Sustainable, Mindful, Globally Inspired: The Future of Food in RI

FreshFoodI recently found a writing contest that posed the question, “Should we be grateful?” It seems like this question is on many minds. And while I can’t predict the future of our economy or political climate, I can tell you there’s silver lining in the future of food, especially in RI.

I spoke with five Rhode Islanders who are invested in our food culture in a variety of capacities. Emma Bilazarian is a graduating senior at Johnson & Wales University, studying the culinary arts; Anat Sagi is the front of house manager at Gracie’s fine dining restaurant in downtown Providence; Eli Dunn is the chef-owner of Eli’s Kitchen in Warren and the recent winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped;” Paula Silva is a self-proclaimed foodie and business owner of RI Red Food Tours; and Ric Wild is the member services coordinator of Hope and Main, RI’s first food incubator. They all have optimistic outlooks for 2019.

Jenny Currier (Motif): What have you noticed in terms of dining or other food trends in Rhode Island?

Emma Bilazarian: Sustainability is no longer a nice thing to have, but an expectation. We’re conscious of our waste and ways to reduce it — recycling should be a given, along with composting, and we utilize all parts of an animal. Generally, we’re also minimizing our use of meat and, of course, locally sourcing ingredients wherever possible. We live in a world where being transparent is mandatory. Millennials especially want to know how something was sourced and where it was grown, encouraging a new level of accountability.

Anat Sagi: We’re a lot like Boston was in the ’90s, when the food scene was really evolving. Local sourcing is a huge component, creating our own “East Coast cuisine.” One trend I’ve noticed is that more young people are dining with us — they’ll come for restaurant week and realize they can be casual or fancy here; they can come for a cheeseboard and cocktails, or have a 9-course meal. We actually sold more tasting menus this year than ever before. Everyone can really make dining their own experience, and I think that’s important for restaurants today.

Eli Dunn: The gluten-free boom. When I met my wife, she was vegan and gluten-free, and she was the toughest critic of my food, but her feedback mattered the most to me. At the time when we opened [Eli’s Kitchen] there weren’t a lot of places where a steak lover and a vegan could both enjoy a meal, so I wanted to create a melting pot of different items; it basically worked out to be all of my favorite foods. Big flavor, but simple and unpretentious. And I’ve always resonated with the farm-to-table movement. I grew up watching my mom source all of her seafood [for her fish ‘n chips restaurant] from local fisheries. She had an organic garden and a “pig bucket” before that was trendy, where all of the scraps went to pigs. She was probably one of the first fish-to-fork restaurants in the area, and not for fame, but for her beliefs.

Paula Silva: I think no matter where you travel, people are highlighting their own regional foods, and New Englanders are trying to capture that as well. I’ve noticed a lot of “craft food,” artisanal types of food coming out of Hope & Main, things that are made closer to home with ingredients from closer to home. Most recently in this past year, I’ve noticed an emphasis on Asian-inspired cuisine: restaurants with devoted sake lists [such as Oberlin], RI-produced kimchi [such as Chi Kitchen], pickled/fermented vegetables appearing as ingredients in unexpected places [such as in Perro Salado’s sticky ribs]. Stock culinary goods even sells fermenting kits so you can do it yourself! And there are all kinds of bowls: ramen bowls, poké bowls, Buddha bowls. We’re also becoming more aware of those who are vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free and are becoming sensitive to those needs.

Ric Wild: When it comes to food, there are a few directions we can go, but I definitely think we’ll continue on the trend we’ve seen over the last four years of “clean” labels: non-GMO, no added sugar, fair trade ingredients, gluten-free. At Hope & Main all of the makers are interested in using all-natural ingredients and reducing their carbon footprint.

JC: Where is the future of food is headed and how are we getting there?

EB: More cooking lessons, visits to farms, “producing food together” with chefs and guests, going on food tours. People are looking for experiences over products.

AS: I think it’s headed toward more partnerships between small businesses, purveyors, farmers and chefs. Our staff will take field trips to different farms and distilleries and bring that first-hand knowledge back to our guests. Allowing more connections among people, having that face-to-face interaction, creates a more genuine experience.

ED: I’ve started to see simple comfort foods going gourmet: top chefs opening up food trucks for fried chicken; Jake Rojas opening Tallulah’s Taqueria after having a fine dining restaurant for years in Newport. Nostalgia is a huge focus, fueled by sensual memories of food from childhood. I also think we’re valuing and listening to what customers want. Maintaining that interplay between consumers and chefs offers a lot of satisfaction to go around for everyone.

