Let’s just be perfectly clear exactly what is going on. I am crossing town, via two buses, in weather below freezing, for a bunch of kale, a chunk of Parmesan, and a bag of flour. While I’m there I’ll have a slice of pizza. Yes, kale is hard to find in Berlin, and it’s unequivocally the best pizza in town, but really?
In the last two weeks I have sampled the state of the art in bleeding-edge tech startups, especially in two areas of interest, “DeepTech” (that’s block chain, IoT and other systems which aim to rewrite the DNA of the digital world), and “FoodTech”.
The reason is because it’s time for me to manifest something and these days manifesting means starting a startup.
So, I attended the Berlin accelerator SmartHectare’s FoodTech meet-up, venture capital firm TechStars’ global episode “startup weekend: Food”, Amatus’ blockchain conference Revision, the Jean-Baptiste Say Institute’s food focused Entrepreneurship Festival, and the #Tech4Food Summit.
To my surprise, the blockchain scene is far more concerned with ethics, significantly better informed about what they are talking about, and serves better food.
In four full days hosted by three FoodTech organizations I did not hear pop food icon David Chang’s favorite word one time.
Indeed the FoodTech world is fatally out of touch with the food world. In the food world people consume at least as much food porn as meals, spend their free time closely observing chefs making things by hand, and take an added pleasure in reading about food, cooking, and restaurants. It’s a hot journalistic category. Two crucial sensations in the pop culture passion for food are pleasure and power. The pleasure importantly can be mediated and digital, not only sensory. Food gives us other pleasures than taste. The power dimension involves intimacy (with chefs), knowledge (of chemistry, technique, tradition, terroir), the stories of foods, farmers, and chefs, and a constant fantasy of action – I could cook that., I could eat in that restaurant, I could travel to that place to experience that woman making butter by hand, I could buy and savor that ingredient or preparation.
FoodTech offers neither pleasure nor power. There are four modes: One is new products, often ethically-focused, but this is not really tech. The second mode is messianic, extending the mythic tocatta of underproduction to the next fugue of dependent development to save farmers from themselves. The third mode is nutritional: normative, reductive, condescending, and humorless. The fourth mode is convenience. The presumption here is that food is a burden of life (like accounting) which can be ever minimized through innovative methods of streamlining shopping, cooking, even chewing.
The busyness of projects around food safety and food waste take for granted industrial production, processing, and retail, without which their raison d’êtres wither.
I attended a session with the promising title “disrupting supermarkets” which turned out to be about speeding them up! Are we trying to make movies, vacations, sex, or children faster? No. We try to make work faster so that we can enjoy the pleasures of life. No one suggests that we ought to take digital vacations, watch movies at 2x.speed for efficiency, or rent children to reduce the amount of time and money we spend on them.
It’s true that some workaholic types understand food as a fix for a bleeping hungerometer. They view the body as a pipe. OK so someone already invented soylent. Have at it.
I do want to disrupt supermarkets. They are criminals who seduce and betray both farmers and consumers with their veneer of omniscient efficiency and choice, behind which they ruthlessly expand their margin at the cost of quality, farm finances, working conditions, and value to the consumer. Knowing how low their quality is, my sense is that the prices are in fact very high. I pay 1/4 to 1/2 more for food of 5x the quality. But how do you quantify the difference between flavorless and delicious?
Two hot Berlin restaurateurs at the Entrepreneurship Festival repeated “dining is entertainment”. They aren’t interested in ghost kitchens and delivery because they “want to embrace the customer“.
Food is entertainment.
Perhaps even the nutritionists need to have a look at pleasure. Obesity is vastly misunderstood as a failure of knowledge. It is a victory of pleasure. The question is why has food become the only accessible pleasure to so many people living in wealthy societies. Food pleasure is out of balance with some ghosts.
The FoodTechsters promise us a convenient, low-risk world.
In the US a “convenience store” is exactly a place with low-quality merchandise and experience.
I’m not sure convenience is what we really want.
I understand our fundamental human striving in three developments: mastery, meaning, and grace.
Mastery is about wanting to feel you can handle it all… Daily life, livelihood, social status. Convenience offers to help with this. But it does so by minimizing effort and risk. True mastery is won by discipline, priorities, skill, action in the face of risk. There are no shortcuts, neither convenience nor cocaine generate confidence and competence, the foundations of courage.
Meaning is about our deep and developing desires. Meaning is about feeling that our actions are significant, that our interactions are talented, that we exchange energy with appreciative peers, that we discern and are seen.
Grace is about giving and receiving in context, with humility. It’s about seasonality, complexity, and responsibility in the face of a mysterious world beyond our grasp.
What kind of food experiences do we want to create for the future? Sustainability is the challenge to achieve mastery, not over nature, but over ourselves. To exercise discipline and priority in our production and consumption systems. To stop overproduction, overprocessing, to stop allowing destructive players to degrade food as a commodity. Deliciousness is about the multi-variate pleasures and meaning of food, including knowledge, discernment, story, and ritual. It means taking time to savor and revere food.