The fourth annual Chicago Ideas Week conference on food, held at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on October 15, was called Food: Path to Your Plate. As the name suggests, the conference focused on the story of menu ingredients. Some of the key takeaways included the importance of farmer-chef relationships; biodiversity; GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling; and food as culture.
The first speaker was celebrity chef and restaurateur Mario Batali, who excitedly discussed the benefits of using seasonal produce. He explained how utilizing seasonal—even “odd”—produce purchased from a family farm encourages biodiversity. Even if chefs are unfamiliar with a particular piece of produce, Chef Batali insists that if you “put anything in the oven with oil and salt for 20 minutes, it will taste good.” This type of local sourcing can also be more cost-efficient.
Mario Batali at Chicago Ideas Week
Stephanie Izard, famed chef and Chicago restaurateur, participated in a discussion with her farmer Marty Travis of Spence Farm. Her top recommendations to restaurateurs were to get to know their farmers, visit the farms and ask questions, particularly about the animal feed and farming methods used. She also suggested checking to see if there are any additional produce items available for purchase at different times of the year.
Stephanie Izard at Chicago Ideas Week
Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Farm; Errol Schweizer, the executive global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market; and Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of The James Beard Foundation, were also on the panel.
Gary Hirshberg’s presentation expectedly focused on the U.S.’s GMO labeling policies; he’s currently the driving force behind the campaign JustLabelIt.org, lobbying for stricter labeling legislation. He discussed how his campaign is not an anti-GMO effort, but a fight for ingredient transparency. Errol Schweizer, who provided a retail perspective on organic food, said he strives to hold suppliers to even higher sustainability standards than those provided by the organic label.
Mitchell Davis finished up the conference with a slideshow on food and culture. He proposed that changing tastes spawn food trends, which sometimes then create permanent structural changes in the food industry. As tastes become increasingly complex and articulated (think of wine and coffee flavor nuances), the need for differentiated flavors and food and beverage specialists emerges. Changing tastes effectively transform commodities into culture.
The common theme uniting each presenter seemed to be the necessity of communication between food and people: food should tell a story. Where did it come from? How was it harvested? Who supplied it? How is it prepared?
This theme is especially relevant to today’s foodservice industry. Technomic’s recently published Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report shows that most consumers want restaurants to be more transparent about menu-item ingredients. Restaurants and retailers alike can choose to initiate open dialogues with their suppliers and pass these stories onto their consumers.