I recently made the terrible mistake of going to a weekend burger festival that coincided with intermittent thunder storms, muddy kids, long lines, indigestion and far too many people more interested in photographing, Instagramming, posting and repeating than in eating, savoring and thinking about the 30 different sliders available. It occurred to me that we are creating a generation of food paparazzi that is keen on collecting experiences and creating edible experiments and novelties unlike any generation that preceded it. Digital sharing and maker culture have become the mother lode of food and beverage inspiration and co-creation. If doing weird and wonderful things with all things edible gets you off, these are exciting times indeed. We suddenly have permission to play with and hack food in radical new ways. Sometimes these culinary experiments can be frightening and off-putting but occasionally they can lead to food- focused genius.
After two hours of too many sliders I came down with burger belly – a protein coma fuelled by too much beef, beer, buns and blue cheese. Next to me a bunch of ten year olds were building what they called the “Ultimate Burger Bonanza” – basically 30 different burgers all chopped up and mixed together into a salad looking slurry that they were then attempting to sell to their parents. It was hilarious, enterprising and curiously disgusting. My view that kids are far more uninhibited when it comes to culinary innovation than their teenage siblings and parents was powerfully reinforced.
While most of the world’s food and hospitality companies focus on studying and co-creating with adults, they are missing a huge opportunity to tap into the uninhibited inspiration that kids seem to naturally channel. In my experience, childlike fantasy and imagination can be powerfully used to drive the next generation of food products and hospitality experiences. Let me share some notable examples.
About a year ago, I took my four-year-old to see the kitchen in a busy Chinatown restaurant. He was curious to see how you cook in a wok and the friendly manager was happy to have us spend a few minutes in the chaotic steamy mess. He was absolutely mesmerized by the show and on the way out asked me why ‘restaurant people’ don’t just put the tables in the kitchen. He was certainly thinking beyond the idea of a chef’s table to something far more radical. He didn’t understand why there should be a difference between the front of the house and the back of the house.
Fast forward to a recent trip I took to San Francisco where I had the privilege of eating at Saison, one of the most ambitious restaurants in the country. The team behind this new age gastro temple has tried to blur the lines between kitchen and dining room and create one singular stage for a multi-faceted culinary experience. It starts with a walk past a series of refrigerators that line one side of the dining room that is completely conjoined to a large, immaculately beautiful kitchen. As the ten-course tasting menu evolved we were able to watch all the kitchen action while admiring the reactions of our fellow diners. While the wait staff were active in serving beverages and discussing the meal, it was the chefs who brought out and described every course.
They were new actors on a new kind of stage with well-considered style, persona, tone of voice and oral delivery. The highlight of the experience was being able to watch our sesame soufflés rise in the glass-faced oven and then have them whisked to our table where they were promptly topped with black sesame ice cream by one of the pastry chefs. I can still remember the look on the faces of my dining companions as they took their first spoonful and momentarily forgot about their smartphones, their jobs and just about everything else. It turns out that kids – at least those that aren’t completely addicted to video games – are frequently in this same state of mind where their imaginations can run wild.
One of the areas where kids are most uninhibited and creative is when it comes to playing with sweet ingredients – no wonder! On a recent Sunday, my ten-year-old son came up with the idea of a pancake smoothie as a way to drink pancake batter without getting sick. He mixed up a batch of batter, cooked the pancakes and then pureed them in a blender with some milk and maple syrup. The result? Amazing. You should try it if you are looking for pancake flavor on the go or if you are looking to start a new business with vast potential.
Over the years I have seen kids come up with a series of great ideas, all of which could likely be commercialized if corporations were ready to take more chances or push the envelope with products that don’t necessarily fit into the standard testing protocol. One example developed by a nine-year-old girl obsessed with baking is the idea of a chocolate bar with crispy kale chips. The chocolate overwhelms the flavor of the kale so kids don’t even know its there.
Another personal favorite was an idea two seven-year-old boys came up with called “Dare Drinks” designed to facilitate incredibly gross beverage experiences with their friends. What about an idea that a young Shrek loving five-year-old dreamed with a while back – green juice popsicles that act as both a treat and a daily dose of vegetable nutrition. I loved the idea because it combines something kids would never drink (green juice) with something natural to make it sweet (agave) in a new frozen format along with a well-loved cartoon hero to build vast commercial potential.
We live in a world where hyper-creativity, combinatorial play and novelty are key ingredients in the innovation process. While adults can train themselves to think this way, kids are 100% all natural innovators. While I might pass on the Ultimate Burger Bonanza, I might invest in the Dare Drinks startup. Did I mention the CEO is only seven years old?
This article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue