Bitten Food Conference Is An Ideas Buffet for Creative Minds
We interviewed Naz Riahi on this year's Bitten conference that will explore food through the lens of technology, trends, creativity and innovation
How about this for a recipe? Half a cup of the Internet of Things, a sprinkle of organic, all-natural, gluten-free and paleo trends and then stir in robotic cashiers and the perils of climate change. What do you get? The future of food!
Back in the day, food was about sustenance and survival. Neanderthals would hunt and eat whatever they could—rhinoceroses, mammoths, you name it—so they could survive. Then teleport 200,000 years into the future and food became about convenience. Enter the “packaged-food cuisine” revolution—a dietary change and gastronomic phenomenon that boomed after World War II. Then fast forward to today where food is about experience. Think about it. Millennials—which make up the majority of the global workforce today—are the first generation to spend their discretionary income on food. According to Eve Turow Paul, a food culture writer and millennial brand advisor, it makes actually no practical sense. “We shouldn’t be spending our money on something ephemeral when we can’t afford to get married, we can’t afford to buy houses, we can’t afford even just to pay rent.”
Why the choice to spend so much on food? According to her, It’s a little bit chicken and egg. “I do think our obsession with food, at its core, comes from our connection with technology, and then we use the technology to further our obsession.”
Considering that food has become such a pinnacle of culture—to the extent that it’s what we fill our Instagram feeds with, what we spend our disposable income on and how we identify ourselves (Matcha vs coffee drinkers in the office, etc.) a conversation about where the food industry is heading is one we ALL should be having, not just those in the food industry. Bitten to the rescue— an all-day conference featuring keynote presentations, breakfast, networking opportunities and lunch—in other words, an all-you-can-think ideas buffet.
The brainchild of Naz Riahi, Bitten hosts a series of events (including one-day conferences, summits, brand experiences, dinners and more) unlike any other, bringing together today’s innovators and thought-leaders—those who are disrupting the food space—to talk about all that’s fun and exciting and innovative about food. I sat down with Naz to discuss this year’s conference, happening on October 27 (Tickets are still available! Get yours here before they sell out) and how she aims to engage an audience of passionate creatives beyond the food space by looking at food through the lens of technology, art, trends, creativity and innovation.
PSFK: How was the Bitten concept originally cooked up?
Naz: We’re mostly known for a conference that we host about once a year—sometimes we do it more frequently—that is all about food as a pillar of pop culture. The reason that I came up with this concept and this company is because I worked for many years in advertising as a creative strategist, working a lot with trends and innovation. When I was looking around at the different spaces and thinking about what area I wanted to focus my career on, food was this thing, this space that was so incredibly innovative. It was so diverse in many ways. It affected our future, and it literally touched every single person.
People like me who are creatives, who maybe don’t work in the food space, weren’t thinking about the future of food in the way that I thought they had the capacity to do and in a way that I thought would inspire them. They were looking at technology, and they were looking at advertising and media, and they were looking at fashion and thinking that all these verticals were really innovative. When it came to food, it would stop at the hottest new restaurant or taking a photo of whatever they had eaten and posting it on Instagram. That was the extent of their relationship to food.
I created Bitten as a way to engage a wider audience, an audience of curious creative people around the topic of food and about the future of food.
At our PSFK 2017 conference this year, Mike Lee from Studio Industries spoke about how when he was younger, his father would take him to these big automotive shows around the country and he always felt like the automotive industry really did look to the future in terms of developing concept cars and envisioning what the future could really look like. Whereas, when it came to food, there weren’t concept foods for how food would look in 5, 10 or 20 years. This is why he developed the Future Supermarket. Why do you think that food up until relatively recently wasn’t as future-forward as other industries?
For many years it was, and there are lots of different reasons for that. One of it is because what was happening was working. There were a few big companies that controlled most of the food that we ate. If one of them created a new product, then every other company would copy that product. Look at yogurt, for example. Chobani wasn’t the first company to come out with Greek yogurt. I think Fage in the US had a pretty good foothold, but Chobani came and did it in this very bright, colorful, relatable way that Fage wasn’t doing. Now, every yogurt brand has a Greek yogurt selection.
Conversely, Chobani has gone back and started creating products that other yogurts had. Yoplait had their kids’ product, which was the squeezable, and now Chobani has that. The Siggis had the drinkable, and now they have that. There is a lot of that.
When a lot of people in the food industry see that something is working, they don’t think, “Well, what can I do next? How can I necessarily improve upon it?” They think, “How can I replicate that and take some sales away from this company that’s already doing it?” I think that that’s part of the problem of why there wasn’t as much innovation in the past.
