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Dr. Johnny Drain: The Future of Food and Communal Dining

We spoke to Dr. Johnny Drain – an Oxford-educated scientist, food researcher and co-founder of MOLD magazine – about the future of food and why we need to get back to communal dining to help save our planet. 

It’s not very often that you come across a scientist who also cooks professionally, but that’s the story of Dr. Johnny Drain. After finishing a PhD in Materials Science from the University of Oxford, he decided to leave academia to pursue a childhood passion: food. Since then, Johnny has combined his knowledge of chemistry and physical sciences with previous cooking experience at restaurants to work on food projects with the likes of the Nordic Food Lab (originally started by the founders of renowned restaurant Noma in Copenhagen), the Argentinian Ministry of Agriculture and three Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur among others.

Johnny also co-founded MOLD magazine alongside LinYee Yuan to explore ideas that will revolutionize how we produce, prepare and eat in the future. At co-matter, we believe the ritual of eating is one of the most powerful ways to bring people together. From dinners and weddings to holidays: People gather around food. But how will this develop in the future as our food chains continue to evolve and technology increasingly impacts our eating habits? We caught up with Johnny, who participated at our Community Leadership Summit 2 in Berlin earlier this year, to find out.

C — What is MOLD magazine?

J — MOLD magazine looks at the intersection of food and design. The core question we're asking is: How are we going to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050 without fucking up the planet and the lives of the people who produce our food? We also examine how design can feed into healthy visions of a sustainable food system.

Past issues of MOLD magazine.

C — You’re a cook with a PhD in materials science. What does your process of working with food look like when you’re doing food research projects or consulting?

J — Well, for example, when I worked at the Nordic Food Lab, I looked at whether butter could be aged in a way that’s analogous to the way cheeses are aged. Even though butter and cheese aren’t that dissimilar from a chemical perspective, we put a large value on aged cheeses while nobody speaks of aged butter as a valuable product. In fact, when we talk of old butter, we often say it’s “rancid” or that “It's gone off,” but actually a lot of the chemical compounds that provide those properties in rancid butter are also found in aged cheeses and even in some kombuchas and wines.

Essentially, I noticed a weird disconnect between the scientific properties of these foodstuffs and the cultural or culinary properties we assign to them. In this case, understanding the science behind something opened up to the cultural question of why we assign certain properties – positive or negative – to foodstuffs. Then I spent about four months trying to culture butter with microbes and aging it in all sorts of strange situations using oxygen and light. Eventually, I ended up with a couple of interesting examples of what we call Blue Butter, which is analogous to a blue cheese with spicy and nutty properties. 

Mould failing to grow on the surface of butter.

"While developments in food chains in the past 60 to 70 years were necessary to feed the growing population after World War II in an effective way, we've gone too far and the current state of the global food chain is unsustainable."

C — What is the role of food in social gatherings?

JWorking with food is so fascinating because it encompasses economics, politics, culture and history. Food is the nexus for almost everything on the planet, which is why it's so critical that we get it right. While developments in food chains in the past 60 to 70 years were necessary to feed the growing population after World War II in an effective way, we've gone too far and the current state of the global food chain is unsustainable.

In terms of why food has always been this sort of cultural glue for communities, it goes back to the first communities of humankind who were hunting and gathering in groups, and eating together. There was simply an economics of scale involved when you cooked for lots of people, rather than for fewer people. However, periods of greater abundance essentially led to the breakdown of communal eating – except for at highly ritualized gatherings, such as festivals, Christmas dinners, or weddings. When everything is abundant you don't need other people's help to pay for or prepare the food, to have access to the tools you need to cook, or to clean up, for instance.

"However, periods of greater abundance essentially led to the breakdown of communal eating – except for at highly ritualized gatherings, such as festivals, Christmas dinners, or weddings. "

C — What kind of culinary customs do we need to make our food chains sustainable again?

