Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.
The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)
Free range, heirloom, family-owned ─ farm-to-table eating frequently includes practices that not only improve food’s flavor but are better for the land, animals, customers and employees. At Bloomberg, Deena Shanker examines a problem that’s arisen from America’s increasingly sophisticated appetites and the corporatization of its food system: that even as more people seek noncommodity meat, a dearth of facilities able to process small farmers’ animals keeps costs up, prices high and farmers driving for hours before they can plate your meal.
Finding a local slaughterhouse is not just a matter of time and convenience. Small-scale farmers with heritage animals pride themselves on the higher animal welfare standards they say produce superior meat. After devoting months to carefully raising rare breeds on customized diets, farmers are loathe to end the animals’ lives at facilities that may mistreat them. Farmers say they will travel longer distances for better facilities they trust more. The last slaughterhouse Stone Barns used, Haynes said, was mistreating the animals. “I’m not working with those guys anymore. They don’t respect us, don’t respect the animals.”
It’s not just a compassion issue—transportation of livestock is often cited as a major stressor for animals and associated with lower meat quality, and the last hours or minutes in an animal’s life can undo months of effort.
Facilities that are better for animals are often likely to be better for workers, too. Unlike the large processing houses, where workers’ repetitive motions often lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries, Dealaman’s workers move around, trading positions and tasks, one minute gutting, the next sweeping, the next scalding. This is not uncommon in small operations, but it also adds to the price of meat.
Patterson stepped out the back door onto a sunny patio where three neighborhood men worked as “ambassadors” — greeters, really, but also unofficial security guards and community liaisons tasked with convincing neighbors that Locol really was for them. Watts has such a deep history of economic betrayal and abandonment, such pervasive skepticism about outsiders making big promises, and such well-founded fear of gentrification — a billion-dollar “urban transformation” plan has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti — that acceptance of a splashy new restaurant created by two famous outsider chefs who are not African American was not a given.
Patterson embraced an ambassador named Anthony “Ant” Adams, a 44-year-old poet who was in the middle of telling a visitor about getting shot five times with an AK-47 during a 2007 attempt on his life a few yards from where he was currently standing. Patterson then walked past an ATM/lottery/tobacco shop where floor-to-ceiling bulletproof Plexiglas separated customers from the cashier and inventory. He entered a store called Donut Town & Water, where a young man sold doughnuts, water, and other convenience foods, also from behind Plexiglas. Patterson ordered coffee to go and said, as if exhilarated by the speed and audacity of his own thoughts, “I can’t remember if I told you that Roy and I might start a coffee company, too. We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.”
I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…
The first restaurant chain in the US, the late-19th-century Harvey House, popped up in train stations and followed the rapid growth of rail travel. It disappeared decades ago, but the project of connecting huge swaths of land with the promise of culinary sameness lives on. In a country that currently seems fractured and exhausted by its own divisions (at least from across the Canadian border, where I live), are chains a unifying force, a common denominator — or yet another arena in which cultural and political tensions play out?
Here are some of my favorite reads on America’s restaurant chains, from the generically upscale to the proudly down-home. They cover politics, economics, regional identity, and even (surprise!) food.
In 2012, the snack company Mondelez, the owner of Cadbury’s, made another misstep. When it changed the classic rectangular chunks of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk into curved segments, customers complained that the chocolate tasted “too sugary” and “sickly.” Spence and other researchers have found that curved shapes can enhance sweetness. In one experiment, diners reported that a cheesecake tasted twenty per cent sweeter when it was eaten from a round white plate rather than a square one. In any case, Spence said, consumers are constantly, if unwittingly, proving his point that taste can be altered through color, shape, or sound alone. “These effects do exist,” he said. “The only question is whether and how we will use them.”
—Nicola Twilley, writing in The New Yorker about how the color of containers and the sound of food ─ even the sound of packaging ─ influences our perception of flavor, and how one researcher is enlarging science’s understanding of the multisensorial experience of eating.
Although it felt better to raise cattle that weren’t drugged up, economically it was hard to rationalize the decision. Sales barns in the Midwest feed into the industrial agricultural system and make no distinction between grass-fed beef and doped up beef. A farmer just pulls his trailer up to the sales barn, drops the cattle off, and the buyers—huge conglomerates like Hormel, Tyson Foods, or Swift—establish the price for that day. Farmers found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Many opted to cut back on hormones and make up the extra cash in town working a full time job.
