G.M.O.’s are a Distraction from Monetization

The NYT today published a highly detailed, informative, and brilliant piece by Gina Kolata on G.M.O.’s: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/health/a-proposal-to-modify-plants-gives-gmo-debate-new-life.html?hpw&rref=science&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well.

The piece notes that there is no legal definition of what a G.M.O. is.  In the EU zone, for example, the author notes,  “G.M.O. is defined by the process, not the product.”  So what is considered a non-G.M.O. plant in the U.S. would be considered G.M.O. in the EU if it is produced using any form of genetic engineering.

All the fuss about labeling of G.M.O’s is pertinent: A product labeled G.M.O. from Europe may have to have that label removed if sold in the U.S. should the label in the EU have been placed there because the product was produced through a process of genetic engineering.  I know, right?  Talk about “first world” problems.

Speaking about the rest of the planet outside of the “first world,” the article notes the huge benefits of G.M.O. crops in the developing world, giving this an example: “Scientists found the gene that makes the rice resistant to flooding; after a couple of years of crossbreeding, researchers were able to grow rice plants with the flood resistance gene of the ancient rice. Now, Dr. Schroeder says,flood-resistant rice is grown by more than four million farmers in Southeast Asia.”

Is cross-breeding, a form of genetic engineering, a G.M.O. crop?  It is in Europe.  But maybe not in the U.S.  If you want to ban G.M.O.’s, you ban crops that save lives.

Meanwhile, as the G.M.O. debate continues, the erosion of independent and small food industries by large-scale private capital, in the form of hedge funds and larger food corporations, continues unabated.  This week Hormel bought Applegate.  Products that show the greatest profit will be marketed; those that don’t will disappear.  Ah, the free market!



The Monetary Future of Restaurants

Today’s top food story: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/27/business/dealbook/hormel-foods-to-buy-applegate-farms-for-775-million.html?ref=business

Once again, not in the Food section of the paper where the lead story bemoans the coming closure of the lovely and exclusive Four Seasons restaurant.

No, the Business story reported that Hormel is buying out Applegate.  Hormel, which owns Spam and Skippy brands, is moving to organics.  That’s diversification, and a wise move!  It’s a reflection of the current and future way people eat here (and globally).

On the high end, there are restaurants that do not profit much, but serve as assets in hedge funds.  The two best known examples are 11 Madison and Noma.  Neither restaurant makes as much as a fast food franchise, but it’s pretty cool if you’re a billionaire to own a big share rather than a McDonald’s.

Noam Gottesman, for example, who made headlines this week in his marriage in Florence, Italy, which was attended by Beyonce and Jay Z, owns 11 Madison.  I’m not saying who owns Noma, but I know him well.


Anyway, the profits come from Spam and Skippy, not from the organics.  Not yet.  What will happen, I bet, is that the prices for organic products will get even higher; the standards by which a product is considered organic will become diluted; and, the organic products that are the cheapest to produce will dominate while those that have lower profit will disappear.


Where To Eat in NYC, Part 92

Sometimes I just want the comfort of favorite places, and 48 hours for a visit inspired by a celebration to mark the occasion of an uncle’s 90th birthday party isn’t enough time to explore new places to try and enjoy possibly delicious food.

So it went like this.

Rubirosa.  For my taste, the best pizza on Manhattan.  Thin crust, Staten Island style, with first rate cheese and high quality toppings served by hipsters in three rooms with tin ceilings in Soho.

Batard.  Easily among the best upscale restaurants I’ve eaten at in years.  In the former Montrachet and then Corton space, we’re talking refinement in a lively atmosphere with one of the country’s best price points for food of this caliber: $55 per person for two courses of Austrian-French cuisine.

Alimentari il Buco.  Delicious Italian food on Great Jones, with first-rate cured meats, wonderful pastas, flavorful entrees and vegetables, and a staff that knows how to care.

To say nothing of: The Brandy Library, Angel Share, Second Avenue Deli, and Russ & Daughters.


