Mark Bittman’s 5 opportunities for noncommercial operators

The future is in bowls and other prospects from the food industry’s famous critic.

Published in FSD Update

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If McDonald’s is Fast Food 1.0 and Chipotle is Fast Food 2.0, what is Fast Food 3.0?  According to author and sustainability advocate Mark Bittman, the answer lies at the bottom of a bowl.

1. Bowls are big

“We see a bowl in everybody’s future,” Bittman told an audience of college and university foodservice professionals during this week’s Chef Culinary Conference hosted by UMass. “The bowl is going to be the standard,” he said, adding “and I don’t think people are going to be satisfied if that bowl contains raw leafy vegetables.”

What will likely be in consumers’ bowls holds lots of opportunity for creativity and differentiation for both noncommercial and commercial foodservice operators. According to Bittman, it’s cooked vegetables, cooked grains, some kind of protein and some kind of sauce. “If you ask me what’s in that bowl, it’s what’s local and what’s seasonal,” he said. And it’s whatever it is the chef does best. “I like the bowl concept because it puts a variety of things we like in the same place. I’d be happy with that every day.”

It was just one of the takeaways Bittman shared during a 40-minute fireside-style chat during the weeklong conference focusing on the future of food and the power of the chef. Here are four more prospects plunked from his discussion:

2. There’s a revolution coming at lunch

When Bittman is talking about the opportunity in bowls, he’s talking about lunch. “I think lunch can be changed radically right now,” he said. Dinner, however, is a bigger challenge that will take more time to shift. “Older people still like to use a knife and fork [at dinner],” he noted. “That means you have to have some stuff you can tuck into.” Namely, meat.

3. Menu labeling shouldn’t be about how many calories, but rather how many ingredients

Like it or not, menu labeling is on the way. But Bittman thinks the real key to connecting with consumers looking for healthy options isn’t just in telling them how many calories or grams of salt an item has. “The quickest way to summarily judge if what you’re eating is worth eating is to see how many ingredients are in it,” he tells consumers. “If [chefs] cook honestly, you can make a good dish with five or seven ingredients, complicated spice mixtures aside.”

4. It’s not just about how you treat animals

The food movement has evolved in the last five years, Bittman said, from talking only about the animals to talking about people as well. While the debate continues about whether GMOs really are healthier or not, what’s not lost is the effect on the workers. “Organic may not be healthier for you, but it’s way healthier for the guy in the field, and that’s a factor,” he said.

“We need to start talking about the people as well,” he advised the room. That’s why we see people in the food movement supporting the Fight for $15 protests or wading into the tipped-wage debate. “It’s a sign of maturity among people who care about food or claim to care about food,” he said.

5. Noncommercial operators really can change the industry

Bittman floated four practical ways chefs and operators at colleges and universities as well as hospitals, elementary schools and prisons can begin to shift consumers’ thinking about eating a more plant-based diet—the key to sustainability, he says:

  • By sourcing food as locally as possible
  • By forging relationships between institutions and the growers of the food they serve; there must be a discussion of what’s needed and what’s desirable so that the farmer’s business can survive
  • By agreeing to a blanket rule not to buy animals that have been raised using a routine prophylactic round of antibiotics (“If Chipotle can do it, institutions can do it as well,” he said. “And more demand creates more supply.”)
  • By using the land they own to grow gardens and farms; “They can be experimental or provide food to the institutions, and there should be compost [that’s used or] given to the farmers we’ve now developed relationships with,” he said.

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