Re-Imagining Restaurants for a Slow Food / Food with Meaning Experience

Food with Meaning 

By Leslie A. Cook,

When I first started in the food business with the intention of making all my food "from scratch," from whole produce (which I was told couldn't be done), someone told me about the Slow Food movement. The phrase sounded about right, and I wanted to learn more. In reading about the movement, which has a Chicago chapter, I read the subtitle, "Food with Meaning." Yes, that's what I wanted to do, offer food with meaning. 

We search for and talk endlessly about the obesity epidemic and its causes in this country. I've contributed to that discussion. At its roots, though, I believe this epidemic is a function of the fact that our food is without meaning.

In an article about alcoholism I once read, the writer suggested that drinking too much alcohol, or any addictive consumption for that matter, is a (futile) effort to fill an empty space. That comment resonated with me. I wondered, if those empty spaces were filled with meaning what effect might it have on addictive consumption? I know these issues are complex, and there is never just one simple solution to addictive behaviors. Certainly there are biological components to the issue, as we have discovered. Still, I wonder.

So I started out to make and serve to people "food with meaning." As well-wishers had suggested to me, I found it to be a challenging enterprise. It was not, though, impossible. And now I'm at a place in my life where I have an opportunity to think about my experience in the restaurant industry and consider how a restaurant might be structured differently to be even more an expression of the idea of "food with meaning."

Let's think about this for a minute -- how alienated we are from the most fundamental part of our existence on this earth, our own process of survival. Most of us have no direct link to hunting for or producing our food, whatever it is. We don't live on farms. We have no involvement in processing the raw ingredients that come from the farm, whether that is picking or husking or churning or fermenting or slaughtering. We shop in supermarkets and know little about our food sources or the processes involved in getting it to us in packages. Many of us aren't comfortable in the kitchen or don't have time to cook for ourselves. We have abandoned the moments before or after a meal when we might pause for thoughtful prayers or meditations of acknowledgment and gratitude. Most often we are not even eating a meal in community but are rather grabbing something on the run.

This alienation suggests something to me when I think about a new kind of restaurant. What an amazing contribution it would be to the process of reinstating meaning to food consumption if not only the food available in it spoke to that issue but the very structure of the enterprise itself. It seems to me that's very much what the Food Shed Co-op is about -- taking a place in the project of bringing meaning back to our food supply.

Eating is probably the most meaning-filled activity in which we engage. It is an act at the intersection of life and death. It brings to our attention the fundamental paradox of our existence, that sustaining life requires taking life in some way, even if it is just pulling a carrot out of the ground thereby ending the existence of that particular plant. For this reason, food rituals, practices and taboos are significant in virtually all the world's religions.

What if we could model values through our own set of modern day rituals in a modified restaurant setting: connecting to the sources of our food, involvement in the process of taking food from its source to our table, avoiding abuse, avoiding waste ... delighting in the abundance and creativity of life and sharing with others that most meaningful enterprise, a meal?

I'm not sure about this happening in a typical commercial restaurant environment. Not only have I watched those shows on the Food Network - which may be entertaining but make me nervous - I have worked in a commercial restaurant environment and know how a variety of factors can compete vehemently with a desire for focused thoughtfulness. Cooking is a meditative enterprise for me. Cooking in a commercial environment in my experience isn't.

But what if we could create an environment where thoughtful, meaningful meal creation and sharing is possible? Where the important values of a community are expressed and shared through the meal preparation and enjoyment? How would that look?

I don't have a plan for such a project yet, but I am reading about intriguing possibilities. I would love to hear from others about ideas you have. Eventually I would like to take these ideas and see if they can't be woven together into some kind of workable plan.

Here are miscellaneous ideas people have shared with me or that I have found and like:

  • Pop-Up Restaurant. These are springing up in a number of places, and one of them is in New York where chefs are taking turns creating wonderful meals out of food waste. Did you know that 40% of food never gets eaten but ends up in the garbage? It's great to think about ways to stop waste by repurposing it. These chefs will inspire each other and their clientele.
  • Zero Waste Restaurant: A pickup on the Pop-Up theme above but more permanent.
  • Pay-It-Forward Plan. One person can come in and purchase a meal for someone who needs it. A ticket is created and put out in a known spot for another person who is in need to come and pick it up. A pizza restaurant in Philadelphia has gained national attention for such a program. Their board is constantly filled with tickets, and there is always one there for someone who comes in to pick up one of them.
  • Innovative Restaurant Designs: Model DIY aeroponics, vertical gardening and other "urban gardening" techniques as part of the design - and part of the food supply - for a restaurant.
  • Pick Your Own Meal: A table picks some food for their meal and turns it over to chefs/cooks to use. Chefs/cooks can share what they end up doing with the "pickings." An eatery in the Food Shed Co-op might include products purchased from the coop and diners could take home the remainder of any products not used in full (in repurposed delivery boxes).
  • Self-cleanup: A restaurant I used to go to reduced the cost of a meal some if you ordered it, picked it up and returned the dishes and remains to the counter instead of having table service. I wonder if a restaurant could expand on this idea, teaching conservation and saving money in the process?
  • Community Kitchen with Food Rules & Waste Rules: The best way to learn is by doing. An approved Community Kitchen with carefully structured rules would allow others to learn about preparing healthy food from local, sustainable ingredients at the same time they are learning about conservation in a setting that typically produces a lot of waste.
  • The Pause that Refreshes: A pause before each meal and after each meal eaten in the Cafe to think about, talk about or express gratitude for food sources at that meal. There could be a lot of creative ways to assist in making this a happening.

These are just a few preliminary thoughts and ideas I have been turning over. Please share in this blog your thoughts and ideas or programs you have heard about in other locations.

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