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Kimbal Musk tells us how traumatic experiences helped shape his food empire

Business Insider editor at large Sara Silverstein sits down with The Kitchen’s Kimbal Musk at Davos. They discuss Musk’s passion for food and how he left his job in technology to bring good food to schools and his restaurants. Following is a transcript of the video.

Sara Silverstein:We’re at the World Economic Forum outside the Microsoft Cafe in Davos, Switzerland. I’m here with Kimbal Musk, entrepreneur, philanthropist and co-founder of my favourite restaurant in Boulder, The Kitchen. Nice to meet you.

Kimbal Musk:Nice to meet you too.

Silverstein:Thanks so much for joining me. So can you tell me about The Kitchen and why you created it? And then tell me about this new venture you have next door.

Musk:Absolutely. So I have an interesting journey into food and for me, it all started – I sold my company in ’99 in Silicon Valley. And so I had a strong background in tech, but my passion was food. And I moved to New York and so I learned how to cook and I trained under some of the best chefs in the city.

But the powerful thing to me was I lived very close to the World Trade Centres. And I woke up to the sounds of the planes hitting the building. Incredible experience. I looked out the window and I saw the towers fall. But what made it special for me was I was able to volunteer for the firefighters for six weeks, cook for them, give them nourishing food every day and they come in from giant piles of melting metal that was still melting six weeks after the towers fell.

We’d feed them, they’d connect with each other and they’d go back out to save American lives. It was just one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And that’s what got me to do a restaurant.

And I went out to Colorado. We opened The Kitchen with this idea of doing a community restaurant. We wanted to work with local farmers, which at the time was not really done – it wasn’t done very much. There were some great restaurants doing it but we really wanted to double down and make it really part of it. And the reason was simple. We wanted the food to taste good.

The industrial food system is designed to travel. There’s usually high calories, low nutrition but fundamentally is not designed to taste good and so we kept looking for food that could taste good that our guests would enjoy. And we found it in our local farmers. And we work with our farmers to create a menu that as you described, as you know The Kitchen is well known for it.

And in that process, we also work with school gardens and help those people. But I didn’t see any scale and I was a bit frustrated with it. And I was obviously a big believer and I understand how technology works and we just weren’t really applying it.

And I went down a ski hill in 2010 on an inner tube and had an accident, landed on my head going 35 mph on an inner tube. It was such a stupid accident. But it was such a traumatic experience that it helped me look back and say – I’ll tell you the story briefly. I landed on my head, broke my neck at C6 and C7, paralysed for three days. They told me they would fix me but I just wasn’t – it’s just a terrifying experience. And I looked back and I said, “Food is my passion. I need to figure out how to scale this, how to make this work for all of America.”

And I woke up the next morning, Wednesday morning and the doctor said that I would be able to walk again. And I could feel my hands and everything. And it was so – it was the worst but also best thing that ever happened to me. And I said, “I’m going to work on a restaurant concept that does scale, continues to work with local farmers but does it in a way that’s more affordable, that we can work with young chefs and train them to cook delicious simple food from American farmers.”

And so over the past few years, we’ve created this concept called Nextdoor. And Nextdoor has all the same philosophies as The Kitchen. We work with the same suppliers but we take amazing technology like automated ovens, where a chef can get a cauliflower in from a farmer. Cauliflower is one of the hardest things to cook and if you grew up with cauliflower, it probably didn’t taste very good. And that’s just the nature of cauliflower because it’s a tough one to cook; it’s either mushy or boiled or whatever. But with automation, we’re able to take a 2-star Michelin chef, sit him next to a software engineer and they can code these ovens to the artistry of what the chef does. So a young chef, 18- to 24-year-olds, in one of our restaurants can take it – take the cauliflower, give it a rough chop and the ovens will steam it to cook it, it will bake it to draw the moisture out, it will roast it to caramelize the cauliflower and it quickly cool it down so it stops cooking. And as a result, you get this delicious crunchy caramel-flavored cauliflower that only a 2-star Michelin chef could normally cook. Now we can do that in Nextdoor restaurants across America.

And it’s been so wonderful to be able to empower young chefs to cook at scale, to work with local farmers and move restaurants at scale to a real food future.

Silverstein:And how many Nextdoors are there right now?

Musk:We have six Nextdoors now.

Silverstein:Oh wow. And what’s the price range if you go into a Nextdoor?

Musk:Usually about $US10. Everything from a roasted veggie bowl to a locally-sourced burger, delicious real food from American farmers.

Silverstein:And it’s farmers that are nearby the locations. Where are the locations?

Musk:Yes, generally local. Exactly. And sometimes we have salmon of course, we would get it from a fishmonger. But we would know the fishmonger and they would send it directly to us.

Silverstein:And where are the locations of the restaurants right now?

Musk:We’re in Denver, Boulder, and Memphis. And we’re just about to open in Indianapolis.

Silverstein:Oh great. And can you tell me about your initiative with the gardens?

