From Cave Wall to Petri Dish

Some 30,000 years ago, our ancestors adorned the walls of Chauvet Cave in France with images of the beasts of their world- some familiar today, others impossibly exotic. These portraits of horses and cattle, of panthers and bears and hyenas were preserved by a cave-in and were left for millennia until by chance they were rediscovered, and later filmed by Werner Herzog in an extraordinary documentary.

 

This secret bestiary of the ancient world contained a curious anomaly that has puzzled scientists for almost 2 decades- in all the dozens of portraits on the walls of the cave, there was not a single depiction of any canine- no dogs, no wolves, nothing at all to suggest that man and his best friend had met. Yet the muddy ground of the cave told a different story- preserved for millennia, the tracks of a young boy of 10 or so years and the paws of a dog ran side by side the length of the cave.

We’re not sure when we first domesticated dogs, but the muddy evidence of this cave floor (coupled with the facts the tracks do not cross, and the lack of bones and slow gait do not imply the child was prey) suggest an idea I will use to frame the history of domestication- we did not paint the portraits of dogs in this cave because even then, this species was considered part of the human realm and not the wild one.

The animals on this cave wall can be roughly divided into two camps- those herbivores we domesticated, and the carnivores we hunted to irrelevance or extinction. The animals that are today clearly part of the human family- dogs, horses, cows, bison, represent some of the most populous species on our planet today- cave sloths? not so lucky.

The last 30,000 years of human history have slowly removed more and more animals from the walls of this cave and into the human family- and in all the time we have been domesticating animals, the family has only grown. Even animals who’s first role in the human family is no longer necessary (most of us don’t keep cats to prevent grain contamination by rodents, for instance, or horses for ploughing fields) have found a role as companions, and moved even deeper into the core human family. Today, a healthy chunk of the planet are lucky enough to have companion animals; an even bigger chunk of humanity enjoy meat, eggs and dairy produced by mutualistic relationships with other animals that sustain our species.

The portraits on the walls of this cave depict very different versions of the animals in the human family- somewhat like an old family photo, we have trouble identifying certain relatives who have grown in strange directions. The cattle of the cave have horns and ferocious glares- the horses look nervous and flighty. These animals have been changed by their departure from the cave wall- I’m keen to explore how.

Anyone who tells you that genetic engineering is a new pastime for humanity must be reminded of the history of herd animals. The cow, the chicken, and even the humble dog have passed through an incredible millennia of gradual manipulation to yield a species that conforms to our needs as humans. Our species optimized each one of these genetic codes with the patience of generations to perform the function we most desired of them- this is the reason why there are “egg chickens” and “meat chickens”, why there are “guard dogs” and “hunting dogs”, why horses can either run like the wind of haul several tons of cargo.

Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, we started to run into the limits of genetic manipulation by breeding, and began to look for even more clever ways to render the animals in the human family more efficient in what we desire of them. Antibiotics in meat animals is a perfect example of our thirst for optimization- when we first grasped the relationship between low-level antibiotic use and growth rates of meat animals, we were so enamoured with the new pharmacological manipulation that it quickly spread through the whole of north american meat production, heralded as a triumph.

Even these new ‘farmaceuticals’ were not enough to keep up with the insatiable demand for meat that arose during the 50’s and 60’s, and so we took a step further into industrialization. The modern meat production system further abstracted the animals role in the production of the meat we wanted- we removed the idea of their central role in the process and began to see the role of these animals not as a mutualized, give-and-take with our species, but as simply a catalyst- input grain, antibiotics and time, output meat, eggs, and dairy. The journey from the cave wall into the human family benefitted enormously the animals who made the journey, and until the latter half of the last century, we as a species maintained a mutualistic relationship with those species included in our family.

Anyone who has ever toured a modern CAFO will tell you that the degree by which our relationship with these animals benefits them is now called into question.

I will not dwell on the horrors of industrial meat- the subject has been covered extensively, and frankly, it depresses me. The important consideration is not the sin, but the evolution of the relationship- down from the cave wall, into our family, into our industrial system, into our medicine cabinet, and now, into new systems of control and manipulation.

In 2016, there exist today methods of creating meat that do not involve animals. This evolution is inevitable- the logical conclusion of our relationship with these animals we domesticated so long ago is to let go of the parts of the animals we do not need, and embrace a perfect industrial method of obtaining the outputs we desire.

 

source- Trends in Biotechnology, van der Weele et al.

Breeding was not enough. Pharmacological manipulation was not enough. Industrialization was not enough. Our desire for meat, eggs, dairy, and all the delicious and ritualized foods of our various cultures that developed alongside these animals for millennia will lead us to a oh-so-logical conclusion- a block of animal protein, a perfect cube of manipulated tissue, fed by saline solution and exercised by electric shock.

source- Reuters

The feeling of discomfort and dread that seizes me when I consider The Flesh Cube is the thing that most interests me in the future of food.

My two questions are this-

  1. Why would I be scared of this process when the morality of The Flesh Cube is so obviously superior to the industrialized misery that is the lives of a good portion of the animals we once painted on the walls of caves?

  2. Do we as a species owe anything to these animals?

When I weigh the pros and cons of The Flesh Cube, I think about the negative externalities of the modern meat production system. I’ve written extensively about the coming explosion of demand for meat across the globe, so I will not re-tread that ground- suffice to say that we’ll need to evolve the relationship between humans and the animals that sustain us in order to avoid cataclysmic problems in climate, human nutrition, and animal welfare. The optimization to date will not be enough- The Flesh Cube is coming, and if 30,000 years of human history speak to anything, it is the inevitability of this next step.

Many folks I speak to who consider themselves enlightened foodies recoil at the thought of The Flesh Cube. The question we must ask ourselves is this- if we allowed our modern relationship with animals we eat devolve to the state that it is today, how can we stand on any moral high ground and hate on The Flesh Cube? It has no brain! No feelings! It does not yearn for grassy pasture, it does not seek companionship, it doesn’t run around and frolic in the spring time, it does not care for its young. The Flesh Cube is blissfully unaware of the industrial system it belongs to.

We took those animals off the cave wall, and into our family. Incrementally, year by year, we betrayed that mutualization by forgetting that those animals even existed in our thirst for delicious calories. We deserve The Flesh Cube, and so do the animals we have domesticated.

I want to propose a radical outcome to the coming age of artificial meat- we may have the opportunity to care for the animals we moved into the human family in a redefined role. We took the time, somewhere in the middle of the 17th century, to breed dogs to give and receive love and affection. We bred cats to belong in our hearts and homes. We bred horses to give us sport, friendship, even therapy. We have no concrete use for chickens other than meat and eggs- no Bison will end up as house pets, no off-leash cow parks will form in our cities. It is our moral imperative, eventually, to start to think up new places for these animals to thrive in the human context, when we no longer require their bodies as a catalyst for protein.

We need to start thinking about breeding pigs who eat invasive species. We may need cows who can revitalize degraded landscapes by creating uphill nutrient cycling. We need to start thinking about chickens as vehicles for teaching our kids about the natural world. We need goats who sequester carbon. In other words, the incredible efficiency we have found in these animals when we needed them for protein is not the end of the story- we must keep considering the role of these animals in solving human problems, so that the bonds of mutualization are not forgotten.

Our human family is going to need each and every species we domesticate to move our mutual future forward. We are arriving at the limits of industrialization, and will soon separate the animal and the output. This gives us an opportunity to see the animal anew, to redefine the mutual contract, and to transfer the animals we once needed for food into new roles that are truly mutualized.

We must not fear whatever final step protein production will take this generation; we must instead decide to create new bonds of trust with the animals in the human family by repurposing them, just like dogs and cats, into securing a better future.

Far in the future, archeologists will dig up the ruins of a modern industrial feedlot, or a modern industrial pig farm, and marvel at how far away from the cave wall we took things. By fulfilling the potential of these animals to help assist humans in solving new problems, we can honour the journey these species took with us while gently separating them from the inevitabilities inherent in 6 billion humans eating their body weight of animal protein per year. My final point- don’t fear The Flesh Cube, and embrace a new era of symbiosis with the cave wall.

THE NEXT CHEF REVOLUTION

 

First, an uncomfortable truth- the highest aspiration of most modern chefs is to leave the craft of cooking behind. Why?

Each day in America legions of working-class citizens wake up and aspire to a new job, a better career, to transition from an industry where the physical labor, or the monotony, or the unpleasant aspects of their daily job do not fulfill them. Someone who hauls trash for a living may not want to wake up every day and haul trash until retirement; however they do not tell everyone, vocally and without any hesitancy, that they love their job.

