When it comes to food, Mike Lee is always one step ahead. The founder of The Future Market grew up around his family’s Chinese restaurants in Detroit. It was only natural that he made food central to his life’s work. Aside from his day-to-day duties, Lee is committed to the idea of biodiversity to strengthen our food system and our tastes. Some of his recent accomplishments include curating CHOW: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, an exhibit at the Museum of Food and Drink, and developing a biodiversity package with Food + Tech Connect.
Bowery connected with Lee to learn more about his work in our fourth installment of our Q&A series, A Quick Bite.
Let’s talk about The Future Market. What led you to start it and what does the team focus on?
I grew up in Detroit, going to the Auto Show almost every year. I’m not particularly interested in car culture, but the main draw for me was seeing the concept cars that companies would produce each year as a really vivid way to suggest what the future of that industry might hold.
When I started working in food, specifically in food CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods), I went to some of the major trade shows and didn’t see anything that was in the spirit of what auto companies were doing with their concept cars. So, on top of the work that I was doing to create the products of today, I created the Future Market as a way to explore and build visions of the future based on the emerging innovations and behaviors we were seeing today. We do that by creating our food concept products, producing physical pop-ups, and lots of writing, talks and workshops that all show what the future of food could look like.
There are some interesting concept products at The Future Market. What’s your favorite product in the market currently?
Two answers, one high tech and one low tech. On the high tech side, the combo of AnalyzeMe and Custom Culture have been my favorites for a long time. Imagine you could swallow a single-use pill daily that scanned your insides and pumped out a data set that could be used to created food customized to your individual biology, tastes, and values.
On the low tech side, I love Banana B-Sides, which is a simple, ice-cream-like, frozen banana dessert that uses 31 of the thousands of banana varieties that exist in the world, other than the Cavendish banana, which is the common everyday banana we all know. The Cavendish represents around 50% of all banana exports globally, and it’s under attack by a disease called Panama Disease. We’ve literally put all of our eggs bananas in one basket, and one threat can have massive implications. So we want to support the cultivation of all those other wonderful bananas that can make our food system more diverse, while making something delicious and unique for people to enjoy. I’m a big fan of connecting selfish incentives to altruistic causes, and that’s why I love this product.
The Future Market just helped curate a biodiversity package with Food + Tech Connect. How did your team come up with that idea and the subjects?
Biodiversity is a big focus for The Future Market in 2019 and we debuted this new conversation in our pop-up exhibit at the Winter Fancy Food show in San Francisco. We love engaging in the future of food conversation, but it can sometimes feel like its only centered on things involving robots and food that comes from labs.
We think eating and promoting a more biodiverse food system advances the sustainability conversation in a way that roots it in taste and discovering new foods. So even if you don’t care that a new food can help keep soils healthy and boost economies in developing countries, you can simply eat it because it tastes good and is good for you. That’s how you make sustainable eating go mainstream: by rooting it in taste.
How do you define biodiversity when it comes to emerging Future Market products?
It’s any food that can diversify our agricultural system away from the 12 plants and 5 animal species that represent 75% of the world’s food, or crops/animals within a species that adds genetic diversity to the most popular species for that food. There are simply so many edible plants and animals out there that can pull us away from a highly concentrated food system that depends on just a handful of plants and animals to feed the world. We want to make people aware of the delicious bounty that is out there and help make it easy for people to promote a more biodiverse food system while eating something addictively delicious.
As a food entrepreneur, what advice would you give to your 18-year-old self about starting a career?
Never forget that everything that has ever existed in our world was created by a human, with all the same kinds of flaws and strengths that you may have.
I picked that idea up from a book about Steve Jobs, and it really stuck with me and changed my view on what’s possible for anyone. Everyone who created something incredible, from Michelangelo to Marie Curie, was human, and was probably just figuring things out as they went along to some extent like the rest of us. They just persisted through the journey and believed that they had something original to say, and that’s why we respect them. But reminding yourself that these iconic figures had to put their shoes on one foot at a time just like we all do really levels the playing field and empowers you to feel like you can do anything. Steve Jobs wasn’t a god, he was just a random dude who forced his unique way of looking at things into the world and it actually worked.
Tell us about CHOW: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, on exhibit through March 2019. What did you specifically contribute to the exhibit? What’s your favorite part?
I was one of the advisors to the exhibit and helped create some of the content that you see there. My favorite part is the infographic that maps out the structure of the Chinese-American “Mother” sauces, from which all sauces come from. If you study classic French cuisine, the idea of the Mother sauces is fundamental. Chinese-American cuisine has that too, but no ever really wrote it down and saw it as a having any kind of organizing principles or structure […] so it was really cool to create something that showed off the ingenuity of how all those sauces are made because it’s not something that’s widely talked about.
If you could eat vegetable dish for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. If Bowery starts growing Chinese Broccoli, I will literally be standing outside your door every day with a bottle of oyster sauce in hand.
Mike Lee contributed to this article in his own personal capacity. The views expressed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bowery Farming, Inc.