How To Sell Food To People Who Aren’t Hungry

There’s a great scene in, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” when the Wall Street trader turned inspirational speaker invites an audience to sell him a pen he holds up before them.  In succession, two men suggest that the pen is well priced, sleek, and lasts longer than other pens.  The trader scoffs at them and looking at the pen he says, simply, “You need this pen.”

In the world of arts, it’s the same.  Agents and producers–the people who must sacrifice time and effort for projects that may not monetize–operate on a realistic, short sighted business model.  Which is: This year people are buying shoes with laces, they aren’t buying shoes with buckles.  I can’t sell your buckle shoes.

But of course the huge hits in artistic fields were and are the works that aren’t anticipated and aren’t like what people are buying.  “Star Wars” was rejected by every major movie studio.  “The Sopranos” wound up on a then relatively unknown cable company called HBO.  “The Book of Mormon” was not an obvious choice for investors.  Ben Lerner’s brilliant novel, “Leaving the Atocha Station” was published by Coffeehouse in Minnesota and wound up as the book to read.

No Brian Epstein, no Beatles.  No Jay Z, no Kanye.

And so it goes with food.  What’s sold is the stuff that people are buying everywhere, whether it’s fancy-pants tasting menus that are a complete hodgepodge, or very cheap ingredients with lots of salt and fat that create enormous profit: Burgers, tacos, hot dogs, ramen, pizza.  The challenge is to come up with food that is so delicious that people will leave home to eat it, but isn’t like what people are already buying.

Why?  Because at the moment you least expect it people will stop buying what everyone else is buying and you’ll bust.  Or be old fashioned.  Or out of business.  Or corny.  Talk to me in ten years: Farm to table?   Celebrity chefs?  Yo-yo.  Hula hoop.

And local?  That’s a good one: Do you wonder why Hadley asparagus, Atlantic halibut, Maine scallops, etc. end up in NYC rather than most high-end Boston restaurants?  The NYC restaurants pay more for the ingredients because they are better able to sell them to their customers.  So much for local.  Local only if the farmer or producer accepts a price lower than what he or she gets elsewhere.

The best agents and producers and chefs are like that Wall Street trader: “You need this.”

Minimum Wage in L.A.

Los Angeles raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.  The reverberations will be big.  Other cities will follow to remain competitive in the job market and keep talent that might otherwise go to cities where they get paid more for the same work.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has been outspoken in its lobbying and P.R. to quash any rise in income for restaurant employees.  Arguing that this will cause an increase in prices charged to customers, decreased hiring, and a slow down of expansion, the NRA has been very effective in convincing legislators to oppose wage increases.

But it looks like the move by L.A. is a watershed moment.  Wages won’t be rolled back, and with the obvious benefits to both employee and community, restaurants that want to survive in a free market system will come up with business plans that take the wage increase into account.

Workers who get paid more are generally more productive, express greater job satisfaction, can try to save for the future, can try to afford to get better housing, and pay more state and federal taxes.  Greater productivity leads to higher profits for the restaurant owner.

You want employees who want to come to work.  Those that do, work harder, and make more money for their employer.


Ideology and Gastronomy

So the specifics and refinement of certain aspects of Japanese culture and gastronomy, whether it’s “High and Low,” by Kurosawa, or little, tiny tomatoes the size of peas, are related to a loss of identity and a desire to establish one that is firm and fixed.  By definition that means exclusivity.  A self-critical way of seeing things that minimizes things that disrupt the efforts to establish identity.

The most recent example of magnitude is the Abe government’s clampdown of media freedom in Japan.  Hey, if Canada was not our northern neighbor, but instead it was North Korea and China, the U.S. government might take a comparably dim view of media’s efforts to define national identity.

But reasons aside: the result is a closed society that cherry picks what is allowed in, and what isn’t.  There is great conformity and there is a wild, restless, marvelous creativity in Japan.

Essentially, the struggle is to establish identity through control: Bonsai or media, square-shaped watermelons or low immigration.

What this means for the future in a world where the best talent has a fluid, global opportunity is anyone’s guess.  What will happen in Japan as the best talent flocks to the EU zone and North America?

Italian-American Week

Yes, again.  And of course.  Last night it was slow roasted chicken stuffed with garlic and shallots and served with some baby Yukon’s, asparagus (Hadley!), ramps, and roasted peppers preceded by salami from Parma and ricotta with thinly sliced rainbow beets, olive oil, and yuzu powder.

