By Lorrie Baumann
The conventional supermarket may be doomed by competition with online retailers and delivery services and by Americans’ search for authenticity in the foods they eat, according to Anthony Bourdain, a featured speaker at this year’s Dairy-Deli-Bake Seminar & Expo.
Dairy-Deli-Bake is a production of the International Dairy, Deli and Bakery Association, and the trade show was held June 5-7 in Houston, Texas. Next year’s event is scheduled for June 4-6 in Anaheim.
Bourdain pointed out the rapid evolution of Americans’ interest in their food, which has helped propel his career into the stratosphere. “Eighteen years ago, I was dunking French fries for a living, more or less,” he told a packed theater. “Life was relatively good, but I was quite certain that I would never see Vietnam, for instance.”
Today, Bourdain is better known as a best-selling author, television host and executive producer of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” than as the chef he was before “Kitchen Confidential,” his memoir of his young days in restaurant kitchens, became an unexpected best-seller. He is currently developing a New York City food hall modeled after a Singapore street market, a collection of small market stalls, where shoppers will buy fresh and freshly prepared products from a variety of vendors. The project is now projected to open in 2018, and in preparation, Bourdain has been giving a lot of thought to the kind of food Americans want to eat and how they want to shop for it.
He pointed out in his talk to the Dairy-Deli-Bake attendees that the American culinary tastes are evolving rapidly and pointed to the growing importance of organic produce in today’s supermarkets and to the popularity of kale as an example. “Kale, who used to eat kale? It was garbage,” he said.
“Mario Batali was among the first to harness the power of television celebrity. He opened Babbo and started serving hooves and snouts, brains and kidneys, which is to say authentic Italian food the way they made it in Italy. No one was asking for this in America. Mario created a a market for that,” Bourdain said. “Everybody wants that now. This was entirely a chef-led thing. We care about who’s making our food now, for the first time in history. We also care about where our food comes from. We never cared about that before.”
“It’s been good for your industry. I well remember supermarkets and delis of the past where you walked in and there was two types of bread – Wonder Bread and some other stuff. Fresh herbs were never to be seen,” he noted.
Now, though, supermarket chains can’t keep up with the speed of this evolution, challenged as they are by the rapid development of options in the food marketplace such as meal kit delivery services and online grocers. In New York City, for instance, his grocery store shopping is already limited primarily to fresh ingredients, since he can have anything nonperishable that’s heavy or awkward to carried simply delivered to his apartment. “If it’s not perishable, and I don’t need to squeeze it, I’m buying it online,” he said. “I’m not trusting anyone to pick out my cheese for me. I want to poke that…. Can you keep up? I think you’re going to have to change and specialize.”
Bourdain predicts that supermarkets may eventually continue to exist only as either a virtual space or as a collection of specialty shops within stores – the concept behind his market. American consumers will always want to shop for their meat, their cheeses and their fish in person because they’ll want to be sure that they’re getting fresh product, but they’ll want to buy their meat from a specialty butcher who will sell them organ meats and specialty cuts rather than just the muscle cuts that supermarket meat counters typically offer today and that offer very little challenge to a cook eager to impress friends with demonstrations of culinary skill, Bourdain predicted. “I can train a reasonably intelligent poodle how to cook a filet mignon. I would rather be complimented on a cheek or a hoof,” he said.
Young people in particular are now following the lead of a new generation of rising celebrity chefs who aren’t so much interested in easy preparations of luxury ingredients. These chefs are increasingly likely to have come from an Asian or Hispanic family background and to have grown up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, and they’re now often celebrating simple bowls of noodles or street tacos with interesting flavors rather than the traditional American dishes – the foods they grew up eating in their homes and neighborhoods. He noted that 78 percent of Houston residents under the age of 30 are not of Anglo-Saxon family origin. “That’s a hell of a lot of people who grew up eating something other than meat loaf,” he said.
The young people who are following these young chefs are driven by an intense search for authenticity in their food, according to Bourdain. “What are people looking for in food now? What are they valuing? It has changed. I think what people are looking for more than anything else is perceived authenticity. They want that sense that they’re getting the real thing, the real deal,” he said.
For today’s grocer, the key to remaining relevant in the face of this rapidly evolving food marketplace might be to emulate the traditional cooks who spend their whole culinary lives doing one kind of food, sometimes through more than one generation, and, through practice, learn how to do that food very well, he said. “Find the thing you do better than anyone else…. Ask yourself what you’re good at first. That’s the way to relevance – asking yourself what you can do that the person across the street can’t do or won’t do,” he said.
“Swim against the current,” he advised. “Decide you’re not going to do what everyone else is doing just as well…. A certain level of fearlessness is required here – and confidence in yourself.”