more than 70 of the world’s leading food authorities, each illustrating a different aspect of the Eurasian migration of flavor.
Wright was one of many speakers with a Zester connection. Zester contributor Jody Eddy moderated a cooking demonstration. Michael Krondl, Naomi Duguid, Joan Nathan, Skiz Fernando, Diane Kochilas and Hiroko Shimbo were among the guest authors who have written a Soapbox for Zester. (Shimbo’s Soapbox will appear later this month.)
A charming and gregarious raconteur, Wright spoke several times during the conference, entertained the crowd with his “Cliff’s notes” version of the history of the spice trade — a 1,000-year tale of rich people scouring the world for ways to improve the quality of their dining experience. The more wealth there was, the fiercer the trade in spices and other foods that could survive long journeys. One cuisine borrowed from another in a chain that continues today.
The highlight of the CIA event, however, was the dazzling collection of international chefs who rolled up their sleeves and share their kitchen secrets with the crowd.
- Italy’s Corrado Assenza, chef/owner of Caffé Sicilia, a cutting edge pastry-coffee-ice cream bar in the baroque town of Noto in southeastern Sicily.
- China’s Yu Bo, considered the Ferran Adrià of China, is the chef/owner of Yu’s Family Kitchen in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
- Turkey’s Musa Dagdeviren, chef/owner of Ciya Sofrasi in Istanbul celebrating traditional Anatolian cuisine.
- Spain’s Ángel León, chef/owner of Aponiente in Puerto de Santa Maria in Cádiz developing plankton cuisine.
- England’s Yotam Ottolenghi, chef/owner of five London restaurants whose cookbook “Jerusalem” has been a smash hit around the world.
- San Francisco’s Mourad Lahlou, chef/owner of Aziza in San Francisco, known for modern interpretations of traditional Moroccan cuisine.
- American Maxime Bilet, co-author with Nathan Myhrvold of “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” a technologist pushing the limits of kitchen science.
Iceland was represented by Gunnar Karl Gíslason, a young chef whose extraordinary take on his country’s local flavors has made Dill in the Nordic House in Reykjavik a leading light in a country searching for its culinary soul. Zester’s Eddy, co-author of the chef’s upcoming book, told the story of Iceland’s culinary struggles after the devastating economic crisis in 2008. Long dependent on imported food, the cold country has been forced to become self-sufficient for the first time in generations. Gíslason’s hyper-local cuisine using native sea salts, seaweed, livestock and root vegetables took off, creating a first-ever potential to export distinctive Icelandic flavors to other countries.
A satellite in the world of flavor
Malaysia-based Zester contributor Robyn Eckhardt wasn’t able to attend CIA’s event. She’s busy with a new assignment: writing a twice-a-month column on street food for Wall Street Journal Asia. Check it out at Wall Steet Journal Asia.
Clifford Wright leads a cooking demonstration at CIA’s Worlds of Flavor with Corrado Assenza, a leading Italian pastry chef and owner of Caffé Sicilia in Noto, Italy. Credit: Corie Brown
Kimbal Musk has an audacious plan to destroy America’s appetite for junk food.
His big idea? Plastic.
Musk wants to revolutionize Alice Waters‘ concept of school gardens as societal change agents by making the gardens easy to build and maintain. More gardens will be installed and more students will learn the joy of growing and eating healthy fruits and vegetables.
As it is, Musk says, school gardens are a laudable idea that is dying on the vine. Raised wooden beds that look pretty when they are first planted disintegrate in a few short years. The alternative — concrete beds — is an ugly, expensive and permanent albatross schools grow to hate. Tear up school-yard blacktop to create green space? No public school has that kind of money.
Musk made it a personal project to design a solution. His modular plastic garden containers snap together to create customizable outdoor classrooms that can sit on top of existing hard scape. His concept is so slap-your-head simple that less than a year after launching his nonprofit Learning Gardens, Musk has commitments for at least 60 gardens each from Chicago, Los Angeles and Colorado to be installed by the end of 2013.
“I want to make the school-garden movement work,” says Musk, who was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to witness the planting of two giant gardens, a total of 3,000 square feet dedicated to fruits and vegetables, at Samuel Gompers Middle School in South L.A.
The key to ensuring that the gardens flourish is local control. Musk partners with a local sponsor, who raises the funds and works with the individual schools to design the gardens. “I don’t make a dime from this,” says Musk, “which gives us credibility with the people raising money to build these gardens.”
The Wasserman Foundation, led by sports business entrepreneur Casey Wasserman, took the lead at Gompers providing all of the funding and 100 Wasserman employees for the planting.
If gardens increase student engagement, they are a good investment, says Wasserman. “The success of our kids in our schools is the leading issue for our city.”
High tech and an apron
Musk comes to the school garden party with a rare combination of technology expertise and kitchen cred. In 1995 at 23, he and his brother Elon founded Zip2, an early content management system that provided the first maps and door-to-door directions on the Internet. The company built online restaurant and city guides in partnership with 100 major media companies, including the New York Times. It was sold in 1999 to Compaq for a reported $307 million.
Among several investments in startup software and technology companies, Musk helped his brother launch the company that would become PayPal. That venture was acquired by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion in stock. Elon used his winnings to found SpaceX and Tesla Motors while Kimbal redirected his energies into his passion for food, attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City.
After traveling the country with his wife in search of a community to call their own, the Musk family settled in Boulder, Colo., and, in 2004, the couple opened The Kitchen. Its composting, wind-powered, recycle-everything culture earned immediate applause from Boulder’s environmental community. Food critics from across the country raved about Musk’s garden-fresh cuisine featuring ingredients harvested from the massive garden he planted near the restaurant.
Turning point for more than Kimbal Musk
From the earliest days, Musk’s vision included a modest nonprofit to support school gardens, an effort he named The Kitchen Community. The huge leap from supporting Boulder-area school gardens to today’s sweeping ambition to build gardens in every school in the country came after nearly dying in a tubing accident 2½ years ago.
“After my accident, the stuff that mattered was stuff that made a difference in the world, not the stuff that made money,” Musk says in his soft South African accent, a lingering artifact from his childhood in Pretoria. He moved to Canada when he was 18.
“After Kimbal broke his neck, it super-charged the giving philosophy,” says Travis Robinson, Kitchen Community managing director, who also traveled from Boulder to help with the Gompers planting. “Kimbal is a visionary, but he is pragmatic. It’s step by step, day by day to create communities and empower people.”
Building school gardens costs a fraction of what it would cost to lobby Congress to change farm policy, says Musk. And in the long run, it is the more effective way to change society. “Start with the young, work with them until they are adults, and they will demand real food. When you have the demand, you can change the government policies that create McDonald’s and junk food.”
“I knew if I could make this work in the South Side of Chicago with $2 million, I could raise $2 billion and make it work everywhere,” he says. “We will have gardens in about 20% of Chicago’s schools. That’s a critical mass of students, enough for a movement that can change the food culture in that city. You do it child by child.”
Students aren’t the only people who can benefit from Musk’s novel approach. Last May, I asked Musk for help on a project to overhaul the outdoor space for a shelter for homeless female veterans. The backyard of the Venice, Calif., home was one giant cement slab, and they wanted a vegetable garden.
Musk came to the rescue with a “starter garden” that could sit on the cement. The lady vets loved how they could move the modules around to redesign their garden whenever they felt like a change.
Building the demand for fresh, wholesome food one person at a time.
Photo: Kimbal Musk with a student and special education teacher Holly Driscoll at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown