FoodTech at SXSW: the savoury side of silicon

SXSW kicks off today and Nick Farnhill, co-founder of digital agency Poke, has served up his menu of things to watch out for in the burgeoning area of food technology.

Tech and food are increasingly merging at SXSW
Tech and food are increasingly merging at SXSW

As the nerd bird awaits take-off at Terminal 5, the annual pilgrimage to all things tech is upon us. I’m not one that subscribes to the views that SXSW has lost its edge, quite the opposite in fact. Each year the addition of industry ‘streams’ provides new inspiration. This year, it’s the increased focus on the food industry and how technology is transforming it that stands out for me. ‘FoodTech’, if you will, is served up by the SouthBites programme, now in its second year and offering the same mix of panels, talks and meet-up.

The SXSW army have always marched on their stomachs and the dizzying array of food trucks, BBQ pits and artisan producers make it a foodie paradise. Not however for the BBH New York team, who this year are calling for a ban on food pictures. #foodpicstrike will aim to raise awareness of the many millions of Americans who don’t have sufficient access to affordable, nutritious food. Challenging food related issues through positive action is a theme explored in Monday’s ‘72 Ways Food Can Change the World’ led by Eater editor, Amanda Kludt.

There’s an entrepreneurial thread that weaves its way through much of the SouthBite content and the schedule dishes up a host of creative individuals who have turned their foodie dreams into reality. Restaurant and publishing entrepreneur, David Chang, will share his thoughts on tech’s role in our dining experience. Curtis Duffy and Michael Muser from Chicago’s Grace Restaurant will discuss how they have achieved Michelin-starred status from their postage-stamp sized kitchen.

More unnerving perhaps will be the discussion around the automation of our food experiences. Feeding a family and the joy of cooking for friends is a basic human routine. Can an algorithm really replace Delia? The answer maybe is yes. The computer authored ‘Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson’, billed as the cookbook to end all cookbooks, uses data points to pair unlikely cuisines and encourages us to explore new flavours.

But, where is this heading, or where does it end? Maybe we’ll all be eating / drinking Soylent – nutritionally ‘ideal’ but a dinner party deterrent. Baristas the world over may also take issue with Briggo, the robotic coffee service offering the ‘perfect cappuccino’. Are we heading for a two-tier gastro society – those that choose an automated, industrialised menu and those that opt for a more natural fare?

I’m excited to watch the relationship between foodies and tech blossom over the coming years. As food producers and artisans develop new and sustainable ways to further their businesses and preserve traditions, we’ll see the explosion of new market places. Platforms like the brilliant ‘Get Gone Traveler’, currently in beta, will connect the ‘food forward’ with independent food producers in a unique and very personal way. GGT Founder and CEO, Anna Smith Clark, will be amongst a group of panellists who are all driven to protect local food cultures.

It doesn’t stop there. Throughout the week, this techie smorgasbord will take you deep into 3D printed snacks, vertical gardens, edible organic membranes, bio reactive packaging and silicon chefs, amongst many other topics. But whether you’re a foodie or futurist the message is clear: our plates and our palates may be changing forever.

There you have it, my tasting menu for the tech hungry (in every sense) amongst you and a flavour of what will be taking place at this year’s SXSW. If, however, all you’re after is a restaurant tip, I hear the brunch at the Hotel San José is very good.


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