Kimbal Musk Wants to Feed America, Silicon Valley-Style


He wears a cowboy hat because he tried one at a store in Austin, Tex., a few years ago and decided it looked good on him. Never mind that people make fun of it behind his back. Criticism, whether focused on his looks or his philosophy, doesn’t seem to bother him.

“My way of working is very practical,” he said. “There are many wonderful solutions to real food, but I focus on what we can scale. The Slow Food guys were right, but what they didn’t know was how to scale. If you can’t scale, it doesn’t matter.”

Unlike some of his colleagues in the tech world, Mr. Musk is driven more by cooking than by the love of a good algorithm. Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, he started in the kitchen at age 12, making meals as a way to bring his family together. His mother, the model Maye Musk, worked as a dietitian to support the family after she divorced his father, Errol Musk, an engineer and pilot.

At her house, Mr. Musk said, “it was all brown bread and plain yogurt.” At his dad’s, he and his brother and sister, Tosca (now a film producer and director), ate whatever the maid cooked, usually in front of the TV. “It wasn’t very good,” he recalled.

“I noticed that when I cooked, my dad especially would make us all sit down and eat together,” he said. “I loved it.”

He graduated from college in Canada and made his first fortune in 1999, when he and his brother sold Zip2 — a digital mapping service that helped newspapers including The New York Times produce online city guides — to Compaq Computer for $307 million. He became an investor in his brother’s other ventures, including PayPal and Tesla. (He is on the board of both Elon Musk’s electric car company and his rocket company, SpaceX, as well as Chipotle Mexican Grill.)

Set financially, Mr. Musk moved from Silicon Valley to New York and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). He lived near the World Trade Center, and after the 9/11 attacks, spent six weeks volunteering as a cook for firefighters and other people working the pile. He finally understood, he said, the link between food and community.

Soon after, he and Jen Lewin, his first wife, left for Colorado, where he met Mr. Matheson and opened The Kitchen in 2004. With its deep farm-to-table ethos and casually elegant style, the restaurant was an immediate hit.

Both projects were running just fine without him, so Mr. Musk became chief executive of another tech company. Then, on a 2010 trip with his family in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he was sliding down a snowy hill on an inner tube when it flipped. He broke his neck and was temporarily paralyzed.

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Rhubarb chard growing without soil inside one of the Square Roots containers in Brooklyn.

Credit
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

During the two months he had to lie flat on his back, it became clear that he wanted to devote himself to food. He and his wife divorced; he quit the tech company and dedicated himself to changing the way Americans eat.

Mr. Musk became interested in school gardens. He remains friendly with his ex-wife (the couple have two boys, and he has a daughter with another woman), and Ms. Lewin designed modular curved plastic planters that could be arranged in any schoolyard. Paired with instructions on how they can be used to teach subjects like science, the first gardens were installed in Denver schools in 2011.

Mr. Musk has begun a chain of hyper-local restaurants called Next Door, which he and Mr. Matheson envision as the Applebee’s for a new generation.

All the food is cooked from scratch. Menus feature wild salmon, burgers of local pasture-raised beef and big Greek salads with vegetables from nearby farms. Entree prices average $14, and the restaurants are designed so customers sit down together to eat and get their meals almost as soon as they order.

The first opened six years ago next to The Kitchen in Boulder. In September, another opened in a huge urban renewal project in Memphis called Crosstown Concourse, an abandoned Sears distribution center that has been turned into apartments and shops, with a school, a health clinic and an arts center. The partners plan to add 50 more Next Door restaurants by the end of 2020.

Mr. Musk also opened an outpost of his more upscale Kitchen restaurant inside a 4,500-acre urban park called Shelby Farms in the center of Memphis. But he insisted that he be allowed to buy 300 acres nearby that for decades had been used to grow cotton, so he could turn it into an organic farm, a project now in the works.

He is also testing the Kitchenette, a little takeout spot in Shelby Farms that sells locally grown, well-prepared meals for about $5 — his answer to a fast-food restaurant.

Mr. Musk’s nonprofit arm, The Kitchen Community, has put learning gardens into 100 Memphis schools, providing both staff and materials. Each one costs about $40,000, money that comes from the Musk Foundation and local donors. He has placed his gardens in schools in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and 150 in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave the project $2 million in city funds. By 2020, Mr. Musk hopes to have them in more than 1,000 schools.

He is not a fan of traditional school garden programs. “They don’t scale at all,” he said.

There are other ways to ruffle the feathers of Alice Waters, the Bay Area chef who helped pioneer the American slow-food movement and the concept of the edible schoolyard, but criticizing her approach to local food and school gardens is near the top of the list.

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Mr. Musk at Upstairs, the cocktail lounge at The Kitchen, his restaurant in Boulder, Colo. He started wearing his cowboy hat, which he is rarely without, after he tried it on in Austin, Tex. a few years ago and decided he looked good in it.

Credit
Ryan David Brown for The New York Times

“I don’t want to hear another word about scaling,” Ms. Waters said. “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s very earnest about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t know enough about farming and about the soil. He wants to do the right thing, but he just hasn’t done his homework. Not everything has to be scalable.”

Mr. Musk says he is “absolutely in conflict” with Ms. Waters. “I love her, but I don’t agree with her views.”

Critics have taken on his Square Roots project, too. The idea is to train young farmers by teaching them to grow greens with nothing but enhanced water and LEDs in shipping containers, and then sell the lettuce and kale to local restaurants and office workers.

Last year the project installed 10 containers in the parking lot of the old Pfizer factory in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, each able to grow as much produce as two acres of dirt. In August, Square Roots secured $5.4 million in private seed funding, and has grants from the United States Department of Agriculture. Mr. Musk wants one in every major city.

Whether food actually needs soil is one of the flash points between organic traditionalists and people like Mr. Musk. “Ideologically, they prefer soil,” he said. “We don’t care. Let them fight their fight.”

Mr. Musk’s ascent has underscored a generational rift that pits old-liners who shun aspects of emerging food science against a new wave of food disrupters who haven’t embraced the roles that history, flavor and pleasure play, said Garrett Broad, an assistant professor at Fordham University who recently wrote about one aspect of the divide for the publication Civil Eats.

“Somebody like Kimbal Musk could be an important bridge to bring some of these ideas together,” Dr. Broad said.

Maybe, Mr. Musk says. He is as much a believer in the power of technology as anyone in Silicon Valley. But he is a cook at heart.

“Optimizing for efficiency over everything else sucks,” he said. “Have you ever eaten in Palo Alto?”

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