Last week you had the chance to ask chef, travel writer, reality TV star, and all around food geek Ben Starr about sustainable farming, brewing, and building the perfect kitchen. Read below to see what he had to say.Kitchen Knives
What knives do you recommend? I use Chicago Cutlery, but I have been told that Wusthof is worth the money.
Ben: I have a collection of many different brands of knives, mostly gifts from other people, so I don't have a strict brand loyalty. I can tell you that the best knives I've ever worked with were Globals, which we used on MasterChef. They are as sharp as razor blades, you have to be very careful with them! My favorite knives in my home kitchen are Shun knives, made in Japan and of excellent quality, but they are breathtakingly expensive. (All were gifts!) When it comes to me, a cheapskate, buying knives for myself, I invariably fall to the IKEA Slitbar series. Their 6" full tang chef's knife is $24 with a nice wood inlay, sharp, heavy, balanced, and I don't have to worry about a dinner guest tossing them into the dishwasher, like I do with my expensive knives. If you're looking for a great knife series at a great price that you won't constantly worry about, you can't go wrong with IKEA Slitbar. And while we're on the subject, NEVER buy a set of knives. You don't need them all. Buy knives individually. You need a paring knife, a couple of 6" or 8" chef's knives (I have five), a bread knife, and possibly a boning knife if you like working with whole fish or breaking down your own meats (in which case you'll also need a cleaver). You can do pretty much anything with that.
How do I (slowly) assemble my own awesome kitchen
What is the most efficient, and ordered, way to assemble a world-class kitchen? Many of us don't have the budget (especially when coming out of college) to buy all the crazy-awesome tools that make for a world class kitchen in one go, so we have to slowly purchase items as our budget allows and/or old cheaper items get used up. Do you have a recommended order, from a batchelor/ette's first egg pan to elaborate computerized sous-vide, in which someone can build their own world-class kitchen over several years?
Ben: 15 years ago when I first got out of college, my answer was totally different than it is today, because of one word: Craigslist. Back when I was out of college, my only option for getting a good Kitchenaid stand mixer was at full retail, brand new, at Williams Sonoma. Now I can pick one up for half that price or less, gently used, on Craigslist almost any day of the week. So don't be afraid to buy quality used kitchen items, these things are built to last 20-30 years if not longer. Start with pans, and you don't have to spend a pretty penny here. You need only one inexpensive nonstick pan, a small egg/omelet pan, and I recommend a ceramic coating rather than conventional nonstick surfaces, as they pose less health risk. Don't spent lots of dough on a nonstick pan, its surface will wear out eventually. Get the heaviest one you can find for cheap. I have only one "clad-type" saute pan, those expensive layered stainless steel pans with a copper core. Again, you can get them used, and a good one lasts forever. All the rest of my cookware is cast iron, which is cheap even when you buy it brand new. I love cast iron: a well-seasoned pan is almost as nonstick as Teflon, but sears beautifully in a way that nonstick pans never could. Check thrift stores and garage sales for used cast iron, it is easily rehabilitated even if it's crusty or rusty. Keep it in shape with a gentle hand washing after use (a well seasoned pan will clean up almost instantly), then dry it well, give it a light spray of cooking oil, and put it back in your pantry. The only time you'll ever regret your cast iron collection is when it comes time to move!
For appliances, start with the indispensable basics: a quality stand mixer (avoid the Artisan model Kitchenaids, they are underpowered, go for the bigger, stronger ones), a decent stick blender, and a food processor with a large capacity and plenty of attachments. As your technique becomes more sophisticated (and hopefully your income more lucrative) you can begin saving up for the biggies: a Vitamix blender, an immersion circulator (ie "sous vide") with vacuum sealer, and any additional equipment necessary for the food hobbies you'll inevitably acquire, like beer brewing, cheesemaking, charcuterie, etc. And, again, all these things can be acquired used on Craigslist, often for a song, with many, many years of life left. After that, specialty attachments for your Kitchenaid can follow, like pasta extruders, meat grinders, etc. Don't forget that companies OTHER than Kitchenaid manufacture attachments for it, and are often of much higher quality. I'm currently enamored with an all-stainless steel, fully dishwasher-safe meat grinder attachment made by a small Texas company called Smokehouse Chef, which actually cost me LESS than Kitchenaid's poorly-reviewed model.
