John Schneeberger on vegetarianism, organic and local food ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

I just discovered a new podcast called "Big Ideas" (iTunes-link), a series of lectures on anything from the impact of urbanisation on musical tastes, to designing menus for restaurants. Oh, and it's Canadian. Not that that's bad, but some parts of the lecture covered local conditions.

John Schneeberger starts his lecture (dated March 1, 2008) off with the basics of menu-design, namely that they should reflect three things:

  • What you stand for? Aka. what kind of food do you like to work with?
  • What demographics are you targeting? Income, religious issues, etc.
  • What are the current trends? And are they for real or just a fad?
Generally, when running a restaurant, you have to understand three things:
  • Customer-decisions are always a trade-off between price and quality
  • Traditionally, dishes consist of three components: protein, starch, and vegetables.
  • What we understand as taste, actually comes from three sources: fat, salt, and sugar.
Any more "avant-garde" food-entrepreneur will have to face these three as a challenge at some point.

Schneeberger discussed three booming trends, vegetarianism, organic food, and local produce, and mentioned a number of challenges related to these.

stinky tofu vegetarian restaurant.jpgVegetarian cooking
The thing to understand about this, is that it's generally cheaper. Schneeberger mentioned a 1:10 ratio when you compare the cost of producing vegetables to the cost of growing a cow. And while it's a booming trend, the industry, somewhat mis-guidedly, still often focusses on trying to replicate the taste of meat, which is impossible (think veggie-burgers, etc.).

Instead, they should be thinking about nutritional value— vegetarian food has been correlated with lower health-problems and is for that reason often recommended by doctors. The problem with these types of diets is of course that they are low in those qualities we would traditionally associate with taste: fat, salt, and sugar.

To create dishes that people actually enjoy, restaurants have to look globally, e.g. Asia, where more exotic vegetable components can bring some needed flavour to these dishes. I think he mentioned seaweed, but also stinky tofu (see pic), which is a type of fermented tofu and one of the few ways to naturally bring flavour to that type of protein.

The implication is that vegetarian food requires a significant amount of specialisation and is often hard to combine with meat-cooking.

Another complication arises from vegan (no dairy, honey, animal-derived products) versus lacto-ovo (incl. dairy, honey, animal-derived) cooking. The first makes it very hard to create a (traditionally) tasty dish. The second, lacto-ovo, allows for more flexibility, through the use of ingredients like eggs, which not only provide extra protein, but also bring a lot of flexibility to the kitchen. You can, for instance, make foam out if it, which would enable the creation of deserts & soups, etc.

Organic cooking
First of all (and I'm not sure if this is just restricted to Canada), an organic food label refers to the production method, not necessarily the quality and taste. Since organic food is more expensive, and taste is not guaranteed, you have to wonder if your clientele is willing to pay extra for that service (remember the trade-off between price & quality!).

The big selling-point here is the information about the product. People like to know how their food was produced; it has a certain value to know that there are no chemicals or genetically modified components in what you are eating. But again, that must be a value that is clearly advertised and which may not be important to every type of demographic.

Local produce
The advantage for the restaurant is that they can form better relationships with their suppliers, it's also cleaner in terms of carbon footprint (less transport), and it also has some marketing value to a certain demographic.

The disadvantage is that supply cannot be guaranteed during all seasons. Schneeberger mentioned something called a "100 mile diet" for instance, but restaurants catering to that need will probably have problems in the winter.

Overall, a pretty insightful lecture of the more exotic (and trendy) type of cooking and its trade-offs.

These types of specialisation are still pretty niche, require significant resources in terms of tools, know-how, and supplier-relations. But, if executed well, a niche can be extremely profitable.

I thought that it was interesting that all the traditional means of cooking, the ingredients and the taste-makers, were pretty incompatible with these newer trends. As such, you are essentially climbing up a hill, trying to educate the mass-market. At the same time, good execution, together with differentiation from the norm, seems like a formula for success.


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