Of course, now a lot of people are more informed about their food. They are more critical of big companies. Also, startups are coming in, and young people are coming in and shaking up the industry, and so the future of food is actually really, really uncertain right now. Anything could happen. It’s also a really exciting time, and it’s from that uncertainty that innovation comes.
On that note, what are some of the biggest ideas and shifts that you’re seeing in the food industry today?
There are so many. Agriculture is a really interesting space to look at, in terms of the future of food, especially in thinking about how we are moving away from the need to have everything be organic and thinking about how local things are to us.
A lot of vertical farms are popping up. We’ve had a lot of rooftop farms and community gardens, but vertical farms have the capacity to grow vegetables at a much faster rate than they are grown in traditional farms.
They have the capacity to alter the seeds that they’re working with to breed plants that have a very specific flavor. Because they grow a lot faster, they are able to test things more frequently and innovate at a quicker rate than before.
Also, you can live in a big city like New York and have a farm in the middle of the city that maybe you don’t even know is there, but is delivering products to all of the local grocery stores. That’s definitely one space.
Another space that I think is really interesting is fishing. We still don’t know a lot about what’s happening in the fishing industry, but there is a lot of innovation happening in fishing. Algae is one of the things that I’m really excited about.
There’s a company called Green Way. It’s run by a guy named Brent Smith. He has algae farms. He has created this vertical system for algae farms that is open source. He encourages other algae farmers to take his system, develop on it, make it better and use it in any capacity they can.
It’s a very green food, in terms of its ecological footprint. Growing algae creates a natural habitat on barrier reefs for other sea creatures. I don’t know why I couldn’t think of that word. Fish and mollusks and things like that thrive in that environment.
On the other hand, most people aren’t used to eating algae and don’t know what to do with it. That is a really interesting space to look at. If we can get algae incorporated into more foods, not just in the form of powder, but in terms of cooking it, it will definitely be a very important ingredient to the future of food.
Google, for example, Google Food is doing a lot of tests, where they were last year, with Brent’s company. Brett provides the algae. The chefs in Google try to figure out different recipes and how to get more people to eat it and have it be more palatable.
It’s the same with insects which some people get squeamish about, but if we eat shrimp—which are essentially the insects of the sea—then why wouldn’t we eat the insects of the land?
The future of protein is really fascinating. We have a talk this year at Bitten about the future of protein. Insects are such a huge part of that. You could also tie that back to farming.
There are lots of companies that are trying to figure out how to grow and cultivate, let’s say, crickets, for example, at a rate that’s sustainable and economically feasible in order for them to use it in food products.
That’s another farming story. Maybe we don’t consider the cultivation of crickets as a farming initiative, but it is.
What are some consumer attitudes and behaviors around food that you see shaping the marketplace?
Consumers are getting really, really tired, across all industries, of brands telling them what to do and trying to be their “motivators”. Consumers are savvier than that. I see a lot of this happening, within the people that I talk to, in the restaurants that I go to.
People are doing things because it feels good. They’re eating things because it tastes good and not necessarily because they are told that this is what they should be doing. That is a really interesting shift, especially over the last 10 or 15 years.
There is still a lot of, especially big companies fall back on lifestyle marketing jargon. For example, Paleo. Everyone was on the Paleo bandwagon and have been for the last few years. Now, it’s going away, because it’s meaningless in a lot of ways. Yes, vegetables are Paleo, but they are vegetables. That’s not going to change.
Now, we are seeing Keto. These things come and go. Brands are starting to see that they work short-term for marketing. Some consumers are definitely interested in it, but long-term, consumers are savvy. It doesn’t work for them to hitch their wagon to a trend like that.
What sets Bitten apart from other disruptors in the food space?
One thing that really sets us apart is that we are engaging an audience outside of the food space. Food people do come to Bitten. But half of our audience doesn’t work in the food space. That’s really, really important.
We want to be inclusive to everyone. We want everyone to feel like they have a stake in this. Really, the goal of the conference is to engage people in a conversation about the future of food, what they’re eating and to think about that. More than anything, above all of that, it’s to inspire people.
There’s nothing I love more than when someone comes to Bitten, leaves feeling invigorated and goes home and calls their friend or goes back to the office and tells their colleague, “Oh my God. I heard this amazing thing at this conference that I went to.”
A lot of amazing connections come out of Bitten. A lot of really cool projects happen, because of Bitten. That is definitely the reason that I do this and I host the conference. It’s not preachy. I’m not there to tell people, “This is what you should know, because I’m an expert, yada, yada, yada.”
I’m there learning alongside my audience. I personally can’t wait to hear all of the talks. That’s another thing that sets us apart. I’m not necessarily the authority. Maybe I know more than the average person about food, but I’m there to learn and be inspired, just as much as my audience is and my other speakers.
