Food Policy Is Hitting The Big Time Aboard Summit at Sea

Food policy has gone mainstream. I know this because Summit at Sea 2016--a swanky three-day conference held on a cruise ship that hosts likes of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, skateboarder Tony Hawk and acclaimed poet Sonia Sanchez--is incorporating an entire series of talks under the umbrella "Corn and Soy," curated by food activist Ellen Gustafson. This is a big deal.

Rosenheim Advisors called 2015 "piping hot" for global food tech and food media businesses, citing 142 private company fundings totaling over $2.3 billion, just in the United States. The year prior, in fact, was even bigger: 157 deals raising $2.6 billion in the U.S. And many of these bustling businesses are headed up by young Millennial entrepreneurs, attempting to capitalize on the foodie craze.

As such, it's not just food nerds like myself who are interested in the issues surrounding farms, oceans and diners these days. Businesspeople and techies are finding relevance in it as well.

"I want to see this incredible community of people coming up in their careers, or already well-situated in their careers, deeply understand their roles in solving big problems of the world. And then I want to see them act on it," Gustafson, Principal at Summit Series and Co-Director of the Summit Institute, emphatically expressed over the phone. She sees the "Corn and Soy" talks as an opportunity to bring food issues to the forefront during an otherwise non-foodie gathering.

Summit was founded in 2008 by Millennial cohort Brett Leve, Jeremy Schwartz, Elliott Bisnow and Jeff Rosenthal to bring together academics, artists and entrepreneurs in immersive experiences to converse, connect and create. In Summit's short lifetime, they've hosted the likes of Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Martha Stewart and John Legend, and sponsored conversations on topics as varied as poverty, lucid dreaming and rock climbing. The Summit founders have pushed the limits of what's possible: They purchased a mountain in Utah to build the town of their dreams; hosted a long-table dinner in the fields of Tulum; and take a 1,069-foot ship of inquisitive minds out to a private island in the Bahamas each year via Summit at Sea.

Though Summit events usually attract a business, tech and arts-focused crowd, this winter's Summit at Sea is putting food front and center. Nestled into presentations on Asian markets, the ultimate hackers and ground-up innovators will be talks on the microbiome and sugar.

"The opportunity to transform the food model in the country has never been more ripe, pun intended," Summit co-founder Jeff Rosenthal told me. "From subsidy reform, farming technology, new growing techniques, the conversations around organics, GMO's, and the overwhelming impact and decisions we make about our diet have on the environment."

The team is also carrying the food emphasis through to the kitchen, appointing 'Wichcraft co-founder Jeffrey Zurofsky as executive director of culinary operations, or as he calls himself, "Nourisher in Chief," of Summit at Sea 2016. Zurofsky is working alongside executive chef Harutaka Kishi to thread the themes of food policy throughout every meal.

"We're using ingredient sourcing to tell a story," Zurofsky explains, so that "others who don't usually think about this stuff are thinking about it." For example, the menu will feature trash fish from Sea to Table with certified traceability by Monterey Bay. Kelp will be provided by Green Wave. "Everyone has been fetishizing kelp recently--the umami flavors and sustainability aspects."

"Dinners will be opportunities to produce even more content and discussion," says Zurofsky.

To keep the intellectual discourse and excitement going around the clock, Zurofsky and Kishi are also masterminding a popup culinary series that will start at midnight every night and last until sunrise.

"Just when you're least expecting it, something fun is going to come out and surprise you. It will make you think, 'Wow, there wasn't an hour where someone wasn't thinking about engaging me with food, my mind, my body,'" Zurofsky expressed.

The goal of Summit, Rosenthal explains, is to "keep it surreal. Do things that are a bit beyond people's expectations."

The surreality is part fun yet also a catalyst to creating unlikely relationships and sparking outlandish ideas. The environment is temporary, unique and entirely detached from participants' ordinary lives: There's no cell service. You're not quite sure of where you are. Questlove can show up to play a set at 4 A.M. and then you'll spot a whale shark off the deck an hour later (as Zurofsky recounts of his first year attending Summit at Sea). The Summit team hopes to create lasting bonds between thought-leaders who wouldn't, under normal circumstances, have the chance to converse, dine and imagine together. And this year's food curriculum creates all new potential for food-centric ideation and solutions.

"The Summit community is multidisciplinary," says Zurofsky. "I've never seen a group of people more focused on optimization and engaged and interested in experimenting with art and tech and beyond. I can't wait to see what they do with the new food programming."

And I can't either.

I will be attending Summit at Sea. Stay tuned for updates, come November, by following me on Twitter @EveTurowPaul.