Food is a great connector. In recent days, the death of Anthony Bourdain has reminded people of how food connects us. Yet, the food industry is not immune to digital disruption. So what is the future of food, and how do we make sure that all important human connection is maintained?
Will my son, who is three, be able to cook? I cook, and both my parents have worked as cooks, so I imagine that I will pass that skill on. But like driving, it might not be up to me. Cooking could become a specialised skill – or a hip one. Like listening to vinyl or playing physical board games. A novel recreation rather than an every day need.
I see the rise of Blue Apron, Uber Eats and the services around food, and it is going to change the way we make food. There’s a sandwich place I really like in Marrickville (Reuben Republic), but by the time I have finished my meal, a couple of dozen Uber Eats/Foodora/Deliveroo divers have come through. A majority of their work is delivery. I’m sitting in the store, reading a physical newspaper, like a relic of the past.
Now let’s tip the scales. If you get to the point where 80 percent of your business is delivery – how long before you close the door and just make nothing but food to deliver? Like the strange button shop on King St that does all their business online, why even open the doors and spend the cost on cleaning, cutlery and chairs? Let alone expensive licenses.
When the scales tip, they will tip for everyone. And when it doesn’t matter so much where you cook from, I imagine food will crash with another modern idea – hotdesk workplaces. I imagine an Ikea sized building, with specific but modular fittings for food creation – fridges, ovens, ventilation. It will be taken over by hundreds of vendors, big and small. And that hub serves several neighbourhoods. That strip of local restaurants will become a warehouse, with a large fleet of motorcycles, or probably drones.
That might seem extreme, but it’s definitely one way it could go. There’s a brutal, technological brilliance there. The Amazon-ing of cooked meals. With costs coming down because of the shared space, and technology driving speed increases, the game will be about delivery. You can track your meals. You can set recurring orders. Maybe even your own health data is in your profile, and allergies are taken care of. Maybe the app even tracks your intake. With managing and limiting screen time being the craze of 2018, are we that far from Foodora stepping in and giving you tools to manage your sugar?
The line about self driving cars is that it is scary until you need it. When you are hungover but need to go somewhere. Or when you can find a park so the car can go park itself in its own time. So too will the culture shift be invisible when any food you want can be delivered to your door, any time, all the time. I want a hot dog right now.
The problem with this technological efficiency is that it’s a cultural dead end. How will people discover new food? And the culture behind the food? Here is where I worry.
Hopefully, the ease of cooking promotes variety. Anyone who cooks knows that there are like maybe ten dishes in the world. Every culture has a curry, or a casserole, or a dumpling, or a noodle salad. Kimchi is essentially sauerkraut. So hopefully those similarities will drive that variety. That en masse, it’s actually easy to make a lot of different dishes from different places. This is your food for life – it needs to be more food you’ve never heard of than meals you know.
Ingredients will be a problem. With a single cooking hub, I expect business will get in the way. Is there a single tomato sponsor? A banana deal? I would like to think not – that any food hub that goes down this road will lose to the tastier food hub who lets the people who want to cook do their best. I think word of mouth will still exist in this world. But I also grant you Uber Eats does a lot of McDonalds business. But if in your app there is a delicious wood fried pizza or something from Dominos, with a small cost difference, I would like to think the Wood Fried Pizza team would be able to stay in business.
Discovery will be a problem. How do we learn about new foods? I really hope it doesn’t become like Spotify, where the app and the hub holds all the power. The food hub’s weekly playlist of dishes driving what people eat – a literal recipe for disaster. Which is why we need the children of Anthony Bourdain. We need cooking shows, meal shows, the way we need film shows and music shows. Best new albums? New blockbuster at the cinema? New cuisine for me to try?
Which is the reason I am writing this at all. That it has been on my mind that we need more shows like Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil or David Chang’s Ugly Delicious. And Anthony Bourdain’s wonderful shows should be treated like the Beatles back catalogue. Food shows that aren’t about cooking, but about eating, about history, about culture, about language, about life.
There is one other, important thing we need to do, no matter what happens with food and cooking as it clashes against technology. We have to keep the doors open. I can see that Ikea like hub of food stalls, but I use Ikea as the model – not an Amazon warehouse. Wherever people make food, in the future, it is essential that we can get near it. And if it’s a strange warehouse with 100 stalls inside, that it is one where people can walk around, soak up the smells, and try something. Not everyone will go, and not everyone will go all the time. But some will – and they will be literal tastemakers, who can spread the word. We should reward risk takers.
This is a fantasy. I can see restaurants going away. They’ve existed for millennia. But as the process of making and discovery of anything continue to be hidden away in black mirrors in our pockets, we need to start talking more about the things we love. And everyone loves a good meal.
For Anthony Bourdain