The Chefs Table

From Farm to Spork: Will Restaurants Become Obsolete?

Posted in The Chefs Table by ftiess on the November 4th, 2013

Larousse Gastronomique which was written by Prosper Montagné describes the modern restaurant very differently than Mr. Bean may understand it today. The origin of the word Restaurant first appeared in the 16th century to describe a food that “restores” basically a restorative, or in French a restaurative These dishes were rich, highly flavored soups, made from a combination of ingredients with the intention of restoring a person’s lost strength due to either illness or malnutrition.
Until the late 18th century, the only opportunity an ordinary person would have to eat out was in the dining room of an inn, or at the table of a taverns or pub. Since most folks did not travel it was most likely at the tavern, to basically get legless while meeting up with their mates.
Food shops existed to supply roasted meats, breads, and preserved food items, and these shops were regulated under a tightly controlled system of Guilds, which of course was controlled by the ruling class. Both Inn and Tavern served food but the main purpose of the visit was not to sit down and be served a meal as we understand a restaurants purpose today.
In about 1765, right after the Seven Year War which decimated France and led it into near Bankruptcy, which also caused as a grain shortage and sub sequent riots. A Parisian “bouillon-seller” named Boulanger, his name translates to Baker, wrote on his sign: Boulanger sells restoratives “fit for the gods”…This was the first restaurant in the modern sense of the term. Larousse indicates that this first dish was a soup made from sheep hooves, which Boulanger declared as a restorative because of the richness. Historical legend suggests that the entrepreneur Boulanger had an ulterior motive. This was also to avoid paying the required fees to the guilds which regulated food production in shops and on the street. So to avoid these fees he opened a soup shop because there was not a Soup maker’s guild. Basically our entire system of restaurant operation is founded in the notion of not having to pay the ruling party their tax, not that present day restaurateurs would ever entertain that concept on April 15th.
In 1766 the Maison de Sante , the house of health, was opened by Roze and Pontaille who followed the entrepreneurial lead that Boulanger had established to supply the growing demand for meals away from home and industry was born and based upon providing a food service that was supposed to restore someone’s health.
Restaurant did make progress through the 1950’s when a new venue came to the market place. The Fast Food Restaurant. Today 70% of our breakfasts are consumed via the drive through window – fast food has changed the way we eat, for many of us it has changed the definition of the restaurant because of the cost of products sourced to keep the prices relatively low.
America has made progress in food production through agriculture. These products are readily available to all socioeconomic levels at home and abroad. Livestock is bigger because of genetic modifications and commodity feed supplies. Fresh produce is more visually appealing because much of the less attractive products are sold in bulk to food processing plant. Lets examine the real issues as to why the landscape has changed in the restaurant business. Lets ask some of the tougher questions.
Over 90% of the food produced today is owned by six major corporations. One of the reasons for this unification of productions is because of farm subsidies. These subsidies were originally designed to help struggling farmers 75 years ago. These subsidies are still in effect , resulting in over 20 billion tax dollars that go directly to the producers of corn, soy, wheat, rice, corn fed livestock, tobacco, and cotton.
Does this sound familiar? The production of food was controlled by guilds, now they are controlled by multinational corporations. Don’t get me wrong there isn’t anything wrong with a company making a profit in order to supply our population with quality food. Every family wants to send their children to bed without being hungry. In addition there is no way that the 10% of food producers could every fill the order of the masses.
Since these food innovations began the number of meals produced in U.S. restaurants has grown exponentially from 60 million meals daily in 1948 to today’s figure of over 130 million meals per day, produced in over 955k establishments, with restaurant sales of $660 billion. Population has also grown from 150 million in 1948 to 315 million in 2013, this indicates that meals served is proportional to population growth. A key indicator that the food service industry has grown is the rise in restaurant employees, up 1.5 million from 10 years ago to 13.1 million with growth projections of an additional 1.3 million over the next ten years.
With all of these great innovations, processes and economic changes what has happened to the restaurant patron, has our dining preference changed from 50 years ago?

It is not the number of meals served that is in question , therefore it must be something else. Perhaps it is not the frequency of meals but the volume of what is served. After all we eat with our eyes first, and we have an inherit desire to get what we believe to be value for our dollar. Look at your last restaurant experience, how many of the items you consumed were the result of commodity food production.
Is the volume of food portioned on the plate the reason why obesity has risen to epidemic levels? We or at least some of us are getting larger, is it simply because we are consuming the Flinstonian size portions that are being served to us.
Our menus feature mountainous portions of processed corn fed proteins served over pastas with creamy based sauces that are usually taken home because our customers fill up on the endless bowl of iceberg lettuce tossed with partially hydrogenated corn oil and artificial flavorings, and of course baskets of piping hot bread sticks. Some customers perceive this as a value.
Others are simply trying to find a reasonably priced meal that is based upon the quality…. over the quantity of ingredients.

Is this the contributing factor to the steady rate of heart diseases deaths? Heart disease resulted in 1 in every 4 deaths last year, costing us $109 billion. Most Americans are aware of the link between nutrition and disease prevention, and yet the problem still exists. What has the food service industry really done about it, yes we have nutritional labels available for our menu items but do customers read them before they place their order, or do they look at the pretty pictures that we entice them with on our menus.

