Facts and food in a post-truth world

BY: Mike Feist

“Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for no small reason. We have major politicians that believe climate change is a hoax and vaccines cause autism, despite mountains of scientific evidence. Our president’s administration started their first day in office claiming this inauguration was the largest ever, despite aerial images and transit records showing otherwise. The administration later defended the claim, saying “sometimes we can disagree with the facts.” It’s not just a problem here – two days later the new UK Prime Minister kept news of a nuclear missile test failure from the House of Commons and the public. Her defense secretary even said the government “successfully concluded” the operation. Lies, secrets, and the rejection of evidence-based statements are abundant in politics. But this isn’t just the routine “most politicians lie”; the amount of blatant, easily refutable falsehoods is unprecedented.

The term “alternative facts” has taken center stage in much of our news reporting and political debate since Brexit – the United Kingdom’s proposed secession from the European Union – and in the US presidential election. Information sources once deemed reliable by the mainstream are increasingly rejected, and the number of “fake news” websites is on the rise. People are largely ignoring facts and instead gravitating towards repeated emotional ideas and personal beliefs.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternative facts are the backbone of government publications. The fictional government’s secret Thought Police surveil everyone and punish dissenting speech, actions, and thoughts. The Ministry of Truth is responsible for creating propaganda, doctoring papers and changing historical records. Orwell’s book, published in 1949, has recently seen a record surge in sales, becoming the top-selling book on Amazon and prompting a reprint of 75,000 copies (which is almost as many books as are found in our Conrad Hilton Library). Obviously a great many people are comparing our current times and foreseeable future to that of Orwell’s fictional world.

Statistics lost public credibility especially after Trump was announced as the election winner, as both the media and the public had become dependent on polling data to determine who would win. Those outlets disseminated their absolute certainty Clinton would win. Though the details behind the poll flaws are complex and vary by poll, the largest flaw may be media and public dependence on poll data. Elections are not science: you simply cannot predict the results with exact detail. A false prediction is not a reason to start losing faith in statistics as a whole, however. And, this premise applies similarly to the fields of food science and nutrition.

As in politics and media, the culinary industry sees a large amount of misinformation and disinformation (intentionally misleading or false claims) and a disregard of scientific evidence, for example, how people receive diet and nutritional advice, how they determine foods’ safety (such as genetically engineered foods), and how they view economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture. Some of these authors take advantage of ideas, like the conceptions that corporations hide data, fund (and thus influence) research, bribe doctors, and lobby Congress. Many alternative lifestyle organizations use partial truths to convince people to turn to unproven herbs and medicines, nutritional claims, or agricultural techniques. And they can play on public fears over published data to allow emotion to become dominant in determining personal beliefs. GMOs may be deadly. Gluten may make everyone sick. Coffee may be bad for you. The problems and solutions in politics, health, nutrition, and food safety are all similar, in that emotion-based sources tell you that terrorists, chemicals, toxins, and all things foreign are present, and they must be kept out, so detox, build walls, eat natural, and eat clean. Right?

Emotional ideas have already impacted our industry in huge ways, turning opinions on biotechnology, like genetically modified foods and herbicides like glyphosate. The latter reduces the use of soil tillage and therefore reduces erosion and runoff. It has also passed the EPA’s and other national institutes’ risk assessments many times. Genetically modified foods are among the most studied, and the process reduces environmental damage, increases the food supply, can prevent allergic reactions, and can literally save lives through nutrient benefits. As an example, golden rice is biofortified with beta-carotene, which reduces vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness, affecting millions of people.

Marketing plays a huge role in disinformation, with Non-GMO Project labels becoming ever more popular. Similarly, “natural” labels are also everywhere, though any food could be labeled natural: there aren’t any restrictions on the term’s use. There are restrictions on the term “organic” in the United States, but the US’s organic program is flawed, with organic farms requiring significantly more land and resources than conventional farms to produce the same amount of food. Organic farms have a larger carbon footprint and larger environmental effects. Marketing often targets pesticides as a reason to buy organic, and consumers buy into it. However both organic and conventional farms use a variety of synthetic and natural pesticides. Some natural pesticides, such as copper sulfate, are more harmful to the environment, and many of the synthetic pesticides are designed to quickly break down into simple substances. The USDA organic program also has fear-based and unscientific policies against irradiation, antibiotics, and genetic modification. It prohibits any use of antibiotics, which can be an ethical problem regarding the treatment of animals. Overall, organic products are more expensive and bring no demonstrable benefits, to food quality, nutritional content, the environment, or the economy.

Another food industry example is truffle oil. It’s overused and not appealing, and there are a lot of similar opinions most chefs agree with, but what about the facts? It turns out that those are hard to come by. Nearly all of what can be found on truffle oil is opinion-based, and often false. For example, Joe Bastianich said in 2014 that “it has nothing to do with truffles”, “it’s made by perfumists”, and that “it’s bad for you.” Just to be clear: many brands of truffle oil are flavored with pieces of truffle, producers of perfume do not make truffle oil, and no, truffle oil is not hazardous to human health. Contrary to claims published in The Alternative Daily, the WHO’s JECFA report recognizes truffle oil as safe.

According to Tim Wu, professor of communications law at Columbia, part of the problem with false facts is the internet. The beautiful idea of free and open worldwide communication has turned into what he calls a “wasteland of empty articles, celebrity non-stories, and random stuff designed to get your attention for even a microsecond.” Websites like Buzzfeed largely seek an emotional reaction and have no ultimate goal beyond selling advertising. This model where a company’s worth is only based on the number of clicks they get “makes TV ratings look honorable by comparison”, according to Wu. In comparison, Wikipedia is one website which has structured itself to prevent that: on a list of the thirty most popular websites, it is the only nonprofit and the only one not ad-based. Its director has stated that accountability is the most effective way to build public trust – transparency at every level and earnest aspirations towards the truth and self-improvement. Tim Wu expressed hope that other media organizations take on similar standards in order to maintain the public’s trust. If you’re unsure about a controversy or are looking for information on food safety, nutrition, or biotechnology, look to Wikipedia, which has policies requiring neutral content, though still check that the information you find is cited from trustworthy sources.

What does this matter to a CIA student? As a reader, choose your information sources carefully, as there is more disinformation being spread recently. For determining the truth, the best course is to read multiple sources, all with no apparent bias, transparent and appropriate motives for reporting, detailed and reasonable methodologies, authoritative authors and publishers, and a peer review process (like review boards for scientific journals or editors for books, newspapers, and some online media). Maintain skepticism and rigorously challenge even the most basic of claims to see how they stack up against robust evidence.

Regardless of what degree program you’re in, you are going to be affecting what and how people think about food. You may come to be interviewed or asked to write a piece, but even if you don’t, your menu and philosophy as a chef or business owner will speak to the public. But without public trust, as institutions are finding themselves ever more frequently lacking, your words and the truth will be lost to all.


From dock to dish

BY: Mike Feist, BBA Food Business Management

I was painted a vivid picture; almost 90% of fish sold in the US is imported, mainly from Asia, and about half of those from farms are in and around polluted rivers like the Mekong. The fish are largely illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) and forced labor is prevalent in the industry. Due to these factors, US seafood prices are rock-bottom. The number of US imports surpasses the previous record each year, and the FDA only inspects about 1% of these imports before the food is distributed. More foodborne illness outbreaks come from seafood than from any other imported food. We have an epidemic on our hands.

Sean Barrett is a lifelong fisherman who is currently located at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. We met there to talk about what he’s doing to fight this catastrophe. In 2012, Sean created Dock to Dish, a network of fishermen, chefs, and some of the most brilliant people in the industry. He launched the operation in Montauk, having worked with Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Scott Chaskey at Quail Hill Farm, where the “farm to table” concept evolved into “dock to dish”.

The original initiative was simply a community-supported fishery (CSF), based on the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, and the first of its kind in New York. Dan Barber crafted an additional new program with Sean, the first restaurant-supported fishery (RSF) in the world. Sean’s fishermen supply top-quality fish, always delivered within 24 hours and never frozen. At Dock to Dish, they only offer sustainable seafood by only fishing for underutilized and abundant species, and working with multiple agencies to ensure that remains true. They are also sustainable in their methods – only using pole- and spearfishing to prevent bycatch and sea floor damage. This also made them a supply-based restaurant purveyor, reversing away from the traditional demand-based motivation as a purveyor.

They supply seafood to 15 restaurants in New York, including Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin, Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, April Bloomfield’s John Dory Oyster Bar, and Mario Batali’s Manzo at Eataly. Their waiting list has over 250 New York restaurants alone. Google’s Chelsea office also demands ten times the volume of a typical shipment to one restaurant, a staggering volume of fish. Whatever Sean brings in the chefs will take, whether it be Atlantic butterfish, sea robins, triggerfish, or cocktail bluefish. Chefs love these underutilized (and historically bycatch) fish, and the public, once mostly wary, are now specifically asking for them too.

Sean Barrett grew up around the freshest fish. His parents said they’d send him to basketball camp and he would return home with a “best fisherman” trophy. He’s worked in fisheries and restaurants since he was young, including his family’s tavern, where he learned to stand his ground in a kitchen. He grew up around one of the first CSAs in New York, Quail Hill Farm, founded by Scott Chaskey. Chaskey’s book, This Common Ground, made him think, “could CSAs work for seafood?” Scott then helped them start their CSF in 2012, and Sean said it skyrocketed from there. It became so popular that right away he had over 100 families with a 300-family waiting list. Sean brought the idea of adding restaurants into the mix to Dan Barber. The pair piloted it at Stone Barns, where philosophically it was a perfect fit, matching ideally with the force behind The Third Plate.

Dan Barber developed Sean’s idea to work for other restaurants, and immediately got on the phone. Dan personally called Eric Ripert, April Bloomfield, and half a dozen other top chefs. With his reputation and his insight as to which chefs would join in, he quickly got them on board. Dan Barber also guided Dock to Dish through some operational kinks. The first couple of times, they delivered the fish to Le Bernadin around noon, which was too late in the day. Sean didn’t realize they served lunch there and the fish should have been delivered much earlier, around 7:45 am. So they strolled in, excited to deliver some beautiful fish, and didn’t realize – the staff was ready to go for service, without the fish.

Once the operation became replicable, they started branching out all over the US, now operating in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Costa Rica. In California, they’re known for serving Michael Cimarusti’s Providence and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. They always deliver within a 150-mile radius of the source, with an average of only 70 miles’ distance. In Vancouver, they average 11 miles away and in Costa Rica, it’s only 7 miles from the dock. They end up with the smallest carbon footprint of any distribution system in their class.

This month, Dock to Dish is launching a Kickstarter campaign for what they name Dock to Dish 2.0. They want to show transparency through traceability by introducing the first real-time seafood tracking system. It shows the fishing boats arriving just like watching an Uber pull up to your door. You can see information on the fishermen’s names, history, license numbers, favorite fish, recipes, and more.

They’re partnering with Google and the system will display on Dock to Dish’s website. The program has the potential to display on member restaurants’ websites or on a tablet at guests’ tables. Blue Hill already does similar demonstrations for guests, including showing videos of Sean and Dan’s crews out on the fishing boats. Sean hopes this transparency will spread to other types of purveyors, so he’s making everything open-source and easy to replicate.