There is only one workplace where that is the case- the professional kitchen.

The life of a cook is one of incredible difficulty and adversity, and one that has precious few exits. Line cooks, even those working in the upper echelons of food service, work incredible hours for an median of $22,600 a year.

There is no retirement package, no pension- just work until the body is no longer able to bear the incredible physical strain of cooking for 12 hours every day. The end game is to change industries, or ‘graduate’ to being an owner of a restaurant. The industry that employs 7.5% of all Americans is one where the summit of success is leaving the job behind.

“My Kitchen”

This is not the case in other times and other cultures- across most of Europe, the role of a chef is designed as a career with a graceful arc from young “stagaire” through to grey-haired culinary sensei. The giants of the past were not looking to own restaurants, but were focused instead on their role of leading a brigade of cooks into service every evening, supported by a class of restaurant owner who were dedicated to supporting excellence in the kitchen. Reading letters and correspondence between Auguste Escoffier(1846–1935) and the heads of the various establishments he cooked in, the tone suggests a relationship familiar to anyone from the art world- that of a benefactor.

Escoffier was regarded as a craftsman and artist of the highest caliber, and the owners who supported him treated him as such through his long career.

Escoffier created the modern kitchen organization, and wrote an exceedinglyinfluential text on kitchens; one part recipe book, one part thesis on culinary organization. His ennoblement of cooking from a servant’s labor to a profession created modern foodservice; however in recent years the rise of a new kind of chef has effectively unseated that tradition.

“My Restaurant”

Nouvelle Cuisine ushered in a new wave of chefs across France and the nascent American culinary scene- exemplified by the brothers Troisgros(1928-present), owner operators of a humble restaurant outside Lyons, which was elevated to a 3 star establishment based on a singular vision of clean, simple, refined and fresh food.

Jean & Pierre Troisgros

Nouvelle Cuisine is talked about mostly in the context of the changes to cuisine itself, but the largest and most lasting influences were in fact driven by the fact that the true pioneers in this movement invariably owned the restaurants that dared to break from Escoffier’s tradition. The creation of a new kind of cuisine was made possible by the fact that chefs in these establishments had more control over what they could do, because the risk was theirs to take. Doing the predictable food in the traditional manner was the safe bet- these entrepreneurs did something different because they were capable of innovation, capable of risk.

The Troisgros brothers were also famous for being in their restaurant, every night, sweating beside their team, making incredible food. The ability to take risks and break from tradition did not exempt them from their devotion to excellence or their desire to cook perfect food every night.

The elevation of a chef to the role of owner marked the beginning of a period of flux for the career trajectory of chefs- suddenly, one did not have to wait in line for the chance to become Chef- one could seize the crown and become one through an entrepreneurial leap.

“My Brand”

Marco Pierre White (1961-present) exemplifies these two different paths to chef-dom. A household name in Britain, MPW is not as known in North America, despite the book “White Heat” having been responsible for creating a whole generation of cooks.

White heat was the first chef biography, and it established an identity for chefs across the industry, virtually overnight. Anthony Bourdain, alongside many others, has written about the effect the book had on his evolution as a young cook-

I don’t know if I can adequately convey to you the impact that White Heat had on me, on the chefs and cooks around me, on subsequent generations.
Suddenly, there was life pre­Marco, and post­Marco. This book, around which we’d gathered in a prep area, opening it carefully on a cutting board and examining it, changed everything.’

Marco Pierre White had seen through Escoffier’s vision of orderly brigades of professionals and underneath, he’d seen and called out the misery and bleakness of the industry. He says-

‘Any chef who says he does it for love is a liar. At the end of the day it’s all about money. I never thought I would ever think like that but I do now. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t enjoy having to kill myself six days a week to pay the bank…If you’ve got no money you can’t do anything; you’re a prisoner of society. At the end of the day it’s just another job. It’s all sweat and toil and dirt: it’s misery.’

MPW saw things for what they really are, even as he rocketed to the top of the culinary world by the time he was 30. The photos of him in White Heat, a 3 star chef, top of his profession, preceded by mere moments his decision to hang up his apron and quit.

