We recently sat down with Justin Grilli, a chef who has served up thousands of meals at corporate offices in the Philadelphia region, to chat about the future of food. Here’s his take on how shifting consumer trends, along with innovative new technologies and business models, are impacting how food is grown, produced, and consumed in ways we’ve never seen or considered until now.
Marissa Bollenbach: For starters, what drove you to become involved with food, and why did you become a chef?
Justin Grilli: My wife had a good career trajectory, and I wanted to add value to my end of the relationship. We were buying frozen food and throwing food out all the time, so I decided, “this is where I can give back,” and that turned into becoming a chef. I was doing catering delivery before I really learned how to cook, and then I took classes with a good friend who was the executive chef of the U.S. Senate.
MB: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the food industry?
JG: Food used to be scoop and serve. We’re talking casseroles with huge portions, salt, and rich. Now, we are plating food in front of guests. We do customizable meals incorporating new ingredients like whole grains, brown rice and quinoa, and fresh beans instead of canned. Access to produce has changed greatly, and people are more educated about food because of things like Food Network. We have to keep up with them. We could make “stir fry” and call it “Asian”, but people know the difference between regional foods and flavors like Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. We created new programs about authentic recreations of foods. I’m proud we serve foods like bibimbop and pho, and that people actually want to eat them.
MB: How is the role of chef changing?
JG: Chefs are responsible for everything that goes out and tasting everything because of the nuances of the food we are serving. We’re introducing new foods in the kitchen, teaching difficult food techniques to cooks, like how to poach and sear properly, and explaining the nutritive values of food, as well as managing special dietary needs (allergens – gluten, vegetarian, paleo, etc.). Chefs are spending a lot more time educating others because everyone needs or wants to understand nutrition along with cooking.
MB: What are some things we can do to help reduce food waste and ensure sustainability? What can we do as employees?
JG: It ranges from something as simple as eating with reusable plate-ware, utensils, and glasses to a conscious effort of being aware of proper portion sizes. New FDA labeling is coming out in 2017 requiring restaurants or retailers selling foods in 20 or more U.S. locations to place calorie counts on menus, and we’re seeing a push from both the public and private sectors to increase the use of sustainable, recyclable, and biodegradable packaging in the food and restaurant industries.
MB: Where do you get your ideas for meals/Inspiration?
JG: I read through my cookbook collection and look to friends of various backgrounds who have taught me about indigenous foods. I have the ability to develop new meal programs, so I can also take customer suggestions and run with them – if people ask for something, we’ll try it out next week and if it’s a hit, we’ll bring it back.
MB: Last, but certainly not least, any predictions for the future of food?
JG: In the industry, we’re going back to the way food was 100 years ago. “Snout-to-tail” eating is on the rise as people are getting more comfortable trying new things. Organic sections in grocery stores are growing, freezer/canned goods are shrinking, co-ops will get bigger, and people are more educated about cooking and replicating from Facebook recipe videos to Blue Apron. I can remember a few years ago, we were serving about 160 orders on “Taco Tuesday” at one office. We played with the ingredients and flavors and added house-made, fresh salsas and white corn tortillas for chips. We’re now up to 285 orders after that.
As Grilli says, authenticity is key. Farm-to-table, local, and sustainable foods are on the rise. Menus were once filled with fancy and foreign words, but now sourcing is taking the stage. Consumers want to know where the food they eat is coming from and what’s really in it. How is your brand going to enable that? The more educated consumers become each day about food and nutrition, the more the industry and the future of food takes shape.