The Presentation Layer
As a chef that embraces modern technology, do you think that the 3D printed food technology is something you will have in your kitchen some day or is it just a fad?
Ben: Just as we've seen the movement of laboratory equipment into the commercial kitchens of Modernist chefs (cryovacs, immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen, rotary evaporators, etc.), we're going to be seeing 3D printed food pop up in those same kitchens in no time. I don't think Modernist cooking is going anywhere, but it most certainly represents the minority of chefs and restaurants. Most of us have no desire to eat foie gras cotton candy, citrus dust, and scallop foam on a regular basis...though on occasion it can be an intriguing, inspiring, and expensive curiosity. When it comes down to it, people in all cultures around the world invariably gravitate towards the honest, straightforward comfort foods they've enjoyed since childhood, so the home kitchen and the restaurant industry will always be dominated by authentic foods with a long heritage and a story behind them. High-tech food will never be more than a solid but rare corner of the industry that has a larger impact on its culture than its size belies, in the same way that a single groundbreaking artist may impact generations of artists after him/her...though their own body of work and those they influence still represent a tiny fraction of the whole body of human art.
Innovations in Brewing
What are some of the most interesting and promising recent innovations available to the home brewer?
Ben: I'm stoked about new ways of achieving barrel-aged flavors without the need for barrels. Ageing on wood chips was the old method, but new products from companies like Black Swan Cooperage are allowing a much faster maturation time and can be inserted right into the secondary fermentation bottle. As a chef and brewer, I'm also VERY excited to see more culinary beers on the market. I've been brewing beers with grapefruit and tamarind and bananas and cardamom for years, and for awhile, the purist community stuck their nose up at any beer that contained anything more than water, barley, hops and yeast. Not any longer!! Go hogwild, people. Brew me a beer with bacon fat and maple syrup! I'm excited to see a generation of highly drinkable gluten free beers emerging, so that beer lovers with gluten sensitivities can enjoy quality beer again. (There are now innovations in the mashing process that can remove most of the gluten from a full barley grain bill, so it's no longer necessary to resort to sorghum!)
Also, with the skyrocketing micro-brew trend, professional-quality equipment for brewing in larger-than-5-gallon batches is coming down in price and becoming more readily available (especially when small breweries go out of business and sell their equipment), making it possible for serious homebrewers to make the jump to brewing larger batches at home, and possibly even going professional, without having to sign away your firstborn child. But still, homebrewing is dominated by the do-it-yourself spirit of ordinary folks, rather than manufacturers and industry innovators, and beer innovation comes as we build and tweak our own mash tuns, wort chillers, and climate-controlled fermentation chambers in our garages. WE are the innovators.
Industrial Livestock and the High Meat Diet
Do you agree with the following statement, and would you comment? Industrial livestock production and the high meat consumption diet of the industrialized world are unsustainable and are causing great damage to the Earths ecosystems, and that the only real solution being that the amount of meat being consumed must drop considerably.
Ben: I'm not sure how any rational human being could disagree with that statement. Our population is soaring. Developing nations are making the leap closer to becoming industrialized. This means more and more affluent meat eaters coming online each day. Our commercial meat production methods are already unsustainable, inhumane, and imminently susceptible to disaster, either from natural or engineered pathogens. Still, some nations meet their demands for meat on a smaller, localized scale without massive, industrialized, intensive production facilities...like France or Finland...where the majority of their population still enjoy meat on as regular a basis as Americans (though certainly in smaller portions), but the majority of animals are still raised on smaller, non-factory farms. I believe the biggest meat problems in America (other than poor animal husbandry) are portion size, with so much cooked meat going to waste, and low meat cost, which leads to mass spoilage and waste in the grocery store or the home fridge. If meat were more expensive, we would be more careful with it, not eat as much of it in one sitting, and be less likely to walk away from a grill full of chicken breasts (we can always throw some more on if they burn, right?) And meat raised on small farms most certainly costs more to produce, and therefore demands a higher retail price, in addition to being much higher quality. Raise the price of gas? People will use less of it and be more cautious with it. (Look at Portland.) It works the same with meat.
More importantly, what do you think about Soylent, the food substitute?
