Food Innovation Symposium, UC Berkeley, 2018

UC Berkeley’s 2018 FoodInno Symposium brought together the most innovative food leaders from Copenhagen, to China, to the Bay Area to design the future of food experiences. Together, 100+ attendees explored deliciousness and the possibilities of crafting food and spirits using the best ingredients with resources cultivated by the most honest farmers who are dedicated to creating a more direct and environmentally conscious supply chain.

Exploring how to push flavor using “unusual” ingredients is an exciting and challenging area in the gastronomical arena, but how does one achieve this at scale? Does creating artisan products using heirloom ingredients at scale take away from the attentiveness to detail, thus creating a less fine product? How can we be responsible consumers? What does it take to change cultural perceptions of food? These were just some of the topics explored during the one-day symposium.

Keynote speaker Lars Williams, former head of R&D at NOMA and cofounder of Empirical Spirits, kicked off the symposium by speaking about how he creates a positive impact on his community with his food and spirits. Respecting every player in the food production process, his spirits start off with ethically sourced grains. With these grains, he then leans on his global community, technology, recipes, and techniques to create and share flavors never before experienced.

Daniel Press, a professor at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), spoke about his experience on the university campus creating apprentice farming training programs. Through his experience, he found that the most salient food topics on campus are food education and food justice – in particular, food security for college students. Teaching students how to cultivate the land, cook salubrious meals for themselves, and how to alleviate food insecurity by generosity sharing excess produce from UCSC's edible gardens has dramatically helped to reduce food insecurity on the UCSC campus. Bringing sustainability education into the student’s lives also has profound implications for protecting the planet. Thus, food justice is inextricably connected to social justice.

Ethically sourcing beans was a topic that both Laura Sweitzer of TCHO (Chocolate) and Noushin Katabi of Vega Coffee could relate to. On the back of every TCHO bar it says, “no slave” in addition to “fair trade”. Forced slave labor and paying wages that are not livable are pervasive in the process of growing and sourcing chocolate, yet TCHO aims to change that. Vega is also a leader in providing its farmers a fair and livable wage. Using a novel approach of cutting out most steps in the supply chain, Vega connects farmers directly to coffee consumers. This ensures that the farmer sees a higher return from their crop, in addition to giving the consumer fresher beans. Vega also empowers their farmers by teaching them marketing tools so they may make decisions for their business that support them.

In the afternoon session Rediscovering Grains, a panel of farmers and bakers got together to discuss how to humanize agriculture. Farmer Mai Nguyen of Sonoma Grains and the California Grain Campaign passionately spoke to how we can work towards a future of equality – starting with a kernel of wheat. A UC Berkeley graduate herself, Mai pivoted from her background in geography to growing largely heirloom grains because she believes in the power of producing healthful and delicious food using environmentally regenerative methods.

Brandon Jew, head chef of the Michelin Star restaurant Mister Jui’s, poetically struggled to explain how he has created a type of Chinese cuisine unique to him. He acknowledges that his food is not identical to that found in China, and he joked that he won’t even attempt to make xiao long bao because it just won’t be as good as it is in China – which to him is the minimum criteria when he decides to add a dish to his own menu. However, growing up in the Bay Area, he has been exposed from an early age on the bounty of California’s produce and wondrous purveyors. So instead, he uses Chinese sensibility and Bay Area ingredients to create his own version of Cali-Cantonese cuisine. He believes that the high quality of the local ingredients enhances the natural flavors and elevates his food to an unprecedented level. The Dutch crunch pork buns exemplify that and are a beautiful ode to the fusion of these two culinary traditions.

The conference finished with Lauren Shimek, former head of IDEO’s Food Studio and currently the Founder and CEO of Food.Tech.Design. In her food designs, she uses empathy to create impactful food products. Rough and rapid prototyping, where you can fail early to succeed sooner, are key methods at the core of the design methodology she practices and preaches. She left us with this question, “How might we tell compelling stories about food in a human-centered way?”

Designing the future of food is not only about food, it is also about people. Taking a moment to understand how we can create community through food is perhaps the key to helping solve some of the most complex problems of our time.