Bitten: A Food Conference Aimed At Disruption
Naz Riahi and Emily Schildt met cute on Instagram. Both worked in the digital marketing world, but were separated by coasts: Riahi was living in Los Angeles and Schildt was a New Yorker. When they finally had an opportunity to meet, Riahi told her over lunch, a bit presciently: “I know we’re going to work together one day.”
Flash forward a few months, and the two were consulting independently while pondering their future. Riahi was considering a shift out of the agency side of things. “I wanted to work in fashion,” she says. “But I realized that fashion isn’t that innovative, and not that welcoming. Food seemed to be on the cutting edge of innovation.” From there Riahi pitched the initial kernel of an idea to Schildt—who had spent the last several years working for Chobani––and then sold most of her belongings, grabbed her terrier Hugo, and moved east.
Last winter, This Is Bitten, their creative marketing agency, hosted Bitten, the food conference, to a sold out audience. They purposely kept the ticket price reasonable so that people who didn't have corporate jobs to cover their admission could attend. Last year the pair saw a diverse crowd that included yoga teachers, students, agency account managers, fashion execs, and, their biggest surprise, a younger audience then they ever anticipated. Their second Bitten conference was on Februrary 12th and will be held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place).
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, or a tiny New York closet, you know that chefs, restaurants and ingredients are the new water cooler topic. This year’s Bitten conference will again focus on food through the lens of technology, trends and creativity. The founders are looking to present attendees with those they deem as ‘disruptors’ in the food space, and to that end they have included local speakers from a wide range of backgrounds.
Fresh off of a six-month stint in Italy for Expo Milano, Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, will kick off the day with a conversation about how American food is becoming a global trend. Three service-oriented founders will share their missions: Drive Change, a food truck program that trains formerly incarcerated youth; (RED), the non-profit started by Bono to end AIDS; and Claus Meyer, co-founder of Noma, who will be launching a training program for local residents in Brownsville, New York.
What else is different? While most conferences have panels, Riahi thinks they’re tricky, and so the pair decided against them. “They’re great because you can add more speakers, but what I’ve experienced is that panels tend to be a bit of a snooze,” she says."We’ve all seen how a tedious panel can slow down the flow, right? Our day goes by really quickly because the talks are of various lengths. We really want this to be fast paced, exciting and inspiring.”
Other locals appearing at the Bitten conference include: Flynn McGarry, the seventeen year old chef with his own pop-up restaurant; Lukas Volger, creator of Made by Lukas, a retail line of veggie burgers and founder of Jarry, a biannual magazine that explores the intersection of food and gay culture; Homa Dashtaki, food activist and founder of Brooklyn's White Moustache Greek yogurt; Nicholas Coleman, chief oleologist at Eataly NY and a graduate of the National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters (ONAOO); and Niki Russ Federman, fourth generation owner of Russ & Daughters, the well-known Lower East Side retail shop and café.
When I interviewed the women, they finished each other’s sentences, laughed liked they’d known each other all their lives, and prompted the other to answer first. Clearly, pulling off a food conference had brought them closer together rather than pull them apart. Despite this, Riahi assures me Bitten wasn’t easy. “We went in last year with a whole lot of naiveté, thinking it would be easy and it was harder then we ever imagined. And this year we thought it would be easier because of last year.” And it wasn’t.
Despite her three years at Chobani, growing a social media team from one to fourteen, Schildt admits she’s not a food expert. “We’re hosting the event. We’re as much spectators as organizers,” she says.
Bitten is the rare food event that attempts to avoid the insular and exclusive nature that can sometimes arise in the foodie world. “People outside feel they don't have the right to be there. And that's where the idea for Bitten really came from,” says Riahi.
Originally published for the Village Voice.