On the topic of your upcoming conference, can you give us a little bit of a taste of who’s going to be taking the stage?
I have so many good talks. One is a collage artist, named Charles Wilkin. He and his husband moved upstate a few years ago. They still part time live in the city. He decided to become a beekeeper as a hobby and a side project. It grew into an actual business for him. He makes the most amazing honey I have ever had in my life. I’m not exaggerating here.
He and I were talking. He was telling me the story of how he decided to do this, what it was like for him to get his first hive and how micro-managerial he was about it, almost like a parent, who wants to control every aspect of their child’s life, because they’re worried. It’s out of love.
He would constantly check on the hive. He wanted to know that they were doing well and this and that. He learned such an amazing lesson that life takes care of itself. The hive will take care of itself. You just have to let it do its thing. He also told me a lot about colony collapse, which is obviously a really important issue, because it affects the food system on a much greater level.
One of the things he told me that was so beautiful and he’s probably going to talk about this in his talk is that one theory for colony collapse is that, because weather systems are a little bit more unpredictable now, for example, flowers might bloom a lot sooner, because we’re getting warmer weather, when we weren’t supposed to get warmer weather.
The bees that are in the colony are not ready to go out, but then they have to, because flowers are blooming. The queen sends them out to work. They go out. They’ve worked hard all day. At the end of the day, their backs are heavy. They’re coming back to the hive and they can’t find their way home, and so they die. Isn’t that heartbreaking?
Before they had time to train and learn how to do that. Time to train how to find their way back home. Yeah. It’s like sending someone, who’s way too young, to do something that an older person should do. It was so beautiful and poetic. His talk is about the poetry of bees. I’m really excited about that. I’ve been dying to learn more about the culture in general. Hopefully, my goal is to actually put on an event with him, where we take some of the audience, at some point, up to his farm. They get to experience and work with the hives and all of that.
We have a talk about the origins of fermentation, which I’m really excited about. We have a trend talk, which will be fantastic. We always have a trend talk. We have a talk about designing the future of food and how to make things more personal in an era when everything seems so impersonal and one step removed.
We’re getting everything delivered to us in boxes and neat packaging. We have Dana Cowan, who is an iconic figure in food. She was, for over 20 years, the Editor-in-Chief of “Food and Wine”. She’s going to talk about reinvention and reinventing herself later in her career.
Brian Bordainick, who was the CEO of Dinner Lab. It was a company that raised I believe over $10 million, was in every magazine and newspaper and then, it seemed like almost overnight, went under. He’s going to come and talk about failure, which I think is also a really, really important topic.
All of the speakers are passionate about what they’re saying. They’re also very open and honest and vulnerable. That’s the thing that I’m most excited about. Yes, I’m inspired by everyone who is doing incredible work. Every once in a while, I need to hear that someone failed and picked the pieces back up and went on with their life, because that’s the everyday of the mass experience.
Obviously food is really something that connects us all, because we all eat. How does food serve as a lens to explore culture as a whole?
That’s such a good question. When we think about food, most often we think about what we are eating. That’s the most obvious way to think about food. There is a design component to that, whether it’s packaging design or the way that the food looks on your plate or the way that the food looks in the photograph that you’ve taken.
You have that design element. There are lots of artists that are working with food in really, really interesting and compelling and different ways. You have the art vertical that food touches. There are magazines and blogs about the intersection of food and fashion. Who would have ever thought?
For example, Soylent is a company that launched, because it was an answer to people who didn’t necessarily want to eat food. Now it’s become a company that is for people who are looking to eat a meal on the go. One of the areas that they’re focusing on and targeting is fashion shows and Fashion Week and fashion shoots. Then you have fashion in food. You have a lot of musicians, who work in the food space as well. Questlove or 2 Chainz has a cookbook. Coolio has a cookbook. I actually would love Coolio to come and speak at Bitten. It’s this incredible, beautiful thing. You have all these films that are coming out about food, both documentary and narrative. I always say this. If you think about Instagram and Instagram influencers, for example, you have all these different verticals.
You have health and fitness. You have athletes. You have fashion. You have parenting and so on and so forth. You have tech. You have design. The one thing that every single one of them has in common is, chances are, at some point, they’ve posted a photo of something they were eating. That’s the only thing that intersect across all of those.
What about your food story? What is your all-time favorite food?
This might surprise you. My favorite foods are rice, any kind of rice. Because I’m Iranian and I grew up with rice, it’s my comfort food. Rice with yogurt is probably the thing that makes me happiest, just plain white rice with yogurt. I also love KitKats. That’s my guilty pleasure. I probably have two or three KitKat’s a week, which is so embarrassing. When I was growing up, when I was a kid in Iran, I was probably four or five. My brother sometimes, who’s 12 years older than me, would sometimes babysit me. We would go to the general store in our little neighborhood. He would buy KitKats for us. We would come home and put the KitKats in the freezer. If I was good and I wasn’t being an annoying little kid, he would give me the KitKat.