I asked Sean about his personal philosophy. The work is hard, laboring on boats and docks, hauling and lifting. He admits to questioning his career, like many chefs do after a long and exhausting day. Sean questions his work more when he’s waiting through miles of traffic on the LIE before dawn, hoping to get to the Manhattan restaurants on time. However, he reminds himself that his products feel like preventative medicine, as good fish is fresh, clean, and healthful. With his program, he can check off all the boxes for sustainable, traceable, hyperlocal, and seasonal fish. So for the families and restaurant guests he feeds, he knows they can have a wholesome, delicious, and nutritious meal to end a hard day’s work. That idea is what keeps him going – knowing he’s making a difference.

He’s also excited about the nation getting back to its roots of locally-sourced food. It’s partly why he and Dan Barber are such good friends. Together, they also created the Squanto Project at Stone Barns, which started when Sean ended up with scraps from filleting fish for the CSF. Squanto and other Native Americans taught the early colonists that if you fertilize the earth with fish, crops will grow larger and stronger. Sean and Dan applied that knowledge to the compost for Stone Barns’ fields, and together with a switch from cardboard to reusable plastic containers for the seafood, they eliminated nearly all their waste  . They started teasing the Stone Barns farmers later that fall, having to harvest “Jurassic Park-sized produce” – due to the fish from the spring before.

Dock to Dish also works heavily with CIA alumni; Sean estimates that 75 or 80% of his restaurants’ chefs have graduated from the school. One of his closest mentors, William Rosenzweig, directs the CIA’s new Food Business School and is an Advisory Board Member.

The outlook of local seafood finally looks promising.   So many fish populations have been soaring over the past two or three years; fish like porgy and bluefish are both at 150% of their target populations. Sean says we now have the largest and most diverse population of sustainable fish in US waters that we’ve had in generations. And with a blueprint for fresh, traceable, and environmentally-friendly seafood supplies, the food industry has a bright future.



West Coast Living at Greystone

CIA in California

BY: Mike Feist, BBA Food Business Management

Some people get lucky. If you can find a way to live somewhere unique for a year or two, don’t say no. I decided to spend my two AOS years out at Greystone, in California’s Napa Valley.

The California CIA campus is in northern California, about 60 miles from San Francisco. There are enormous mountains, deserts, volcanoes and hot springs, vast tundras, and awesome beaches all over the state. And being outdoors is perfect almost anytime and anywhere: most areas never drop below forty degrees, it never gets humid, mosquitoes are very rare, and it hardly even rains. Most days year-round are sunny and stay around 70 degrees. I found opportunities to go backpacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, snow caving, and skiing, and I could camp out under a single tarp most nights without a problem.

The town of St. Helena (officially a city, though a tiny one) hosts two other small college campuses. It has a small permanent population and relies almost entirely on tourism. You can find excellent high-end restaurants, boutiques, and gourmet shops like Woodhouse Chocolates. Their boxed chocolates have been rated the best in the US, according to Consumer Reports. St. Helena is also a town away from the French Laundry and near famous wineries like Robert Mondavi’s, Peter Mondavi’s Charles Krug, Stag’s Leap, Francis Ford Coppola’s, and Opus One. The area draws millions of tourists from far away for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel. So if you love food, wine, or desserts, you’ll be in heaven, but there are fewer attractions that concern art, history, or science. It’s not like New York where you can find three museums on the same block. People in the Napa Valley are looking more to relax, enjoy the outdoors, and have a good time.

In St. Helena, it’s hard to find cheap food, and it’s hard to find things to do without spending a lot of money. So my friends and I, broke college students, had little to do there. My friends and I still have nothing to do in Hyde Park, but instead because we’re in the middle of nowhere. San Francisco and Sacramento are very far away from the California campus, and they surprisingly don’t offer as much as I initially thought. However, find a way to visit San Jose, Palo Alto, and Berkeley; there’s so much more there, and you’d definitely not regret going up to Portland and Seattle either. Public transportation can be tricky. It’s not nearly as convenient as Metro-North or the New York City subway, but it is much easier than the public transit in Dutchess.

