Bitten is a conference series that examines food from surprising angles: Scientists and historians share the stage with entrepreneurs, activists, artists, and chefs, collectively illustrating how some of the most compelling food stories are often about more than just cooking. Now in it’s fourth year, we spoke with Bitten founder Naz Riahi about the scope of Bitten and how it’s changed since it began, and what’ll be happening at the upcoming conference on November 1st in New York City.
How is Bitten different from other food conferences?
It's designed to be a day of ideas and inspiration and to be completely inclusive to everyone—meaning our audience doesn't have to work in food to attend. In fact we encourage those who don't work in food to take a day off and attend Bitten because it's only when we step outside of our everyday world that new ideas are ignited and new connections are made. It's also different because the primary focus is on the speakers and their talks. Every single audience member sees the same ones—there aren't activities or tracts to distract and water down the experience. And, we work with all of our speakers and help them nail down and fine tune their talk—and that shows!
Your speakers come from so many different disciplines—art, history, science, media... Very few are chefs. How do you go about curating the program every year?
Bitten is grounded in food, but from there it goes in all sorts of different directions. This year we're covering art, psychedelics, Anthony Bourdain, the restaurant world, spirituality, justice, community, Gen Z, power, and so much more. In addition, our youngest speaker is 21 and our oldest is in her 60s, with others covering every decade in between! It's pretty amazing. As far as curating, I start with food and then think about extraordinary and unexpected stories. I want our speakers to blow the audience away and get them to think differently or see something form a new perspective. I spend the year having a lot of coffees with new people, reading a lot, and asking my former speakers what and who has stuck out to them, and I take it from there.
How have you seen these the scope and tone of the talks evolve in the time since Bitten began in 2015?
The vision for Bitten has become more clear. I focus a lot more on designing an inspirational event today than I did in 2015. In addition, I think about the people who take my stage. That first year, I reached out to a lot of amazing people and without realizing it, I had an almost all caucasian speaker set. After that, I realized I had a microphone and a stage to share, and it’s my responsibility to make that stage as inclusive as possible, to bring forth marginalized voices and stories. On a more tactical level, I also have begun working with every single speaker on their talk. In the first few years, I would find a topic or a speaker, meet with them and generally discuss their talk and then hear it for the first time at Bitten. Now, I work with them in advance, going over drafts of their presentation and talk, offering feedback, helping them fine tune or bring a story forth that they didn't think they had in them.
It was such an honor to speak at your 2016 conference—it was right after we launched our first issue. Can you highlight any current or past talks that delve into LGBTQ identity?
It was such an honor to have you speak at Bitten! Your talk is one of my all time favorites. It gave me goosebumps and taught me a lot. As I mentioned, having a diverse speaker set is very important to me. And that includes the LGBTQ community. However, I don't always know—nor should I—all of our speakers’ sexual orientation. Along with that, I don't think it's always the responsibility of a speaker from a specific community to speak about that community—or to explain that community. It's a burden I frequently see put on LGBTQ people and people of color. So while we've had quite a few LBGTQ speakers, most have discussed unrelated topics, like Mitchell Davis's talk “On How American Food Became En Vogue.”
That said, we have had some extraordinary talks dealing with the LGBTQ community. One was yours, of course. Another was a talk Andy Baraghani of Bon Appétit gave last year. I knew I wanted Andy to speak for a lot of reasons and I vaguely had the sense that I'd ask him to speak about how Iranian food has become so trendy. When we got on the phone and I started to ask him about his experience cooking Iranian food, he told me that it was kind of new to him, because he had hid his ethnic identity for many years. It also came out that he had hid his sexual identity—ashamed of being gay and Iranian. I knew then that this was the talk Andy had to give. It took a little convicting and a few weeks of practice calls, but when he delivered his talk the audience was in tears. He honored my request to be vulnerable and the result was unique, touching, and unexpected. He was able to turn that talk into an essay for Bon Appétit that went viral last year.
And this year we have Liz Alpern giving a talk called “On Food as a Weapon of Power.” When I first approached Liz to give this talk, she was intrigued but wanted to find a way to make it her own. The solution was to position the talk within the context of the current food-meets-justice movement within the LGBTQ community.
Would you give us a taste of what you're looking forward to at this year's conference?
Literally every single talk! I know that sounds impossible, but they're all so great. The full agenda is here. This year we have talks on psychedelics, we'll hear from a Gen Z farmer and then we'll learn from a researcher about who Gen Z is and their influence on trends in the food space. Laurie Woolever has kindly accepted our invitation to talk about her friend, boss and mentor Anthony Bourdain in a talk called “On Tony, Or How Everybody Wants a Hero.” My friend Nasim Alikhani will talk about the magic of opening her first restaurant to rave reviews. Tunde Wey will discuss his work at the intersection of art, justice, and food... I could literally list every single speaker and talk here, but I'll just say, I hope the Jarry community attends. They'll go back to work feeling like they were part of something truly special.
For more information, and to buy tickets for the Bitten conference on November 1, 2018, in New York City, click here.
Photos courtesy of Bitten.