Brother of Elon Musk a champion for real food

Mr Kimbal Musk (above), younger brother of Elon Musk, wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures to help move the food system in the United States to one based on healthy, local food.
Mr Kimbal Musk (above), younger brother of Elon Musk, wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures to help move the food system in the United States to one based on healthy, local food. PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Tiger collard seeds before planting at Square Roots, a project started by Mr Kimbal Musk where produce is grown in shipping containers.
Tiger collard seeds before planting at Square Roots, a project started by Mr Kimbal Musk where produce is grown in shipping containers.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

MEMPHIS (Tennessee) • It is easy to understand why some people in this town of soul music and dry-rub ribs do not know what to make of the tall tech billionaire in a big white cowboy hat who has been opening restaurants and buying up hundreds of hectares of land that used to grow cotton.

Mr Kimbal Musk, 45, got rich working in tech alongside his older brother, Elon. Now, he wants to do for food what his brother has done for electric cars and space travel.

Although Mr Musk has food ventures humming along in Colorado, where he lives, as well as in big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, he has become enamoured of places such as Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio - parts of the United States he believes are the ripest for a revolution in eating and agriculture.

"The Americana here gives me goosebumps," Mr Musk, who grew up in South Africa, said during a visit to Memphis last spring.

"I've been to Graceland twice. The community has been so welcoming, it's just ridiculous."

He is promoting a philosophy he calls "real food", which nourishes the body, the farmer and the planet.

It does not sound much different from what writers such as Michael Pollan and everyone who has ever helped start a farmers' market or community garden have preached for years.

But Mr Musk has big ideas about what the Silicon Valley crowd likes to call the food space, which is as exciting to him as the Internet was in 1995. "We've never seen this kind of innovation around food," he said.

In short, he wants to create a network of business, educational and agricultural ventures big enough to swing the nation's food system back to one based on healthy, local food grown on chemical-free farms.

Like a politician on the stump, he travels extensively to pound home the message that Americans - especially millennials - are demanding real food and rejecting what he calls industrial food. This year alone, he is on track to speak at nearly 50 food and business conferences.

Under an umbrella brand called The Kitchen, he is spending millions of dollars on a portfolio of food-related projects and forming partnerships with foundations and governments in several cities.

He took the name from the first restaurant he opened, in Boulder, Colorado, in 2004 with chef Hugo Matheson. Since then, they have developed three other restaurant concepts.

But many people who have long laboured on the front lines of the battle are still not quite sure what to make of him.

"The indications are that the guy's head and heart are in the right place," said Mr Michel Nischan, founder and chief executive of Wholesome Wave, which works to make fruit and vegetables more affordable for lower-income households.

"The problem is that the people who made their money in tech understand disruption, scaling and all of these terms, but they don't know how to get their hands dirty and engage the neighbours, farmers and cooks who make a food community."

Mr Musk has begun a chain of hyperlocal restaurants called Next Door, which he and 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 US$14 (S$19) and the restaurants are designed so customers sit down together to eat.

The first opened six years ago next to the Kitchen in Boulder.

Last month, another opened in a huge urban renewal project in Memphis called Crosstown Concourse, an abandoned Sears distribution centre that has been turned into apartments and shops, with a school, a health clinic and an arts centre.

The partners plan to add 50 more restaurants by the end of 2020.

Mr Musk also opened an outpost of his more upscale Kitchen restaurant in a 1,820ha urban park called Shelby Farms in the centre of Memphis.

But he insisted that he be allowed to buy about 120ha 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 take-out spot in Shelby Farms that sells locally grown, well-prepared meals for about US$5 - his answer to a fast-food restaurant.

His non-profit arm, the Kitchen Community, has put learning gardens into 100 Memphis schools, providing both staff and materials. Each one costs about US$40,000 - money that comes from the Musk Foundation and local donors.

He has put his gardens in schools in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Chicago. By 2020, he hopes to have them in more than 1,000 schools.

He is not a fan of traditional school garden programmes. "They don't scale at all," he said.

He has also launched a Square Roots project. 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 carpark of the old Pfizer factory in New York City, each able to grow as much produce as 0.8ha of dirt.

In August, Square Roots secured US$5.4 million in private seed funding and has grants from the US 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 him. "Ideologically, they prefer soil," he said. "We don't care. Let them fight their fight."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2017, with the headline 'Brother of Elon Musk a champion for real food'. Print Edition | Subscribe