Ben: Horrific name choice, to be certain, as no one would be able to find nutritive food substitutes appetizing with that name! When we think in terms of scale...yes, in a few hundred years, the population of the planet will be too large to be fed entirely on "natural" or minimally processed foods. Arable land is disappearing, climate is rapidly changing, and that's going to force us in two directions: genetic modification of crops and animals to be able to raise more of them on less land, and engineering food products that are more densely nutritious than, say, a tomato, in order to meet the body's minimum requirements. Pondering this type of future isn't inspiring for me. I don't eat "just to survive" and I never want to. Part of what separates us from the animal kingdom is our palates...we live to eat. Food is at the core of how we celebrate with loved ones, and how we share our love and passion with new friends. And as our current food supply becomes more and more engineered, we're seeing an ever-more-popular upwelling of resistance, with millions searching out foods that are closer to the earth, from small family farms, or growing their own. There's no reason to think this movement won't reach revolutionary proportions by the time Soylent is the primary source of calories on the planet. While Soylent may have been pioneered by someone who finds cooking and eating to be a burden, this is most definitely NOT the common sentiment on the planet. Virtually all people love to eat well. Many, if not most people love to cook. Soylent will not become common until it is the only affordable option.
Local gardens and farms?
What do you think of replacing the stereotypical front yard with some type of garden and some home raising of animals (chickens come to mind)? I'm nowhere near a farmer, but having the ability to have food available a few feet away seems like a wise idea, especially with food prices skyrocketing.
Ben: This is already happening all over the US. People in Manhattan have chicken coops on their balconies. People are digging up backyards and front yards to plant tomatoes, and apartment dwellers are joining community gardens. I live in a 1300 square foot house on a tiny, suburban lot...but I have 11 chickens, a huge garden, fruit trees and bushes, and I produce enough food not only for my household and neighbors, but to supply my small, ephemeral restaurant. Not only is self-sufficiency (or at least partial self-sufficiency) a smart idea, it is ENORMOUSLY fulfilling to eat and share foods that you've raised yourself. However, it's important to realize that food production at home IS NOT CHEAPER than the grocery store. Mass-produced, industrial ingredients are far cheaper than the costs involved in having a garden and animals. My water bill in the summer is over $300 a month, just because of my garden...and I live in an area with very cheap water. Building a pen and coop for a few chickens will run into the hundreds, and feeding them even the cheapest available food is going to cost more per month than buying eggs from the grocery store. Feeding them organic? You don't even wanna know. Raising your own food isn't about saving money. But it is endlessly fulfilling, healthy, fun, and sets a strong example for those around you to begin reconnecting with the food chain.
Mr. Starr, thanks for taking questions.
My question: When will we see a scalable local/organic logistics solution for delivering food to a large metro area? Ex: The size of Denver...we see stories of "innovative tech solutions" all the time here on /., but usually they are limited to one "green" building, one research team's "urban farm" concept, one restaurant chef applying these in one restaurant in Brooklyn... I'm asking when will we see one of those solutions applied at scale? I ask because in my mind that is the threshold or 'tipping point' in the industrial food situation.
Ben: I tend to be an excessively optimistic person, but I'm not sure I can be when this question is asked. Right now these innovative projects are far too expensive to be applied on a large scale. In this way (and in many other ways), our food supply mimics our energy supply. It won't be until we literally run out of petroleum sources that electric cars will become commonplace. It won't be until our coal and natural gas reserves are tapped out that you'll see solar panels and windows on many homes. As long as factory farms CAN produce meat and vegetables cheaply, they will be the primary suppliers of food on the planet. As long as the average person can buy 2 dozen conventional eggs for the same price as a dozen organic eggs, the majority of them will choose conventional. As technology advances and genetic engineering makes it cheaper for industrial farms to produce more food at less cost on less land, organics and urban farming will never be more than a curiosity for most, and fully embraced by only a few. But there is power in visibility and education. When a young person sees skyscrapers topped with vegetable gardens, or a college student takes note of a local chef who's supporting a local farmer and notices a change in the quality of the food, we're planting the seeds of change for that moment when it becomes NECESSARY for us to produce food for our cities inside our cities, and for people to be partially responsible for producing their own food.
