MEMPHIS, Tenn. >> It’s easy to understand why some people in this town of soul music and dry-rub ribs don’t 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 acres of land that used to grow cotton.
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 Musk has food ventures humming along in Colorado, where he lives, as well as in big cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, he has become enamored of places like Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio — parts of the country he believes are the ripest for a revolution in eating and agriculture.
“The Americana here gives me goose bumps,” 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.”
Musk is promoting a philosophy he calls “real food,” which nourishes the body, the farmer and the planet. It doesn’t sound much different from what writers like Michael Pollan and everyone who has ever helped start a farmers’ market or community garden have preached for years.
But 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.
“Food is this beautiful gift we give each other three times a day,” he’ll often tell a crowd, “but you couldn’t design a worse food system than what we have.”
Like a politician on the stump, Musk 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, Musk 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. Musk’s nonprofit organization has installed 425 teaching gardens in schools.
But many people who have long labored on the front lines of the battle are still not quite sure what to make of him.
“All the indications are that the guy’s head and heart are in the right the place,” said Michel Nischan, the founder and chief executive of Wholesome Wave, which works to make fruits and vegetables more affordable for lower-income households. “The problem is that the people who made their money in tech understand disruption and scaling and all of these terms, but they don’t know how to get their hands dirty and engage the neighbors and the farmers and the cooks who make a food community.”
For all his business and tech acumen, Musk can sometimes seem tone-deaf. At a conference on food waste in New York last month, he declared from the stage that “food is one of the final frontiers that technology hasn’t tackled yet. If we do it well, it will mean good food for all.”
When the comment was posted on Twitter, Lawrence McLachlan, a farmer in Ontario, shot back: “You might want to visit a Farm Progress show. Or even a farm. I think you might have missed 70 years of Ag history. It’s Hi-Tech stuff bud.”
Almost unwittingly, Musk has become a symbol of a growing divide between those raised on the modern American food movement — which gained traction in the 1970s and drove a revival in cooking, local products and food justice — and a new generation excited about cellular proteins, Soylent and app-based delivery services that are driven more by innovation than by pleasure.
“It’s the divide between the technophile cornucopians and the techno-skeptic redistributors,” said Krishnendu Ray, chairman of the nutrition and food studies department at New York University.
Gregarious, open and confident, Musk is a lot of fun to hang around with, a playful counterpart to his quirky, brilliant brother, with whom he remains very close.
He wears a cowboy hat because he tried one at a store in Austin, Texas, a few years ago and decided it looked good on him. Never mind that people make fun of it behind his back. Criticism, whether focused on his looks or his philosophy, doesn’t seem to bother him.
“My way of working is very practical,” he said. “There are many wonderful solutions to real food, but I focus on what we can scale. The slow food guys were right, but what they didn’t know was how to scale. If you can’t scale, it doesn’t matter.”
Unlike some of his colleagues in the tech world, Musk is driven more by cooking than by the love of a good algorithm. Growing up in Pretoria, South Africa, he started in the kitchen at age 12, making meals as a way to bring his family together. His mother, the model Maye Musk, worked as a dietitian to support the family after she divorced his father, Errol Musk, an engineer and pilot.
At her house, Musk said, “it was all brown bread and plain yogurt.” At his dad’s, he and his brother and sister, Tosca (now a film producer and director), ate whatever the maid cooked, usually in front of the TV.
“It wasn’t very good,” he recalled. “I noticed that when I cooked, my dad especially would make us all sit down and eat together,” he said. “I loved it.”
He graduated from college in Canada and made his first fortune in 1999, when he and his brother sold Zip2 — a digital mapping service that helped newspapers including The New York Times produce online city guides — to Compaq Computer for $307 million. He became an investor in his brother’s other ventures, including PayPal and Tesla. (He is on the board of both Elon Musk’s electric car company and his rocket company, SpaceX, as well as Chipotle Mexican Grill.)