Our children are becoming less tolerant to certain foods than they were 50 years ago- why is this? Isn’t milk and grains were good for us? Is it because there is something missing in genetic code of ingredient that has been modified to increase the yield or is it because we have consumed too much of it in our diet due because its prominence in processed foods?
We are trashing the environment because we desire food products that need to being shipped from thousands of miles away all to give the consumer what he or she wants, and when they want it.

I had the privilege of growing up in the farm lands of upstate NY – we had several acre of land with a garden that was about an acre.
We grew big boy tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, green beans, and bread and butter corn – we had grape barber to grow concord grapes for jelly, an asparagus bed , and a Macintosh apple tree.
This time of year our house smelled like a tomato sauce factory, gallons of tomatoes reduced down then frozen to supply us throughout the year for our mainstay dish- pasta with tomato sauce. My mom was a Pharmacist – every vigilant about artificial ingredients, she made items that could be frozen and prepared without the use of preservatives. We never had blueberries in October and apples in spring. Think about it- what is in season right now, why do our bodies crave apples in fall and blueberries in spring. Melons in May, peaches in August. We have been intelligently designed to want the pectin in apples and fresh cider for the same season we consume high fat items in fall to prepare for winter, increase our intake of citrus, hence vitamin c in the winter to support our immune system, then as the weather warms and we have a need to regenerate more new cells in the spring we desire berries, hydrate our bodies with the sweet refreshing juice of melons, and enjoy the complexity of stone fruits and grapes in summer, spitting out the pits and seeds so that they have just the right amount of time to develop into new plants the next spring.
Some folks believe that the overall decline in heath is a result of our families leaving tv tray tables holding a hungry man frozen dinner to the comfy seats of a minivan for a happy meal. They choose to blame women who left the kitchen to work in the market place as the primary cause, instead of looking at the macro-evolutionary changes that have taken place.
A more likely diagnosis is that we have become a consumer based society due to the velocity of life that we lead today over the simplicity of life 50 years ago.
The palate of the average American has changed greatly as well. We have moved from locally grown whole foods to the desire for convenience processed food, just look at your supermarket, how much is fresh and how much is preserved. How did this change happen?
Consumers are bombarded by restaurant and food advertisements that entice us to consume dishes that are based upon the steady, profitable supply of commodity ingredients. Many restaurants advertise Cheap…fast… casual dining of generous portions of fried and glazed food that apparently not consumed by folks like me they are devoured by young skinny models.
When was the last time you viewed a television advertisement for a whole wheat pita filled with a chick pea salad, with a garlic yogurt sauce. Even though it is healthy and it would be an excellent choice for a meal many corporations rely upon what the consumer has been conditioned to respond to – high fat, salty, sweet, crisp and juicy.
We want these foods because food service supply companies tell us we want it …….and more convincingly we deserve it. They use low cost ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, emulsified whey processed with vegetable oil aka American cheese, steaks , burgers and ribs from grain fed cattle, and of course chicken parts that are processed into nugget shapes that are battered in soy and wheat based batters then fried in soy oil.
After all to the credit of these companies these items are relative easy to produce, store, market to a customer that has been educated to believe that meat is good for you, and milk / processed cheese builds strong bones. Even though research has shown that over consumption of these two food groups is the major factor in nutrition related disease, they still prepare it and we still buy it.
Perhaps it is because both consumer and producer are encouraged to do so. There are restaurant chains thought that are becoming quite successful by veering off the path worn down by industry connected with commodities, blazing new trails and opportunities that are more responsible, Chipotle comes to mind.
Restaurants like Chipotle have progressed even farther; they serve quality sustainable foods that are generally nutritious. Steve Ells once said “Today we recognize that fresh isn’t enough. It’s important to understand how animals are raised and how vegetables are grown…. if you’re going to source the best ingredients and serve the best-tasting food.”
Our lives are so busy that on average a family of four eats more than half of their meals out. They seek to have a quality budget friendly meal on their way home from a soccer game, or in a mad rush to school or work to get an inexpensive breakfast.
Dave Thomas founder of Wendys and protégé to Colonel Harlan Sanders said it well “ It all comes back to the basics. Serve customers the best-tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant, and they’ll keep coming back.”
Successful entrepreneur’s, independent and franchise, understand the concept of quality – delivering a consistent product based upon a predetermined standard. Kind of like the addictive blend of spices the Colonel uses to lour us back.
Will restaurants become obsolete? Only if we let them.

The content above was presented at a Honors Symposium featuring Chefs Fred Tiess and Tim Cameron on October 30th 2013. Honors students, faculty and local restaurateurs participated in this traditional symposium discussion which was moderated by Chef Peter Reinhart. The event was organized by Professors Mark Peres JD, and Adam Smith PhD .

Michael Pollan – In Defense of Food
Karl Weber – Food Inc.
Brian Ford – The Future of Food
National Restaurant Association – Research
NRA – Forecast 2013

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