J — Well, I think the worrying thing in the context of this conversation is that there’s the trend toward less communal eating and more solo dining. According to booking website OpenTable, reservations for one in the UK have increased by 160% between 2014 and 2018. Nearly one-third of the British adults are eating alone “most or all of the time,” according to a survey compiled with data from more than 8,000 people by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research for UK supermarket Sainsbury’s. So the question now is, how do we move back towards the communal and why is it so critical for us to do that?

"Nearly one-third of the British adults are eating alone “most or all of the time,” according to a survey compiled with data from more than 8,000 people by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research for UK supermarket Sainsbury’s."

C — So you’re saying we should go back to communal dining again? 

J— I think so. There’s been a divorce between people and the food they eat, and where the food comes from, and who’s produced it, and, of course, other people. Much of the current tech out there, such as meal delivery services, automation of the food chain and online ordering of groceries, is also playing into that. When you have communal dining and greater levels of interaction across the food chains, this leads to exchange of information – in the broadest sense – between the buyer and seller or between provider and consumer. And those interpersonal interactions are good for health and adding value to a food experience. It’s why restaurant servers strive to tell you stories behind a food or dish, for instance.

Communal eating – and the rituals and etiquettes built into and around them – allow for performative roles to be played out as well as for people to feel a sense of utility, unity, intimacy, solidarity and integration. In an increasingly stratified world, it’s becoming even more important because it brings people from different backgrounds together.

"Communal eating – and the rituals and etiquettes built into and around them – allow for performative roles to be played out as well as for people to feel a sense of utility, unity, intimacy, solidarity and integration."

C — Are there any examples of new communal dining formats that you’re excited about?

J— The great thing about communal dining is that it’s so simple and effective. It’s not a complicated formula, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. However, I think we've started to see a fetishization of communal eating in restaurant and eating spaces. Now, even in ‘fancy’ high-end places, larger tables are quite common in a way they wouldn't have been 10 or 15 years ago. In the near future, we’re likely to see restaurant spaces diversify in function, so you don't just eat there, but you eat and then you sing, you dance, you play, you participate.

For example, in the second issue of MOLD, we featured an eating concept by SulSolSal, a collaboration between Brazilian architect Guido Giglio and South African designer Hannes Bernard. Inspired by the economic crisis, the duo created a food performance, titled ‘The Banquet,’ that saw unmarked bottles of water and vodka being passed around to spark a sense of uncertainty. Not only that, the only eating utensils were meter-long forks that forced people to interact around the dinner table and feed each other. It was an homage to the times when there was a collaborative element to the sourcing of food that required asking each other whether a berry was poisonous or preparation of food that involved sharing the fire, pan and bowls.

"The food chain is fucking broken and we need to fix it... Fast!"

C — How does MOLD act as a platform to connect people interested in the future of food?

J— We aim to give a platform to underrepresented voices and to move away from the coverage of faddish trends or shallow explorations of food that dominate most of the food content on the Internet. We don't believe we need another "10 Best X" list or another picture of latte art or avocado on toast, or some celeb with a powerful reach punting another cookbook full of rehashed, on-trend recipes. The food chain is fucking broken and we need to fix it... Fast!

C — How do you see the future of MOLD?

J— Originally, LinYee and I said we'd do six issues and then quit . We'll see. We feel that we’ve gotten great traction, reached important people and have received a really good response from the food community… But we’ll see what we can turn it into. Either way, it will involve the community of readers and collaborators across disciplines that we've built over the past few years. That's really our strength.

At MOLD's Food Summit during Techfestival 2019. Photo by FREDERIK KASTRUPSEN.

C — What are some ways that people can get involved with the magazine?

J— First, of course, buy the magazine and check out the website. We’re always looking for contributors, not just writers, but also artists and photographers. At some point, we’d like to do exhibitions. Most of all, we’re interested in creating a community of voices and starting discussions. We see our role as merely curators of these discussions. Essentially, MOLD magazine is a convenor of this green dinner party where people want to talk about the future of food and how not to fuck everything up while trying to feed the world.

C — Thank you for the conversation, Johnny.

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