Set financially, Musk moved from Silicon Valley to New York and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). He lived near the World Trade Center, and after the 9/11 attacks, spent six weeks volunteering as a cook for firefighters and other people working the pile. He finally understood, he said, the link between food and community.
Soon after, he and Jen Lewin, his first wife, left for Colorado, where he met Matheson and opened the Kitchen in 2004. With its deep farm-to-table ethos and casually elegant style, the restaurant was an immediate hit.
Both projects were running just fine without him, so Musk became chief executive of another tech company. Then, on a 2010 trip with his family in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, he was sliding down a snowy hill on an inner tube when it flipped. He broke his neck and was temporarily paralyzed.
During the two months he had to lie flat on his back, it became clear that he wanted to devote himself to food. He and his wife divorced; he quit the tech company and dedicated himself to changing the way Americans eat.
Musk became interested in school gardens. He remains friendly with his ex-wife (the couple have two boys, and he has a daughter with another woman), and Lewin designed modular curved plastic planters that could be arranged in any schoolyard. Paired with instructions on how they can be used to teach subjects like science, the first gardens were installed in Denver schools in 2011.
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 $14, and the restaurants are designed so customers sit down together to eat and get their meals almost as soon as they order.
The first opened six years ago next to the Kitchen in Boulder. In September, another opened in a huge urban renewal project in Memphis called Crosstown Concourse, an abandoned Sears distribution center that has been turned into apartments and shops, with a school, a health clinic and an arts center. The partners plan to add 50 more Next Door restaurants by the end of 2020.
Musk also opened an outpost of his more upscale Kitchen restaurant inside a 4,500-acre urban park called Shelby Farms in the center of Memphis. But he insisted that he be allowed to buy 300 acres 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 takeout spot in Shelby Farms that sells locally grown, well-prepared meals for about $5 — his answer to a fast-food restaurant.
Musk’s nonprofit arm, the Kitchen Community, has put learning gardens into 100 Memphis schools, providing both staff and materials. Each one costs about $40,000, money that comes from the Musk Foundation and local donors. He has placed his gardens in schools in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and 150 in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave the project $2 million in city funds. By 2020, Musk hopes to have them in more than 1,000 schools.
He is not a fan of traditional school garden programs.
“They don’t scale at all,” he said.
There are other ways to ruffle the feathers of Alice Waters, the Bay Area chef who helped pioneer the American slow food movement and the concept of the edible schoolyard, but criticizing her approach to local food and school gardens is near the top of the list.
“I don’t want to hear another word about scaling,” Waters said. “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He’s very earnest about what he’s doing, but he doesn’t know enough about farming and about the soil. He wants to do the right thing, but he just hasn’t done his homework. Not everything has to be scalable.”
Musk says he is “absolutely in conflict” with Waters. “I love her, but I don’t agree with her views.”
Critics have taken on his Square Roots project, too. 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 parking lot of the old Pfizer factory in New York City, each able to grow as much produce as 2 acres of dirt. In August, Square Roots secured $5.4 million in private seed funding, and has grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Musk wants one in every major city.
Whether food actually needs soil is one of the flash points between organic traditionalists and people like Musk. “Ideologically, they prefer soil,” he said. “We don’t care. Let them fight their fight.”
Musk’s ascent has underscored a generational rift that pits old-liners who shun aspects of emerging food science against a new wave of food disrupters who haven’t embraced the roles that history, flavor and pleasure play, said Garrett Broad, an assistant professor at Fordham University who recently wrote about one aspect of the divide for the publication Civil Eats.
“Somebody like Kimbal Musk could be an important bridge to bring some of these ideas together,” Broad said.
Maybe, Musk says. He is as much a believer in the power of technology as anyone in Silicon Valley. But he is a cook at heart.
“Optimizing for efficiency over everything else sucks,” he said. “Have you ever eaten in Palo Alto?”