Tonight it’s Everett ravioli with a butter-onion-tomato sauce, etc.

Sometimes simple food is satisfying.

It’s satisfying when I’m not seeking solace from it, ironically.

I mean: It’s been a good few days.

Yesterday, for example, an email from the U.K. arrived showing interest in my novel.  Strong interest.  Passionate interest.  Followed by a day of writing about Indians for my book on the community.  Interspersed with several articles about Japan for Travel + Leisure, Gastronomica, and Travel + Leisure SE Asia.


Easily one of the very best restaurants…

Giulia.  Of course.  It’s a small place, on Mass. Ave., just outside of Harvard Square, with an extremely well-defined menu.  About a half dozen little plates, like cicchetti, about a half dozen fatto in casa pasta, and about a half dozen main plates.

A little plate of a hamachi collar.  Pesto of ramps on a flat bread.  Grilled sardines. Bignoli with pancetta.  Halibut.  And what can you say about a restaurant that offers a $4 dessert of a stack of biscotti?

Littles plates: $5 each.  Pastas: Between $17-19.  Main plates: Twenties.

The music is all jazz and blues.  The wait staff is focused, thoughtful, and pleasant.  The room is perfectly lit.


Food Trends 2015

If you guessed kale or the return of happy hours, I am sorry, but you are incorrect. The future, as reported on the front page of today’s NY Times, is the monetization of the low end of the restaurant industry: 

That’s right.  The monetization of foods that at one time were the province of folks who knew how to run grills and drive trucks.  Mexicue, taking inspiration from the phenomenal success of the public offering of Shake Shack, aims to create food trucks that will yield well-thought out profits, uniformity, and marketing strategies which will in turn inspire others.

Its founders are both business graduates.  One with a degree in Business Administration, the other with an M.B.A.

The article reports: “Mexicue’s revenue topped $6 million in 2014, up from $500,000 in its first year in 2-10.  Plans are underway to open at least two new restaurants a year in hopes of generating at last $20 million in annual revenue in 2017.”

As word spreads of the successful monetization of food that is cheap to produce and easy to prepare, more business school graduates will find ways to monetize the restaurant world.

And why not?

What will happen is that fewer cooks will be able to capitalize on their cooking unless they pair with the money guys.  And there will be a wide split between the consumers who frequent Mexicue or Shake Shack and those who can get into the increasingly exclusive places.

Collateral effects?  More people will cook at home.  The guys who used to run food trucks will find new types of work.

All Japan, All the Time

It’s been a busy week in terms of my publications about Japan.  Yesterday my piece on Rene Redzepi ran in Travel + Leisure: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/rene-redzepi-in-kyoto?adbid=z12gsn2a4nzjgbihv04cefkacoysfpzg4pc0k&adbpl=gp&adbpr=101040862612408019192&short_code=2zd3x&xid=social_20150513_45674716

I had the good fortune to spend time with this deeply intelligent person whose curiosity about life translates into an awareness of nature’s bounty that is unique.

Earlier in the week, my piece about Niigata and Sado Island appeared in Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia.  Those regions, NW of Tokyo, are pretty untrammeled by any standard, and there is an appreciation for agriculture and a rural mentality that are refreshing.

And my recent piece in Gastronomica is out: All about the ideology, branding, and seasonality of Japanese cuisine.  Here’s a controversial paragraph from the piece:

“The myths of Japanese harmony with nature and an elevated aesthetic have also been debunked successfully by scholars such as Pamela Asquith who, writing in Japanese Images of Nature (1996) and elsewhere, notes that the war- time experience in the mid-twentieth century of Japanese colonizers is anything but a peaceful collaboration with the environment. In fact, it is worth considering whether or not the myth of a heavenly and deeply aesthetic appreciation by Japanese of nature is rooted in the years preceding and during World War II, and is a facet of imperialistic ideology meant to justify a colonial program of subjugation.”

Next up is a piece on micro-brewing in Japan, to be followed by a story on why Kyoto is the perfect sister of Boston.