Food & drink

Dark kitchens

When it comes to new food trends, there’s a constant supply to choose from. For instance, we’re seeing booze-free bars, alcohol-free cocktails, meat-free burger restaurants, purple vegetables, Japanese dude food and a bunch of faddy ingredients ranging from turmeric to timut pepper.

But perhaps one trend to really watch is the rise of the dark kitchen. In early 2019, it became known that a company owned by the former CEO of Uber had acquired more that 100 dark kitchens across London. What’s a dark kitchen? You are unlikely to see one first hand, but these are kitchens dedicated to producing food that is delivered via apps such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

What’s the problem here? On one hand, nothing. It’s merely the latest way to make eating faster, more convenient and cheaper. On the other hand, these anonymous kitchens on the cheaper edges of town are replacing hospitality with a supply chain. Gone is the interaction of chefs and servers with customers and gone is the esprit de corps of the kitchen. Dark kitchens de-skill chefs, replace real local restaurants and distance people even more from where their food comes from. The fact that many of these kitchens are not even owned by the brands they supposedly represent also potentially represents a breakdown of trust and authenticity.

Food can be created and consumed for one of two reasons: love or money. But as the US poet and writer Jim Harrison once wrote: “Distance from food preparation poisons the soul with cold abstractions.” Distance from where things come from more generally seems to be the real trend of our times.

Ref: FT (UK) 30-31.03.19, “‘Dark kitchens’ spell trouble for the restaurant trade” by T. Hayward.

Designer plants from gene editing

The dominant science of the 21st century so far is biology, and the design of genomes to create new varieties of plants and animals could become a new art form. Either that, or a new source of misinformation and fear.

Case in point, perhaps, is gene editing to create new forms of soya beans in the US. GMOs have divided opinion ever since they were introduced, but despite this over 90 per cent of the US soya crop is now GMO. Outside of the US, GMOs have largely been resisted.

Enter something new. A startup called Calyxt has created a new form of soya bean using what is essentially an accelerated form of conventional plant breeding. The US Department of Agriculture does not consider the resulting new plants a “regulated article” because the breeding technique does not use plant pathogens like bacteria, or DNA. In other words, since this new technique does not use DNA from another plant, there is much less risk from accidental cross-contamination.

Nevertheless, the issue is still divisive. The US authorities approve, as do Sweden and the Netherlands, but New Zealand does not. China is sitting on the fence.

The question of whether gene-edited crops can dodge the GMO label is important. If such crops are labelled ‘Frankenfood’ their impact could be minimal, but if they are approved then global agriculture could change very fast indeed. Of course, typically, the general public has had almost no say in this whatsoever and generally doesn’t even know this is happening. At the moment gene-editing is being used to make food more palatable or healthier. If it can also be used to increase yields then this too could be transformational.

Ref: MIT Technology Review (US) Vol 121, No 1, These are not your father’s GMOs by Antonio Regalado.

Smart kitchens

The kitchen is where Americans spend 60 per cent of their awake time at home, so various people with nothing better to do are trying to figure out ways to embed the digital transformation further into the kitchen.

Some over-caffeinated commentators are suggesting that, in five or ten years, most kitchens will feature AI in some guise or another. I presume these are the same people that are trying to figure out how to connect juice blenders to the internet.

We’ve been here before, of course. As far back as the 1950s giddy consumer appliance manufacturers were making short films about fully automated kitchens, robo-butlers and other super-exciting, time-saving devices. But with a few exceptions, most of these ideas have gone into the kitchen garbage, along with the internet-connected fridge. What has, of course, happened, at least for now, is the appearance of TVs in the kitchen and latterly smart voice-controlled devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home.

So, what’s next? According to the technologists the answers might include an AI that will understand your food history and order all the ingredients for your grandma’s chicken soup because it’s noticed that the weather forecast is rain next week and there’s been a historical correlation between wet weather and soup consumption recently. Or perhaps you’ll have pans that talk to your cooker to turn down the heat if you leave something on for too long. Or maybe your fridge will be able to work out what’s inside it and order what you need to make various meals over the coming weeks, again based on known dietary needs and consumption history.

Or maybe not. Such sugary-sweet scenarios usually ignore the human element. Yes, people are busy and want to save time, but people also like to cook and many people quite like the serendipity of working out what’s good to eat on a particular day. Putting aside the problem of how an AI or robot might work out if a pear or avocado is ripe (probably not that hard), there’s the issue of the sense of satisfaction people get when they learn how to cook or learn to become better at cooking. Cooking food, like shopping for food, is emotional, creative, sensual and often social.

In the future, we may not need to know how to cook, but I suspect we’ll rather want to.

Ref: New York Times, 13.10.17. ‘A future with no cooking’ by Kim Severson.

The fasting fad

The idea, prevalent in Silicon Valley, that our bodies are machines that can be quantified and optimised, can be seen in a few related human-enhancement trends. One is transhumanism, in which human lifespans can be radically extended, potentially even transcending what a few technologists have called “the death problem”. Good luck with that.

A related obsession is extreme fasting. It’s long been known that extreme calorie restriction can extend the life of certain animals. Fasting is somewhat different, and two-day fasting has become common of late (e.g. the “5:2” diet). Over in Silicon Valley a handful of high-profile tech titans are extolling the virtues of not eating (or not eating very much) and in some cases drinking only water for three days straight.

The theory seems to be that self-examination creates self-improvement, and if you can use tech to monitor “calories in” as well as “calories out” then that’s possibly a good thing. But taking this too far creates eating disorders, notably anorexia. Not eating for eight to 13 hours seems totally fine, but once you tip over into not eating for 16-36 hours, things can start to go wrong.

Oddly, the fad seems to be driven by men — like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — and has a slight whiff of “alpha male” about it. Silicon Valley, in particular, seems to be developing a range of pseudo-scientific terminologies to distance male fasting from female anorexia. Techies don’t diet; instead they undertake “fasting protocols”. They don’t count calories, they “quantify metabolic markers”, and they don’t aim to lose weight but rather they “optimise”.

Ref: The Guardian, 21.2.19, ‘Extreme Fasting: how Silicon Valley is rebranding eating disorders’ by A. Mahdawi

Underwater agriculture

You’ve heard of vertical farming, hydroponics and no doubt fish farming, but what about underwater pod agriculture? You might be thinking fish — but no, underwater pods are a new way to grow crops under the water where the weather can be controlled more easily than on land.

Nemo’s Garden, as it’s known locally, was set up 100m off the coast of Noli, a town on the Italian coast, in 2012. Five air-filled greenhouses are used to grow a range of plants ranging from basil and lettuce to strawberries and beans.

If the world is running out of arable land, or climate change makes some regions more difficult to farm, underwater farming might be just the ticket. The Nemo’s Garden pods are 20-35 feet underwater and can harvest sunlight from above, making them warmer than the surrounding sea, and they also retain much of this heat at night, thereby reducing the need for artificial heating. Water comes from droplets condensing on the pods’ inner surface, but could in theory come from desalination too.

The costs, as you might imagine, are currently huge and leaks are not insignificant, especially when heavy storms hit, but with a billion more mouths to feed these pods might be a feature of the future.

Ref: Sunday Times magazine (UK) 27.8.17 "Nemo’s garden"