PS: I think we’re going to continue growing with the “eating with the ecosystem” initiative. Restaurants seem to be getting smaller rather than larger, and they’re growing their own food. I think of crop sharing and Melissa Denmark [who founded Moonrose Farm] — and this idea of trading work on the farm for vegetables. It’s almost like we’re going back to how food used to be grown and appreciated, and making that the food philosophy.

RW: There’s a trend toward “glocal” food, where global inspirations intersect with local ingredients. We’re learning about cultures through food and expanding the American palate. I also think we’re going to hear a lot more about resiliency in the future. With the environmental changes we’re seeing, regions will need to become more self-sustaining. We can’t just depend on, say, California to produce all of the fresh almonds or oranges. These changes will need to force creativity and promote resiliency. We’ll just have to learn to feed ourselves.

JC: What do you personally hope for in 2019?

EB: I would love to open a cooking school with a multiuse space, such as a certified kitchen and a place for an afterschool program for inner-city kids (especially those battling obesity). I’d like to teach people about planning menus for the week and creating shopping lists so that food isn’t wasted — the freezer is your friend. And it’d be great to host regular community dinners. Food fosters creativity and problem-solving, cultivates conversation and connects different cultures. It really brings people together.

AS: I hope to see Rhode Island stay small, but to grow and strengthen their small businesses. Within the restaurant, as we enter a new year, our entire staff creates individual and collective goal surveys. In fact, we’re just about to review our goals of 2018 and create new goals for 2019. One thing I’d like to see happen is more attention to our beverage program. We offer wine pairings with our meals, and it’s worth noting because wine-makers also have a story — a lot of wines are brought exclusively to Gracie’s for our tasting menus, which makes these unique and expensive wines accessible to more people. Our cocktails and mocktails are also inviting new levels of ingenuity. I thought I’d seen mixology in Boston before I came here … then I saw our bartenders using the “smoke essence” from hay from a farm in New York, and I thought, “Wow.” I just think we are going to continue to innovate and inspire. One important way to do this is by listening to our guests and being open to feedback. It’s important to be willing to change.

ED: I hope there’s a transition in the restaurant business from impressing critics and peers within the industry to focusing on the people in front of us. I understand that there’s a place for that level of precision and technique, but there’s an accessibility that isn’t there. Not to mention the pressure is enormous: there are chefs who have killed themselves over losing a Michelin star! For me, it’s so much more important that we’re of service to the people coming through our doors rather than being unwavering in the menu. I’ve had guests with a laminated list of 12 allergies come in and we got to work and were creative. My vision has always been to be as inclusive as possible while maintaining a locally sourced, homemade ethos, and I can tell you the payoff is completely worth it.

PS: Food waste seems to be something people are talking about more, and I’m seeing the initiative to address that. I actually just read an article that highlighted 16 smartphone apps that connect farmers to consumers, or retailers to charities, apps that are working to reduce hunger and eliminate waste. Some examples are “Feedie,” in which restaurants sign up to donate money every time their food is tagged on social media, and the money goes to give meals to children in Africa. Another one is “Food for All” out of Boston and New York, where restaurants can post an hour before closing that meals are discounted between 50-80% so people with the app can get it before it’s thrown away. The general public is more aware now, and they’re participating through technology. I hope that continues.

RW: There’s an expression, “The future is already here … it’s just unevenly distributed.” I think the same is true for food. For example, Seattle has had curbside compost pick-up for a while now [in RI, Rhodeside Revival offers the service] — and I love composting so much; it makes me sad when I see lettuce in the garbage. I’m hopeful that people will start to see how cyclical it is, that there’ll be more awareness where food comes from and what happens when we’re done with it. And I think technology is also being used to facilitate better eaters. There’s Crave Food Systems, a matchmaking system for farmers to restaurants, and our local Farm Fresh RI. They shared a statistic a couple of years ago that 90% of the food Rhode Islanders consume comes from outside our region. So they developed a “50 by 60” campaign, that RI would supply 50% of what it eats by 2060. Just think of how much better off, how much more resilient, we’ll be if that’s the case.

As for me, what I love is the timelessness of what food can do, and that’s bringing people together. Although we all might not share similar backgrounds or beliefs, we can still come around a table to enjoy (ethically sourced, mindfully prepared) food. It’s my hope that we will develop more creative partnerships that give back to the community, such as Ellie’s “buy a cup, give a cup” program, and utilize the smartphone apps Paula mentioned, to rectify some of the food inequality we see. It could just be that through the culture of our food, we can combat our divisions and our differences, one meal at a time.

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