The key to sustaining an organic, traditional farming operation is to link the small farms of the Driftless with nearby big city markets. Jamie’s man on the ground in cities of the Midwest is Todd Moore, a veteran of Chicago’s punk-rock kitchens and Milwaukee’s best French restaurants. He runs sales and operations for Jefferson Twp., which means he is in a lot of restaurants, speaking with a lot of chefs, passing out a lot of sample slabs of grass-fed beef and pork.
—Sascha Matuszak, writing in Roads & Kingdoms about the distinct geological, agricultural and socio-political identity of the Driftless, a four-state region within the American Midwest that was not scoured by glaciers, and where small-scale farming thrives.
Olive-oil fraud was already common in antiquity. Galen tells of unscrupulous oil merchants who mixed high-quality olive oil with cheaper substances like lard, and Apicius provides a recipe for turning cheap Spanish oil into prized oil from Istria using minced herbs and roots. The Greeks and the Romans used olive oil as food, soap, lotion, fuel for lamps and furnaces, a base for perfumes, and a cure for heart ailments, stomach aches, hair loss, and excessive perspiration. They also considered it a sacred substance; cult statues, like the effigy of Zeus at Olympia, were rubbed regularly with oil. People who bathed or exercised in Greek gymnasiums anointed their bodies as well, using oils that were scented with pressed flowers and roots. Some scholars link the central place of olive oil in Greek sports, which were performed in the nude, with the rise of bronze statuary in the sixth century B.C. “A tanned athlete, shining in the summer sun, covered with oil, would really resemble a statue of the gods,” Nigel Kennell, a specialist in ancient history at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, said. Belief in the sacred, health-giving properties of olive oil continued in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. “Christ” is from the Greek christos, meaning “the anointed one”—anointed with olive oil.
—From “Slippery Business,” Tom Mueller’s 2007 story for the New Yorker about olive oil fraud. The recent spike in olive oil prices due to a disease in Italy nicknamed “olive ebola” and drought in Spain could spur more fraud: “When prices are high and supplies reduced, there is more incentive for fraud and for criminals to get involved,” a lawyer who specializes in food told the Financial Times last month.
Fortune writer Beth Kowitt reports on the packaged-food industry’s response to an existential crisis: Shoppers are seeking alternatives they deem healthier and more authentic than legacy brands.
In addition to selling fruit and veggie drinks, Bolthouse grows and packages fresh carrots—an old-fashioned, weather-sensitive farming business that Morrison suspected would be a turnoff for any packaged-goods company, including her own. True enough, Morrison’s board was skeptical at first. “Carrots, Denise? Really?” asked one director. But in the end, the numbers sold themselves. The so-called packaged-fresh sector, where Bolthouse was a standout, was already an $18.6 billion business—and one with promising growth.
Campbell paid $1.56 billion for the company in 2012. Today it has roughly half that amount (more than $800 million) in sales. The following year Morrison bought baby-food maker Plum Organics for $249 million. (It has over $90 million in sales.) Both of these new businesses are small in the context of the soup company’s total $8.3 billion in revenue, but they are transformational in their own way—giving Morrison some pastoral cred when she calls Campbell an “organic carrot farmer.”
The acquisitions have also, as intended, shifted Campbell’s center of gravity—moving it closer to what the food industry calls “the perimeter,” the outer ring of the supermarket where fresh foods are stocked. This is where the big growth is.
More important, Morrison didn’t just set out to buy Bolthouse, she went after Bolthouse’s DNA. Following a trend in the tech industry, legacy food companies are on an acqui-hiring spree, hoping to gobble up foodpreneurs, their more agile management operations—and their know-how in the natural food arena. Morrison made Jeff Dunn, who had been president of Bolthouse, the head of Campbell’s new “packaged fresh” division, where he is tasked with expanding the portfolio (though Dunn is cagey about what that might entail).
The companies that make up the flavor industry — including international manufacturers such as Givaudan, Firmenich and Sensient — are not household names. But they make their money by selling flavors to big food companies such as Kellogg, Kraft and Nestlé.
Last year, Switzerland-based Givaudan reported 4.4 billion Swiss francs (roughly $4.8 billion) in sales of flavor ingredients. The company leads the industry with about 25 percent of the global market share in flavors and fragrances.
“The modern processed food industry could not flourish without the flavor industry,” said Kantha Shelke, a food scientist and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists, a society of food science professionals.
Today, Shelke said, the flavor industry is “big, it’s complicated and it’s sophisticated” — to the point where companies can create a product that tastes like guacamole without even using avocado as an ingredient. The goal, one industry scientist told CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2011, is to develop addictive flavors that consumers “want to go back for again and again.”
—The Center for Public Integrity reporters Chris Young and Erin Quinn report on how a food industry trade group, not the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, oversees the safety of flavor additives in the U.S.