That’s always stayed with me. The third thing that I love is corn flakes with bananas. That was also from my childhood. All of these things are from my childhood, which says a lot I think. In Iran, when I was growing up, it was right after the Revolution. It was really hard to get American and European foods, like Corn Flakes, for example. Bananas were really hard to get.
It was mostly things that you would get on the black market. My mom, who cooked me French toast for breakfast and all of these amazing dishes, sometimes would have Corn Flakes and would find bananas. It was the best thing. It was the biggest and most amazing treat I could possibly have. Those are my three favorite foods.
Sometimes food is evocative of scent in a way. It brings you back to a former time, like a time machine. What are your favorite restaurants?
I have a few that I love. I have a lot that I absolutely love. I am a frequent diner at the new restaurant in Brooklyn, called Metta. It’s really incredible. It’s very fresh. They cook almost everything on an open fire.
I’m pescatarian. They have a lot of vegetable dishes. They have a lot of fish dishes. They do have a lot of meat dishes as well. It’s a really beautiful, fresh, light menu. The food is fantastic. The service is possibly even better.
Whenever I go in there, even when I didn’t go that frequently or it was maybe two months in between going, they would always remember who I was. They were always so generous and kind. They always gave me a little taste of this or a little sample of that. It’s wonderful. They have a great bar menu. They have really wonderful mixed drinks and wines. Metta’s awesome.
My other favorite is Superiority Burger, which is in the East Village. It’s a vegetarian or you can have it vegan burger that was founded by Brooks Headley, who is the former executive pastry chef at Del Posto. It is so tasty. It’s so easy. It’s so cheap. I love the punk aesthetic of it. I love everything about Superiority Burger. You can go and get sides and all of that jazz and have a proper meal. Or you can just go and get a little burger. You can hit both of those places. You can have a little pre-dinner snack at Superiority and then go to Fort Greene to Metta.
In terms of cafes, I really want more Italians to create coffee bars in New York and across the US, the way they are in Italy, where you just go and stand at a bar and have an espresso. It’s a social experience. You go in the middle of the day. You go in the morning. You can meet strangers. You can go by yourself and read the newspaper. You go in. You’re there for 15 minutes and you leave. You don’t go with your laptop. It’s such a beautiful thing.
What is the ultimate food experience that is still on your bucket list?
I love food, I love food people, I love chefs, but I don’t necessarily want to eat at the fanciest, hottest restaurant in town. I was just in Madrid for a week. There are lots of really amazing restaurants in Madrid. I didn’t make any reservations. I didn’t go to the most famous or the most popular. I didn’t go to the Michelin-starred ones. I just wandered around Madrid and walked into places and had a very local experience. I went to a lot of the markets. For me, that discovery and experiencing what the most common person in a city eats is the most interesting thing about food. If I have one restaurant that I really, really want to go to, it’s Osteria Francescana in Italy. I would love, love, love to go eat there.
How do you think the industry and food experiences on the whole will evolve in the next five or 10 years?
Part of me is excited for the adventure of getting there and seeing exactly what’s going to happen and being a part of it and talking with people who are innovating. Having Bitten really puts me in a good position to meet so many interesting people and talk to so many interesting people and see so many amazing concepts.
A lot of things are going to remain the same. We’re still going to have restaurants. We’re still going to have grocery stores. Delivery is going to continue probably to get bigger and bigger, especially in the middle of the country. It’s already very standard for New Yorkers and people who live in other big cities.
One of the things that I’m really excited about is both the future of protein and the future that is a little bit less dependent on factory farming and meat. I see more and more people every day embracing a vegetarian lifestyle, and less labeling themselves and being very strict and more just eating less meat and eating more vegetables and more grains, and maybe more fish.
That is something that is not necessarily happening because of the trend. In the 90s, being vegetarian was a trend. In the early 2000s, eating pork was a big trend. This isn’t happening as a trend. It’s just happening as the consumer mindset changes, as we learn more about the things that we are eating, how they’re affecting us personally and the planet and also all the animals and how they are affected by it.
For example, Superiority Burger is a really great example of that. People go to Superiority Burger because it’s great. I know lots of meat eaters who love to eat that vegetarian burger. It’s not because it’s vegetarian. It’s not just for vegetarians. There are lots of restaurants that are vegetable forward or have virtually no meat on their menu. They don’t advertise themselves as vegetarian. That is definitely something that is going to have a huge impact on the way we eat and what we eat in the next 10 years.