Greystone’s campus is very small. It’s mostly all within one building, which is about ¾ the size of Roth Hall by square footage. Greystone’s unique in that on the top floor there’s the hot side and the cold side, separated by our only cafeteria. So there’s only one bakeshop (the cold side) and one main kitchen for culinary arts. There’s another kitchen on the first floor for use by one or two classes at a time, but the main one gets the bulk of the school’s use, and up four to five classes or groups can use that space at once. And I should mention it was designed fully open – no walls between the three sections – so you can see from the end of the bakeshop to the end of the kitchen, and glass walls that continue behind the kitchen allow you to see two-thirds of the building’s top floor from any spot.

Another potentially big difference is with carts and reqs. I’m not sure how the requisition system works in Roth Hall, but at Greystone we had to go to a corner of the building every day, check over every item if Purchasing had pre-assembled our cart, or help build our own if they were behind. We’d have to wheel it across back passages through the entire building, unless the elevator didn’t work (which was often). In that case we’d have to wheel all the food across the entrance hall of the building. Luckily it was usually early in the morning, so we didn’t have to find a way past the tourist crowds that show up later in the day. There also was never a specific place designated for carts and speed racks, you sometimes had to search the entire building to find one. Dealing with these problems every day helped us learn to adapt quickly in future situations.

Greystone also only has one restaurant for AOS students. Your schedule is therefore even more fixed than AOS students have it over here, but luckily our restaurant was a lot of fun. It was called the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, a mouthful when trying to greet guests over the phone or at the door. Yet the front- and back-of-house instructors were probably the most helpful and nicest of all that I had. The food we served was delicious, and I was just as proud to cook it as I was to serve it. Our wines were fantastic, as were the cocktails. The whole system was the cleanest and one of the best-organized restaurants I’ve worked in, even though we started out with little front-of-house experience. By the end, we were all part of a fantastic machine we were proud of. Among the random things that I heard Hyde Park kids do differently in the restaurants and out are: not flipping cutting boards for new tasks (oops), actually peeling celery and asparagus, and washing pots and pans by hand! I was sad when I found out that with Greystone’s new satellite campus, the restaurant is being removed. AOS students will now use the restaurant formerly run by the BPS Farm to Table semester-away students, now called the Gatehouse Restaurant.

As I was leaving Greystone last spring, the CIA had bought and was renovating Copia, formerly a huge nonprofit museum entirely dedicated to food, wine, and all forms of culinary arts. I so wish I was around to see this enormous facility in its prime – complete with art, history, and science exhibits, massive theaters, demo kitchens, a rare book library, wine tasting rooms, and a cafe and restaurant. As a lover of food, wine, and culture, I would’ve spent all my time there. I managed to visit the empty space a few times, at first without even knowing it! Like most other Greystone students, I thought “what’s Copia?” when I first heard of the school’s purchase. I had been to the nearby food hall and farmers’ market, literally feet away from the building, and didn’t even know about Copia. A while later, I familiarized myself with the whole building, including its gardens and shaded paths, the reflecting ponds, and beautifully modern architecture. I’m looking forward to going back now that its long-empty halls are finally full.

As I was beginning my AOS, I realized Greystone is a bit more like an institution, not a university. So if you’re an older or a more mature student, it may be a good choice. You may even prefer it – come in, take serious classes, and leave. Clubs are few in number and disorganized, given Greystone’s lack of a four-year program. School trips and events are less common with a smaller student body, and there’s no on-campus gym, pool, or club rooms. The library is maybe half the size of the gift shop here and permanently shares its space with the learning strategies center. And because the campus’ only cafeteria requires business casual or chef whites and doesn’t include comfortable chairs or places for laptops, it lacks a university dining hall’s convenience and charm. There’s still a community feel to the campus because of its small size. My classmates and I felt Greystone was like a family.

I hope that the above ideas will help you and inspire you, whether you’re considering vacationing in the Napa Valley or spending a semester at our Napa Valley campus. Trust me,  you’ll be glad you did!