Musk:So another thing that came out of my accident was taking the idea of school gardens and scaling them up as well. And what we had at that point, we were building two school gardens a year. Traditional school gardens on the corner of the schoolyard are made out of wood. People would put fences around them. They would generally fall apart. Still effective but not efficient and hard to do. So we created what we call the Learning Garden, which is a modular version of a school garden and it’s built out of recyclable polyethylene. We made a simple innovation to say, “This is going to be right outside the classroom. It will be right on the playground, no fence allowed around it.” We raised it up so kids can run around and have fun with it during recess. It’s wonderful.

Teachers spontaneously teach it because it’s a beautiful outdoor space. So we train the teachers to teach science through the growing of food. But it’s such a wonderful environment that the teacher can look outside and say, “Hey, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s just go outside and read a book in the garden.”

And as a result, we get 90 minutes a week of kids in the Learning Garden. We are now at almost 500 schools across America in the past six years, so going to two a year to almost a hundred a year now. And we reach over a quarter of a million kids every school day. So it’s been a wonderful – we just announced Detroit actually. So we’re going to do 100 schools in Detroit.

Silverstein:Wonderful. So what’s the mission? What are you trying to teach these kids about food?

Musk:Well, across all our restaurants as well as Big Green is this idea of real food for everyone. So we’re not going to be preachy, we’re not here to tell kids what to do. But the reality is kids go into kindergarten obese. Forty per cent of kindergarteners are going in obese in some of our low income areas. Forty per cent. That’s not something that they did to themselves. That’s something that we as a society did to them.

So going in and giving them a real connection to food. They’re growing it. They get outside. They understand how the environment works. They learn more about the planet. They also learn better when they go back into class for the rest of the day. So it’s a powerful learning tool, but at the end of the day, it’s about connecting them to real food and showing them that real food is tastier, it’s delicious and it’s fun.

Silverstein:And where did your passion for food come from? Did it come from 9/11 or was it before that?

Musk:Honestly, I trained to be a chef before 9/11, so for me, food was something I grew up with. It’s the gift I gave to my family. It was my way of getting my family to sit still. As you can imagine, my family is a high-energy group of people. And when anyone else would cook, we would just kind of pick at it. But when I cooked, food was better. When I cooked, we’d all sit down, we’d talk. And I carry that to this day. You know, any of my family, we sit down for Thanksgiving as a group. We had 30 people sit down and I cooked for everyone.

It’s really a wonderful thing to do. I suggest anyone do that, but for me, it’s really been the gift that I’ve been –

Silverstein:Were you interested in food as a child? How did you decide to become a chef?

Musk:I cooked from age 12 and I think it was just a desire to eat really tasty delicious food.

Silverstein:What’s your favourite meal to cook?

Musk:My favourite meal is a roast chicken. It’s the easiest thing in the world to cook. Salt and pepper, put it in the oven, you’re done in an hour.

Silverstein:I’ve tried many times. That is not true. I have never made a good roast chicken.

Musk:I will send you a recipe.

Silverstein:That would be really wonderful. I would really appreciate that. Everyone here at Davos wants to do good in the world but making that leap is really hard. How did you figure out how you were going to have an impact?

Musk:You know, when I had my accident, I looked and I said I had financial success, I had a lot of friends, I had a general feeling what I was doing in business, but I wasn’t doing what I was passionate about. I had my restaurant on the side, for sure, which I loved, but I wasn’t building it as a business. It was a hard decision to apply your passion to your purpose, because if something goes wrong, it’s really heartbreaking so it’s quite terrifying.

But when I had that restart in my life, I didn’t have any choice, I just had to do it. And since I’ve applied my passion, it has worked out in ways that I can’t even describe. So the advice I give to people is: “Do it. Follow your passion. Put it into your purpose. And you will be successful.”

Now what you thought was success may not be what it is in the end, but by applying your talent and your skills to your passion, you will just do a better job than any other thing you do.

Silverstein:And what are you trying to teach your kids?

Musk:I think for me, it’s about being good people, being thoughtful people. It’s such a lot of pressure to put on a kid, when – what’s your passion. But actually, anyone has a passion at any point in their life, so one of my sons is in debate camp and he’s taking it very seriously and he’s very passionate about it. And he’ll do that for maybe a few years and maybe in 10 years time, he’ll want to be a chef or a software engineer.

And I think it’s more about applying your passion in the moment, don’t think too hard about it. The millennials are sometimes called the Entitled Generation. What I’ve seen is they’re the Empassioned Generation. And it’s been – when you see millennials because this is really what’s important to them, when they apply their passion to their purpose, amazing things happen. I think we can’t get enough of that.

Silverstein:And if you don’t mind me asking, what do you think Donald Trump will say today at 2 o’clock?

Musk:I think that he’s here of course and that’s an olive branch for the rest of the world, so I think that’s a good thing. I’m hopeful that the US will continue to play a leadership role in the world and I hope that’s what he’s here to do.

Silverstein:Great. Kimbal, thank you so much for joining me. It was so nice to meet you.

Musk:Thank you so much.

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