Is there a future for the family dinner?
Rick Bayless // WTF FOOD
Multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Rick Bayless will feed you in his Chicago restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Topolobampo.
He’ll teach you how to cook with help from his cookbooks and TV shows, such as “Mexico–One Plate at a Time.” He’ll help you out in the kitchen with his line of craft Mexican foods produced by ConAgra. But wherever and however you eat, he doesn’t want you to eat alone. When he thinks What the Future, chef Bayless is concerned about the future of the family dinner. But he’s excited by what he sees in our survey results.
“One of the things that is most important about gathering a group of people around the table is that it’s like the microcosm of civilization.”
GenPop: Why do you think that’s an interesting question to ask?
Rick Bayless: I think media is mostly out of touch with what’s really going on in the U.S. We are bombarded with the notion that nobody has time to cook and that nobody eats together in groups. I wanted to see if that was really true because I know so many people that actually treasure time with other people. Interaction with human beings is one of the things we’re built for. And if you took it all away, the society would crash. If we didn’t have any dining room tables, probably there wouldn’t be any more society.
GenPop: And what did you think of the data, which showed that most people do indeed spend time together around the table?
Bayless: Your findings were very interesting because they were not what the media tells.
GenPop: If you look at science fiction, which is occasionally a really good predictor of things, you see the Jetsons still sit around the table, and in “Star Trek” they still go to Whoopi Goldberg’s bar and everybody has their meals even if it’s 3-D printed.
Bayless: I never thought of it in those terms, but I‘m stealing that from now on when I speak.
GenPop: You see compression of time in terms of “We want more delivery” or the rise of meal kits or delivery of groceries. Do you think that will translate into more time at the table if we compress all of the other parts of “cooking”?
Bayless: It’s funny that you mention the Jetsons because I was having a conversation with somebody yesterday about this new prototype that would basically make your food. You just put the raw ingredients in there. I think that’s probably what I would predict, that it can relax your time at the table a little bit more. Meal kits are a phenomenal idea.
I wouldn’t get them because of how much trash they produce.
GenPop: That’s the only reason?
Bayless: Also I’m a chef so I don’t really need that. Could you imagine what the guy would think if he delivered one of those to my house?
GenPop: Why is it important to start with raw ingredients?
Bayless: I often think about when I was a kid, all the guys had to learn how to change the oil in your car, how to change the air filter in your car. And then the next step up was how to tune up your engine. And it was just expected that you could do the first two and that most people could do the third. Well, now nobody would think about doing that. That’s high-stakes stuff. You have to take [your car] into a special place to do it. I’m thinking that we’re going that way with food. That people are thinking, “Oh, if you want a really good meal then somebody else has to prepare it or at least part of it.” And I don’t know if that is a good thing or not because what it takes out of the equation is you putting your hands on raw stuff.
GenPop: Why is that important?
Bayless: The truth is it makes you healthier because it makes you come in contact with nature. Lots of people have done studies on what it means to interact with your food source, not just eat it but actually do some of the prep. That’s why I really like the pouches that Frontera Foods does because they don’t give you everything.
GenPop: With all the foodie culture some people still know how to cook and use ingredients, right?
Bayless: Do you know the site Serious Eats? It is sort of the Millennials’ version of Cook’s Illustrated. It’s all people who are just diehard cooks and foodies, and they want it. They want to spend time in the kitchen. Now, they may not cook every night of the week, but they love spending all afternoon in the kitchen and making stuff and having people over, and so they are precisely the group that most people would say wouldn’t need a dining room table.
GenPop: And in your idealized world, what do you think the role of the table should be in a family or a group?
Bayless: Memory making. One of the things that is most important about gathering a group of people around the table is that it’s like the microcosm of civilization, because there’s no family where everyone fits together perfectly. You kind of learn, you know, to be civil to one another. You share really great moments together. The fact that nourishing ourselves is part of that codifies it in a very special way because everyone will tell you that one of the strongest senses is the sense of smell. I would say that the role of the table really is creating memories and those memories are the ones that promote civilization.
GenPop: At today’s table, what is the role of devices?
Bayless: All I can tell you is what we do at our table. We always have our phones sitting next to our place setting, face down. They’re there to help us to answer questions as we’re having conversations – to deepen the conversation. If there’s something critical that needs to be done, you have to get up from the table and leave. I’m not a Luddite. I love having the technology [and] being able to have great conversations at dinner and experience deeper knowledge.
GenPop: If civilization hinges on coming together to share a meal, how are you feeling about the future?
Bayless: Everything in [the survey] gave me hope because we haven’t lost anything. It’s just that we’re being told we’ve lost it.