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The Future of Food: Mark Bittman Q + A at #ChefPower2015

Still life with fish, shellfish, vegetables and a glass of red wine

Mark Bittman’s wide-ranging Q + A at the 2015 Tastes of the World Chef Culinary Conference, held at UMass Amherst, addressed sustainability, ways that chefs — and the institutions they work for — can create real change, and how in the world do we get kids to eat more veggies?

Note: This talk was transcribed in real time. As such, it does not represent a complete trancription, but will give you a good feel for the talk if you were not able to attend. (I have tried to preserve as much context as possible.) In light of this, please do not consider these quotes as 100% complete or accurate. Once video becomes available, I will post it here!

Mark Bittman: What should we be eating for lunch ? That IS a really great question. This is a good time to acknowledge that not everyone is going to cook. It might seem obvious, but I’ve spent 35 yrs encouraging people to cook. It goes back to the environment question: how are people going to weat, and eat well, if they’re not going to cook?

Food service is improving, but to some extent it’s tokenism. And fast food is even worse. If you think of McDonald’s + Burger King as Fast Food 1.0 and Chipotle, Panera as 2.0, what’s 3.0 going to be?

Q: You mentioned fast food — it seems that every 3-4 days a legacy quick-serve has taken a pledge to maintain good ingredients. Are things changing fast enough?

A: It’s welcome, and it’s long overdue. Question is: When are they doing it? Are they doing it for real? By the way, McDonald’s pledge to get rid of antibiotics in their chicken remains just that: a pledge. So far we haven’t seen a whole hell of a lot.

And McDonald’s and others are responding to public pressure, but I don’t think we can rely on voluntary moves by industry to cover ourselves from a nutrition or health perspective. Some of it needs to be regulated. The easiest way to not eat hyper-processed foods they’re offering is to not go to fast food restaurants, plain and simple.

Q: 2-3 things colleges should be purchasing or not purchasing to leverage change?

A: One thing that chefs are really challenged by is the expectation that portions are going to be big, and the disappointment when portions seem too small, given the price. It’s an ongoing issue.

Back to what colleges can do: What I think should happen on college campuses, and in prisons, elementary school, everywhere there is food svc. Food should be sourced as locally as possible.

Relationships need to be forged between the institution + the actual growers, so there can be discussion about what’s needed, what’s desirable, and if the farmer can survive growing what the institution wants.

3) Blanket rule that we don’t buy animals that are raised with antibiotics. It can be done, and it will create more demand.

4) Universities have land. There should be gardens, there should be farms. There should be compost. The waste [universities] generate should be composted as much as possible, and given back to the farmers.

Q: Supply chains. Right now we’re dealing with avian flu. Is there something we can learn from this?

A: What we’re leaning is that that animals can’t be kept in horrific conditions. I know it’s not as simple as that, but it’s a starting place. Don’t keep animals in torturous conditions.

Food service is improving, to some extent it’s tokenism. And fast food is even worse. If you think of McDonald’s + Burger King as Fast food 1.0 and Chipotle, Panera as 2.0, what’s 3.0 going to be?”

Q: Drought in California. Thoughts on what we should be doing?

A: California is the largest dairy producer in the US, and the state doesn’t have the water to produce dairy. We’ve had all these weird market perversions. Water in California USED to be cheap, so we started growing things that shouldn’t necessarily be grown there.

All of this is forcing us to look at regional agriculture. Increasingly clear that that’s the way to do things.

Q: And that’s a very different solution than one that’s been used in the past: Let’s use GMOs.

A: No-one’s made a genetically-drought resistant vegetable.

Q: GMOs. Curious about your thoughts re: the World Health Org has come out with findings about carcinogenic properties in certain GMOs.

A: I can do this very quickly. I would NEVER raise the topic of GMOs myself but everyone always does. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I feel comfortable saying this: There’s nothing wrong with the technology, except it hasn’t done anything great. Eating a plant that’s been grown from a genetically modified seed is not different than eating a regular seed. But it’s been used to grow herbicide-resistant seeds, then you have to create a more effective herbicide.

Roudup has been found to be a probable carcinogen, so you don’t want to spray lots of Roundup or eat foods that have been sprayed with Roundup.

Organic food is way healthier for the guy in the field who’s being sprayed with pesticides.

That’s the GMO rant, I guess.

We all know if you start with real ingredients, you wind up with real food.”

Q: There’s a growing connection between food service and the way workers are treated.

A: We need to start thinking about people as well as animals. Talk about animal welfare as well as laborers. People supporting the Fight for 15, the struggle to raise minimum wage, or the plight of tipped workers. It’s a real sign of maturity that labor is now a real issue in the food world.

Q: We’re worked our way to the back of the house. People understanding millennials – Gen Zers, 17 years old and under. Is there something different on their minds?

A: I don’t claim to be an expert, but everyone seems to think that millennials care more about food than older gens. If that’s true, it’s good news.

Q: Older folks think about eating less meat, more fish. Otherwise not so different.

A: How many people are eating less meat than they were 10 years ago? [Audience raises hands]

Clearly most people I encounter eat less meat than they did 10 years ago. Fish is a problem: Some of it is raised in horrible conditions. Farm-raised fish has similar issues to farm-raised chicken.. Early on I wrote a lot about eating underutilized fish, and as soon as you mention one, they’re overfished in about 5 minutes.

It’s very hard to police the seas, and hard to get international agreements about fish. Fish are getting fished out. And industrialized fishing is so ruthlessly efficient. We don’t need to stop eating fish, but we need more campaigns to change how we fish.

The sooner we can teach 4-yr olds that veggies are their friends, the better off we’ll all be!”

Q: Sustainability has focused strongly on fish.

A: Smaller portion sizes with fish is a helpful thing to think about. 8-10 ounces is way too much. 2 ounces is more like it. The writing is on the wall: If we want all humans to eat well, we need to eat more plants, that’s clear. We need to eat less meat, and make sure that the meat and fish we do eat is harvested in such a way that it can last.

Q: Paleo diet?

A: It’s a fad.

Q: Next trend in how we eat?

A: I like the bowl concept because it puts a variety of things we like in the same place, it’s portable. We are a ways away from seeing radical change on our dinner plates, but lunch might be changing soon.

Q: Dietary guidelines: Is anything radical happening there?

A: It does matter. And the industry is fighting it, so… The proposed guidelines for 1st time take environmental guidelines into consideration, because meat is unsustainable. I wish it took sugars head-on: They’re insidious, and they’re damaging. Added sugar is one of the worst nutritional problems we are facing today.

Q: Your thoughts re: labeling at the point of purchase.

A: The quickest way to determine if food is worth eating is to see how many ingredients are in it. Of course you have to be careful that one ingredients doesn’t have 10 ingredients in it, complicated spice mixtures aside. If you look at a box of cocoa puffs, the ingredients list is going to be scarily long. If you look at a stir-fry, there will be 7-8 ingredients in there.

Q: Before we wrap up, we have 1-2 min to share your opinion on 2-3 things for chefs to focus on.

A: The info is the same, and you all know this and think about it. There’s a history in food service of taking shortcuts. We all know if you start with real ingredients, you wind up with real food. 2: To the extent that you can educate kids that vegetables are their friends, you’re doing everybody a favor. The problem is that food habits begin when we’re young. The sooner we can teach 4-yr olds that veggies are their friends, the better off we’ll all be!

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Topics: Interviews