MPW made the modern chef image, and then departed to be something other than a chef- a brand, a name, a business. He created an empire (successful or not) that spanned television, endorsements, restaurants, pubs and ventures across the globe. He made himself into something more than a chef, and did not look back.

Marco Pierre White was the first among many to aspire not to the top of the profession, but beyond it.

“My Empire”

Culinary school students have changed.

Marco Pierre White himself has some opinions on the matter; he says

“What White Heat did was bring the middle and upper classes and the aristocrats into the kitchen… Before it was a blue-collar trade. Today, across London, how many kids who went to a nice public school work in kitchens?”

The definition of who wants to be a chef has changed dramatically, even as the trajectory of the profession has not. These two forces are on a collision course, right now inside of the restaurant industry.

On one side, you have the grim reality of the kitchen- chefs get old: they wear out: and they aspire to become owners.

On the other side, a generation of cooks between 21 and 41 who have the desire to follow in the footsteps of past chefs and graduate out of the kitchen and into something grander and more influential. Sadly, the chances that these smart capable and influential young cooks of making it to the top of the profession approaches zero. The odds of running an empire across multiple businesses and becoming a household name approaches the success rates of two other notorious sectors- Hollywood, and professional sports.

Almost every chef aspires to something greater, and will not keep their head down and cook when the future is so bleak and uncertain. The next rebellion is at hand.

“My ……”

Enter the New Food Business.

The model of the restaurant, the brigade of cooks united to serve a public yearning for culinary excellence, is being overturned. This very generation of cooks and chefs, emerging from the world that Marco Pierre White created, are starting to rebel against that model and create things that do not conform to this old model. They are, in short, finding new options and new definitions for what it means to be a chef.

Throw away the dining room? Connect people with food that they want on demand, through their phone? Sprig, founded by a chef.

Put the kitchen on wheels? Food trucks have exploded across North America as chefs realize that the upfront costs of that lease and equipment can be left for the less ambitious.

Innovate on the nature of ingredients? Chef Chris Jones left Moto in Chicago to join Hampton Creek, arguably the most important food+tech startup today.

Remake the model of a restaurant? Who knows what René Redzepi is doing right now, but it’s the most exciting thing happening in the highest echelons of restaurants.

Start a revolution? Love him or hate him, Jamie Oliver is a force to be reckoned with. He took a big stand on the lunches of America, until his show was cancelled and replaced with re-runs of Dancing With The Stars. Actually.

Remake the Chef, Remake the Food System

Chefs are leaders in the food world- their influence defines both the culture and palate of food. Food is evolving faster than ever today, but the role of the chef is the largest “unknowable” in the direction and speed of that evolution.

There is a great urgency in tackling this one pivotal problem: how do we create opportunities for a hundred thousand passionate, eager, educated and ambitious cooks and chefs? How can we channel this coming wave of chef rebellions into something that creates opportunity for them and positive change in the food we eat?

How can we change the narrative around culinary success, so that it means something more than just the attainment of a Michelin star, or getting to be a brand advocate for Knox Bullion Cubes? How do we create real, concrete opportunities for the mass of talent making less than 30k a year in restaurant kitchens coast to coast?

Aspirations of a new generation

Escoffier’s revolution gave form to the kitchen, Troisgros gave a path to creative freedom and expression, Marco Pierre White gave a creed and identity to the industry.

Going forward, we must challenge the narrow definition of “chef” and come to understand this profession in a different light; a scope that will now define our relationship with food as it defines our health, our culture, our history and our values.

We must be fed; just as we need carpenters to house us and doctors to cure us, we need cooks to sustain us. The title that concerns me is Chef, and how as we move through this next revolution in cooking we must find new meanings for this old word.

For us to eat better food, and for those millions of aspirant cooks coming up through the ranks to live better lives, we must make this title something to aspire to and not to rush past. Chefs are important, and we have a unique moment today when we all get to decide why.

Caithrin Rintoul, former chef, CEO at Provender, food writer here and atcaithrin.com.

Menuplanting

Today, Provender's team is really proud to offer a new platform to our community of farmers and buyers.

Menuplanting is a platform designed for new type of purchasing between buyers and sellers, something that we've seen over the last 18 months at Provender and have dedicated ourselves to solving with a simple piece of technology.

