Silicon Valley Takes a BITE Out of Global Food Issues
BITE Silicon Valley, billed as “where food and technology meet,” was the first event of its kind in Santa Clara County. A three-day food extravaganza held at Levi’s Stadium the first weekend in June, it combined the red carpet glamour of celebrity chefs and presentations, panels and demonstrations by food innovators with food and wine tastings galore for foodies and food and tech industry professionals.
The weekend kicked off on Friday at Levi Stadium’s 501 Club with a full-day conference ending in an intimate dinner at Quattro Restaurant at the Four Seasons. I sat across from Ryan Beauregard of Beauregard Vineyards who happily gave me an impromptu lesson on the five Beauregard Vineyards wines paired with each course of the sumptuous dinner (replete with gelées and reductions) cooked by Quattro’s Chef Marco Fossati and guest Chef Craig Stoll of Delfina.
Upon entering Levi’s Stadium’s United Club on Saturday the excitement was palpable. As I tried to decide which dish to sample first, two women in their 30s shrieked at the sight of their “Top Chef” heroine, Mei Lin, and surreptitiously posed for a selfie while she carefully plated desserts just behind them. In my right hand I held Mei Lin’s creation, a feathery rich mango mousse paired with raspberry juice, toasted yogurt, bee pollen and a 3-D full-color passion fruit sugar flower creation by The Sugar Lab. It’s a riff on the dessert that helped her win on the “Top Chef” Season 12 finale. In my left hand I cradled Michael Voltaggio of Ink’s Hokkaido scallop, fermented cherry, lightly crunchy pork rind and hazelnuts dish.
Chefs proffered original savory and sweet creations plated on eco-chic compostable bamboo saucers. Wine purveyors and breweries stood ready, generously pouring for the delighted foodies strolling the aisles. There were smoked scallops, raw scallops and sautéed scallops and endless, often chocolatey, variations on the traditionally homey breakfast staple granola.
Louis Maldonado of spoonbar conjured up a savory chilled carrot broth, fermented curry and basils, texturally balanced with shallot + peanut granola. With it’s vivacious color, deeply distilled earthy taste, and satisfying crunch it held me so in thrall that I revisited Spoonbar’s table five times.
John Madriaga, chef de cuisine at Spruce, debuted a hard-shelled corn popsicle dusted with cheese and huitlacoche. John told me about the Filipino summertime street dessert that inspired his popsicle concept for BITE. “I’m Filipino and there’s a dessert back home that’s called maíz con hielo, which is some corn kernels in a glass with some evaporated milk, some condensed milk, some ice cubes, shaved ice. It’s just a really delicious, refreshing drink, and I wanted to do that in ice cream form.”
Bourbon Steak of Levi’s Stadium scored with an umami-filled black truffle, cured egg yolk, black garlic emulsion, steak tartare on Saturday and with Ora King salmon crudo complemented with caviar, yuzu kosho and creme fraiche on Sunday. Charles Phan of Slanted Door wowed with his exquisite, lightly sweetened coconut rice pudding, mango gelée and shiso.
John Prevot, Kite Hill’s head cheesemaker, told me all about his innovative almond cheese made with entirely plant-based enzymes. “My favorite one is the soft-ripened, because it’s really close to brie cheese and it’s also the most challenging to make.”
Tackling the Tough Issues
Upstairs in the Yahoo Fantasy Football Lounge, presentations and demonstrations continued throughout the weekend. Tim Geistlinger of Beyond Meat and Anya Fernald of Bel Campo Meat Co. spearheaded the meat platform. Chef heavyweights Jose Andrés of ThinkFoodGroup, protégé Michael Voltaggio of Ink and Richie Farina, formerly of Moto Restaurant, inspired with their visions of a more just and equitable future through food. Winemakers, distributors and authors passionately debated the future of wine, set in the dual contexts of today’s tech-savvy consumers and the current California drought.
In its inaugural year BITE made waves with a keen eye trained on the future, and food’s role in shaping that future. Consistent themes throughout the weekend included social justice issues of equal access to food (and stoves to cook it!); a more plant-centric diet that would sustainably fuel healthy eaters and a healthier planet; and the campaign to decrease food waste.
Chef Jose Andrés set the tone for BITE with a fervent call to action, as he urged the assembled glitterati of the culinary world to consider “how we can use these technologies not only in America but to help those in the developing world,” pointing out how Silicon Valley is uniquely situated, both geographically and intellectually, to lead the way in food and technology.
As the weekend progressed, it was clear that reducing waste was a high priority for many BITE attendees. Michiel Bakker of Google noted that his company uses Clean Path to track food waste and reduction and donates food at the end of each day to Feeding America. Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg applauded Food Recovery Network’s efforts to reduce cafeteria waste on university campuses nationwide. Robert Egger of L.A. Kitchen pointed out that “all this waste is lost profit.” Bon Appétit Management Company’s Maisie Ganzler argued for business leadership of the waste-reduction movement. “I’m not going to wait for policy to make my business better. We need to invest money in food recovery infrastructure.”
Plant-centric eating was the headliner item for BITE this year. Josh Tetrick of Hampton Foods (maker of eggless products Just Mayo and Just Cookies) emphasized the need for a “different food system … not just for the 300 million Americans, but for the 9½ billion people that are going to be running around on this planet in 2050.” Google’s Bakker issued a clarion call, posing the question “How do we increase the appeal of plant-based protein?” and relating Google’s success in pivoting employees towards a more plant-centric diet by cuisines in that genre, namely Mediterranean, Southeast Asian and Latin.
There was clear agreement across the board that the plant-centric eating movement must be promoted in a consumer-palatable manner, with many chefs and food manufacturers taking pains to purposefully distance their product from the vegan label. Robert Egger suggested “putting two shrimp on someone’s couscous” as a way to work within mainstream America’s food eating sensibilities. Loco’l’s Roy Choi urged us “to start to speak a language that relates to people who are outside the universe of food,” and shared snippets of a food comic strip he’ll be debuting soon which aims at increasing food literacy and awareness in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods.
The Tech Connect
Technological smarts at BITE were well-represented by plant-protein trendsetters Tim Geistlinger of Beyond Meats and Josh Tetrick of Hampton Foods, Monsanto CTO Robb Fraley who shared his belief on GMOs’ role in agricultural stability and Munchery co-founder Tri Tran, who spoke on the role of blast chilling, apps for delivery team members and mobile ordering, moisture and heat probes and teched-out packing accuracy in Munchery’s meteoric success. Nomiku co-founder and CEO Lisa Fetterman excitedly told a rapt audience about Nomiku’s sous vide immersion circulator. “We’re using technology here that’s never been used in a kitchen appliance.”
Sunday’s wine seminar featured six wines, including Inman Family “Olivet Grange” Pinot Noir, farmed using solar power, and Donkey & Goat’s 2013 Mourvèdre “The Prospector” El Dorado, produced with the help of neutron probes to assess water needs and maximize water usage efficiency.
Also checking out the scene was BITE sponsor Table8’s co-founder Santosh Jayaram and fellow social dining startup Nommery, brainchild of SF Foodies founder Melisa Lin. Michael Voltaggio shared his view that “technology functions like a modern-day dinner table, connecting people separated by geography, language or experiences,” and regaled us with his use of “snows, gels, rocks, gems, hay, butter, branches” to convey one-of-a-kind dining experiences. Francisco Migoya, author of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, forecast infrared heat as the next big technology in food. BITE was a food event well worth attending, both for the sake of my taste buds and happy stomach and for my inner food tech geek. Next year promises to be an even bigger celebrity chef-studded, food and tech collaboration where food fantasies come true.