GASTRONOMIC STRIDES: A FUTURE OF FOOD-CENTRIC DESIGN Published in Medium, 2017
In the last two decades, conscious eating has come to dominate the culinary landscape. The locavore movement has escalated to the point that local ingredients have become the norm, rather than the exception, and the idea of sustainability has grown beyond eco-friendly supply chains to include far-reaching demands for balanced living in nearly every aspect of our lives.
The following is a look at how some restaurants have embraced design concepts that emphasize our increasingly dynamic and sophisticated relationship with food and eating.
Sustainable Restaurant Group
Chris Lofgren's Sustainable Restaurant Group, based in Portland, Oregon, started with Bamboo Sushi back in 2008, which became the first certified-sustainable sushi restaurant in the world. They have since expanded with new locations in the Portland and Denver areas, and continue to break new ground with other projects like QuickFish Poke Bar, which opened last year in central Portland. Though poke is a Hawaiian tradition, QuickFish serves what their Creative Director, Cory Schisler, calls “sushi in a bowl,” using sushi rice or their signature “medicine rice” (black rice, buckwheat, foxtail millet, amaranth and over 10 other grains) to create recipes from the bottom of the bowl up. The results are simple but fulfilling dishes that are affordable, served in good time and highly unique.
Bamboo Sushi completely revolutionized the sushi paradigm. Taking on a cuisine that is unmatched in flavor palate and presentation, but with a history of high carbon footprints, Lofgren and Executive Chef Jin Soo Yang had to find a network of suppliers that met their very specific needs. And they didn’t stop with the supply chain. SRG embraces sustainable practices that are inculcated into every business decision, from staffing to sourcing to interior design. For example, their new location, opening in Seattle, will use tabletops made of recycled paper products and menu covers made of highly renewable cork. The building design maximizes natural lighting with ample window space, and every dish and utensil is a local and sustainable product. What's more, according to Chef Yang, each location is run by a team of chefs who make decisions collaboratively, an organizational structure that not only encourages solidarity, but embraces their founding principles of balanced living and social responsibility.
Examples of sustainable sushi include everything from localized versions of traditional staples like Oregon albacore sashimi or marinated sablefish (in place of eel) to the ever-evolving chefs' plates, often including both freshwater and Pacific seafood selections, house-smoked charcuterie and, if you’re lucky, an ivory salmon rose.
The Farm Outside
The next step in local and sustainable pursuits is the merging of source and service into single operations, and though there are countless farm-to-table examples throughout the states, some more recent additions to that legacy have taken further steps to create a sense of place that extends well beyond the confines of a food service establishment. Restaurants like Arbor in Chicago, which opened in 2015, have become gathering places for communities united in common values.
Located in the Green Exchange building in Logan Square, Arbor is part of a rehabilitated LEED-certified communal working center, which its managers describe as “a center for innovation and inspiration in the green economy.” The Green Exchange is the country’s largest sustainable business community, and Arbor’s place in its vast, eco-friendly layout includes a small grouping of narrow wooden tables set off by glass partitions, a backyard garden and a rooftop apiary.
Though Arbor has a standard menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the real magic of Arbor happens on their “Midwestern Omakase” nights. During these events, chef-owners Leonard Hollander and Chad Little make all ordering decisions for their guests, giving diners a singular experience in culinary creation at its most inspired and humanizing moments, and within a microcosm of ecotopian stewardship.
In addition to regional farms and freshwaters, a large amount of the Arbor ingredients are foraged from area woodlands, accentuating dishes with edible wildflowers, roots and other foliage that dazzles the eyes and surprises the tastebuds. But with over 60 vegetables, fruits and herbs in their backyard, the Arbor chefs do not have to forage far for sources of inspiration.
Food as Education
When restaurants achieve recognition, people all over the world begin to hear about their food, yet may never have the chance to sample their award-winning recipes. In Situ has an answer to that dilemma. Housed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, In Situ features dishes first originated by master chefs all over the world. Chefs are invited to the In Situ kitchen to teach their culinary team how to perfect chosen dishes, which then enter the menu in a seasonal rotation.
As much educational as it is a dining experience, In Situ offers dishes that stand out in the history of the culinary arts. And their interior, developed by James Beard winner Aidlin Darling Design, actually highlights the experience of the senses with resonant acoustics, open space and naturally circulated air. One section of the dining room is always left open to walk-ins, which helps to maintain the vibrant, community center atmosphere.
In Situ’s Three-Michelin-starred Executive Chef, Corey Lee, has reimagined the restaurant experience, embracing eclecticism in a way that in other venues may not have been so easily accepted. Here, amid the walls of the museum, you can sit in the shadow of commissioned artwork and sample Chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry salads, Wylie Dufresne’s Southern Shrimp Grits or Rene Redzepi’s Danish Wood Sorrel and Sheep’s Milk Yogurt. They have even managed to source locally where equivalent ingredients will suffice, but only when the chef approves.
These four restaurants can tell us a lot about what's in store for the future of the industry. All of them display an unbreakable desire for timeless and intelligent food choices, as well as a move away from the wastes and reductive thinking of the convenience gospel. Conscious, communal and even educational eating now defines our 21st-century life and culture, and food-centric design provides the door to a more fully-realized version of those innovations. Behind that door, the future of cooking is already in progress. All we have to do is open it. Or call for reservations first.