The Problem

Chefs are by their nature dreamers.  The craft of cooking inspires creative reach, but also is rooted in something fundamentally important- that each night, customers come through the door and must be fed.  Balancing creative urges and production demands is what makes a great chef.  

We see our role at Provender as being about giving cooks a bigger, better, cheaper palate of ingredients to play with.  We connect farms and buyers together to make more local food available, but also to avoid problems that chefs tell us prevent them from dealing with farmers- hassle, logistics, invoicing.  We've shipped hundreds of tonnes of local food from farm to fork, and each time we do so, we feel really grateful that our buyers and sellers trust us to make this process easier.

Sourcing great products has pushed us as a business to address some of the fundamental issues in agriculture- namely, how to help manage risk on behalf of our farm partners, so that they can sell more, waste less, and make a better margin on their products.

That led us, in 2014, to open up advanced ordering on Provender, so that buyers could purchase even before the product was harvested.  That led us, in 2015, to allow our buyers to group-purchase whole animals at the moment of slaughter, weeks before aging and butchery made that product available.

Today, we're taking the last step in that journey backwards in time- we're launching Menuplanting to our community. Today, we're giving our buyers a seat at the table from the very moment when our farmers are selecting what crops they will grow for the year.

Introducing Menuplanting

Seeds are an amazing thing.  Being the technology geeks we are, we talk a lot about seeds being the database of agriculture- where all the potential is stored, patiently waiting for a moment that it can be grown into something delicious.  

Seed selection is a difficult process for a farmer- he or she must know not only what the soil of the farm will best support, but also what diseases the seeds must resist, and what the perfect time to plant will be in order to have a crop come to market perfectly.

Menuplanting is a tool that helps farmers in that decision by providing them with information on what buyers want for the coming year.  By giving buyers the opportunity for the first time to collaborate on these decisions, we help our farmers make the right decisions on what buyers want most.

For our buyers, we're offering a platform to help unlock the potential of local farms.  We give them access to a rich database of agriculture, so that they may request that a farmer plant them the perfect combination of ingredients for their menu.

Menuplanting is about collaboration for buyers and sellers, so both sides of the Provender community can come together and make the process of growing great local food a little bit easier for both buyer and seller.  We're delighted to be launching this product out of a private beta today, and after hundreds of successful and unsuccessful plantings haven proven the value of the platform, we're ready to share this with the world.

Pop on Menuplanting today, request some seeds, get matched with a great local farmer, and start unlocking the potential of agriculture.  We're proud of this next step for our company and we could not be more proud of the community of farmers ready to make this happen.

best,
Caithrin & The Provender Team.

 

 

How It Works

Menuplanting is a platform for agricultural supply, made for helping farmers and buyers collaborate on the building blocks of agriculture- seeds. Through Menuplanting, buyers can instantly request a crop from a community of hundreds of Provender growers, track their crops progress from seed to sale, and connect with their growers to customize the fields of their local farm communities.

 

1. DISCOVER YOUR PERFECT SEEDS

The core of Menuplanting is a rich and diverse catalogue of seeds- tailor made for North American growers and sourced from the finest local seed suppliers. Browse this catalogue of diverse, regional foods and choose the crops that best suit your needs.


2. REQUEST A PLANTING

Submitting a request to plant is simple and straightforward- pick your seeds, your quantities, and send us your payment information.


3. MATCH WITH THE PERFECT GROWER

Menuplanting will take your seed selection and match you algorithmically with a farmer who’s climate, region, growing practices and price point are best suited to you as a buyer. It works a bit like internet dating- we find you the perfect partner, and we’ll introduce you both via email.


4. TRACK YOUR CROP PROGRESS

As your crops grow out, Menuplanting will keep you up to date with the latest information on your successes and failures in the agricultural world.  Via email and blog, we'll keep tabs on your crops for you, so you know what will be ready, when, and in what condition.


5. PRE-ORDER AND HARVEST YOUR MENU

The moment our growers give the green thumbs up, we’ll list your product for sale as a pre-order in the Provender marketplace. When your grower confirms yield and harvest date, we provide you with a comprehensive list of harvests, notes on quality and a link to the purchase on Provender that is exclusive to you until harvest.


6.DROPPED OFF AT YOUR DOOR

Once the purchase is made, your grower will ship the product right to you,either in person or through a food safe, accredited transporter. Happy eating!