But "Scalability" is the enemy of slow food. If skyscraper walls and roofs become farms, that becomes the business of corporations. And when the individual care and stewardship of the farmer is taken out of the picture, we end up with the same problems we have now. Large-scale "organic" farms are nothing of the sort, they still rely on chemicals and methods that are, in fact, not organic, to produce on the scale necessary to supply retailers. (The number of dangerous and non-organic compounds and methods now allowed by the USDA in farming practices and still have the "Certified Organic" label is appalling. Responsible, sustainable, organic farming cannot be accomplished on a large scale.) The only time we'll see sustainable, organic ingredients as the norm is when a fourth of our population is back in small-scale, diverse family farming. And our country's size, comparatively light population density, government, and economy do not encourage that.
Current society focuses more and more on technology to make cooking easier, quicker, make prepared foods more readily accessible, etc. One area we have not really changed is butchering, except to say that there are far fewer butchers today than a generation ago. There could be no quality cuts of meat without them. Do you think butchers are a dying breed, or will we see a resurgence within that profession?
Ben: Butchering has most certainly changed with the advent of industrialized animal husbandry. Most butchering happens at centralized locations now, with steaks, chicken breasts, and the like being cut, packaged and delivered to the grocery store, rather than an in-store butcher doing the breaking down and packaging. Butchers are a rapidly vanishing phenomenon...you have to really search to find one in most places. The other day, I was at an upscale gourmet market and asked the person behind the meat counter if they could cut some flat iron steaks for me out of the chuck, and they looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language and said, "Everything comes already cut and packaged to us. We can't really cut anything for you." Luckily, as more and more folks are taking a closer look at their food, more artisan butcher shops are popping up in urban areas, and as long as some of us are willing to pay a little more to have our meat cut the way we like, and to know the name of the farm where that meat was raised, there will always be a butcher who will capitalize on that...as long as the law permits him to.
Fat Sick and Nearly Dead
I've been watching some documentaries lately, along the lines of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead & Food Matters (both worth watching).The common theme (which I have heard for many years now) is to eat raw and stay away from processed foods: the reason being; most chronic disease is caused by the lack of available micronutients. You may be getting energy from processed foods, but all the complex biomechanics for healthy cell life is being starved, causing heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, etc etc.From your experience with food around the world, what do you think is the optimum daily diet.
Ben: You've asked two very separate questions here. In terms of processed foods, I don't think any rational person thinks that a lifetime diet heavy in processed foods isn't going to cause significant health problems. (Whether or not they are willing and/or able to change their diet is a different issue.) In terms of converting to a raw diet, I think that's comparable to the question about Soylent. Are we eating simply to stay alive and keep at the top of our health? Or are we eating to celebrate and enjoy life? Perhaps when I'm 70 I'll have a different perspective on this, but I can guarantee you that I won't regret my life of enjoying whatever foods I want to. Now, I'm not overweight or diabetic, but I live an indulgent life. I don't deny myself a good beer or some fried chicken...when I want it, I enjoy it. Eating is one of the things that make life truly rich and enjoyable. And while I've had some lovely and interesting creations by raw chefs, heat transforms ingredients in a complex and interesting way. It makes ingredients BETTER (though in some cases it makes them less nutritious, and in other cases it makes them MORE nutritious). I admire those who staunchly live the raw lifestyle, because it's not easy. In the same vein as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, a much larger portion of their time and energy goes into acquiring their food than it does for you and me. And they obviously find it fulfilling enough to continue it. But I could NEVER do the exclusively raw thing. There's not enough diversity. My entire life is about food. I take incredible joy from both eating and cooking. But if your goal is exclusively to maximize your years on this planet...yes, you should be eating raw...and raising all your own food...and living as far away from urban centers and their pollution as possible...and following a carefully planned exercise and sleep routine...and then, are you truly LIVING? For me, the optimum daily diet is whatever I feel like eating, eating until I'm satisfied but not stuffed, being active in whatever way I ENJOY being active (ie...hiking and foraging and canoeing and playing with my chickens and my dog as time flies by, rather than languishing on a treadmill, counting the seconds until I'm done), and focusing on truly enjoying and appreciating my food, so that it enriches my life, and makes me happier and more fulfilled. Life is already too short to allow food to become a burden and a chore. Food should make life richer and more fun.