Man at His Best

The future of food

Eating in the future, and the hows and whys of it

BY LESTARI HAIRUL | Dec 1, 2015 | Food & Drink

Illustration by Yohei Yamaguchi

What comes to mind when you think of the future of food? While the thrilling possibility of hacking actual food to give us better nutrients and yields has been our longstanding fascination since we left the Palaeolithic age and discovered agriculture, it is our behaviours and lifestyles that provide some interesting insights into where food is headed in the future. Fast Forward, a Madrid-based company, which anticipates the future based off the behaviours of regular people, has been working for the better part of a year now with the Singapore government as part of the latter’s mission to turn this city into yet another hub; this time, for the food industry.

As much as a previous feature that we ran in last month’s Tasteful Issue turned up its nose at the foodie culture, it’s clear based off Fast Forward’s #Foodture report that it is here to stay. Utilising an ingenious blend of social media hacking (first obtaining a sam-ple size of about 1,500 participants through #foodporn), app technology and big data al-gorithms, they’ve discovered that global food trends can be categorised into 15 distinct trends. We won’t be listing all 15 of them here, only those that we find pertinent to our city, including a few more.

With the Michelin Guide rolling into town this year, it seems like the odds are in our favour. The eventual Singapore-based food trend report will be released by Fast Forward mid-to-late next year, and it will be interesting to see how the government and restaurants put the forecast to use. Here are a few things that we’re expecting to see more of this year, or that we’re certain will be here to stay.

Robotics, automated cooking machines, high-tech agricultural measuring systems and big data for catering businesses—it’s all happening now. We spoke with Joseph Ong, Managing Director of One Rochester Group last month, and he talked about combining tech with actual service, while confirming that the company is currently developing a service drone that will do just that.

But don’t despair, the robots are not taking over just yet; think of them as providing an auxiliary service that works in tandem with human beings who are still the servers. In essence, they’re doing the same thing as the other side of automation in the food industry, which is food preparation via high-yield fast-cooking machines utilised by fast casual restaurants like Nude Seafood and RamenPlay. They merely speed up the efficiency of human beings without completely replacing us, because they still tend to require direction and focus.

Another instance of automation aims to remove the margin of human error, especially for things like stocktaking and deliveries. With the help of sensors and tech that analyses big data all up on cloud, catering companies like Oh’s Farm reduce wastage and spoilage with the power of science and the Internet of things. On a smaller scale are innovative bars and restaurants sometimes doubling up as mad scientist labs, for instance, by incorporating sound waves to mix a drink, as is done at Tippling Club, or other more familiar devices like sous vide machines to produce the best possible flavour. All these aren’t necessarily new, but their commonplaceness further cements the reality that all of that future-level sci-fi stuff we’d imagined decades ago is here, in the present. And it is clear that we will merely keep moving forward with it.

On the home ground, the popularity of salad bars and one-dish meals—highly customisable at the counter and convenient for the office drone—signify that this trend won’t be dying off any time soon. For as long as we are unique beings with unique tastes, places like Grain Traders, Aloha Poke and Maki-san will continue to see long lines for days. We wouldn’t be surprised if words like “bespoke” start to be thrown around either.

It would be a “colonisation of American or European trends”, as Miguel Jimenez, Head of Strategy at Fast Forward puts it, if the food industry here merely takes on any and every global trend sweeping the gastronomy world. And it’s not the aim of the government’s idea of a food hub. “They want local staff to be aligned with global trends, but still maintain the Singaporean taste. That’s the interesting part because it’s a way of remaining indigenous and global at the same time.” The hipster trend of #liveauthentic is on the right path at least in terms of the preservation of unique cultures. And it goes beyond just making sure that a steak should taste like a steak.

While it’s a fascinating experience watching a master at work, I was once told that working in an open kitchen makes staff nervous, but it’s a trend that is fast catching on. “In a show kitchen, you can see how people are cooking for you, so you can feel the craftsmanship of it, with a real human cutting the meat and smoking it. That creates value for the whole industry, where patrons expect everything to be handcrafted,” says Jimenez.

Similarly, the bar scene now has a prevalence of artisanal potions, aside from the branded booze that are staples of any counter. Yugnes Susela, Head Bartender of Smoke & Mirrors, confirms this. A growing number of bars are crafting liqueurs and mixers in-house, utilising fresh ingredients that set their drinks apart from the usual club tipples of yore, a clear indication of Singapore’s ever-growing cocktail scene. The vomitus proliferation of words like “craft” and “artisan” and, we’ll say it again, bespoke is probably getting someone’s goat now.

Junk food deluxe
Dear old Maccas are now shilling truffle fries and sell-ing USD300 meals via restaurant M in Tokyo. The popularity of gourmet burgers has become so steeped in the mainstream consciousness that it’s not really considered junk food anymore. But if even McDonald’s are serving customisable burgers of purportedly more premium ingredients that are brought to your table in a grim parody of service at a “proper” restaurant, you know something’s up.

Outsource feeding
We like this phrase. It perfectly encapsulates everything that is eventually going to happen to our world. But until we see our jobs outsourced to wherever that’s cheaper, at least all we’re personally outsourcing now is food. We hardly cook at home with our busy lifestyles eating into even the mundane necessity of nourishment. Soon, the kitchen will be replaced with another room for other stuff.

Robotics, automated cooking machines, high-tech agricultural measuring systems and big data for catering businesses—it’s all happening now.

Single-serve food
How does that Fight Club quote go? With outsource feeding becoming the norm, and as we take that doomed step closer to being forever alone, there’s more value to the consumer for single-serve food to avoid wastage. But it’s not as bad as those cooking-for-one recipe books used to be. At least with the current single-serve trend, you get exactly what you want, to your convenience, and best of all, you get to experience your own unique choice while seated within an army of others exercising their own choices without anyone bickering over precisely what to order. And the market takes notice. Not that you need any reason to polish off an entire bottle of wine, but then sometimes you want something more expensive that you can still keep instead of the boxed stuff. Enter Coravin, a device that helps you extract wine without removing the cork, giving you exactly the amount that you want.

Everyone’s starting to get just a wee bit more concerned now about how our habits are impacting the world. And with that, the evolution of the grossly environmentally unfriendly meat industry to some-thing called a “post-animal bio-economy”. So there’s cultured meat grown in labs taken from actual meat cells, and then also the burgeoning culture in Europe of eating grubs. As in, real grubs. It’s totally a thing in the developing world, but only just catching on with everyone else. Will this revolutionise the industry? There’s still a lot of room for R&D in terms of taste.

But de-meatification doesn’t exactly signify a diet filled with more of the green stuff. Just organic, and ethically grown and sourced produce and meats coupled with mindful eating. You’re no longer in control of your food by not cooking at home, so the closest solution is to make sure that the stuff cooked at the places where you eat is “healthy” even though you don’t really know what goes into it.

Shareable food
And it really culminates with this. Food has to be highly shareable not only in terms of physically break-ing bread with another human being by your side, but also through a medium that allows you to share it with your digital tribe online. A foodie culture that geeks out over quality, techniques and presentation must necessarily have an avenue where it can be expressed. Will mediocre cuisine served at photogenic locations and presented in food porn ways continue to thrive in this landscape? Or will the question of taste prevail? There’s still a long way to go for 2016.

First published in Esquire Singapore's January 2016 issue.