The town of Galway is a tourist destination that sits on Ireland’s West Coast, split by the River Comb and home to numerous seabirds (the significance of the seabirds will be explained, later). Shannon Airport (just up the road) brings US visitors to the Emerald Isle in around 6 hours. It took me 56 hours to reach Galway and for most of the journey I was asking myself whether it would be worthwhile to travel so far for a conference that was so specific.
Food on the Edge is a philosophically-based conference; it has a mission and manifesto. Run as a not-for-profit event, it brings around 50 chefs to speak about the future of food and the role (guardianship) required by chefs; from the website “It is no longer feasible for chefs to stand behind the stove”. The event was a mix of a call-to-action, a cultural challenge (at one point, a speaker noted that “chefs should put down the tweezers”), inspirational and, at times, confrontational (in topic). It was not an event for the faint-hearted; bouncing from one culinary topic to the next with an endless stream of leading chefs, not a power point in sight.
Exhausted from the shear breadth and depth of topics, the meals and tea breaks provided little respite for an overloaded mind. Prime produce from Ireland was available for tasting – seaweeds, oysters, cheeses, seafood, and breads, and the conference meals were far from the usual ‘filled roll and a slice’ affair.
There were a number of standout speakers and it is hard to do them justice in a brief paragraph or two, but I would like to start with mentioning Vladimir Mukhin (Russia). His argument that ‘to think about the future we must think about the past’ drew on Russia’s history from the last century. For Russians to change accepted (and approved) recipes required consensus of all chefs, as recipes had been approved for what and how they used ingredients, anything else was considered to be “stealing ingredients from the country”. It is interesting to reflect how the hardships and challenges of the past have become ingrained in our expectations of food of today. Potatoes were mentioned more than once at this Irish event.
A great deal of debate raged over what was ‘British food’ (I think a similar debate would be had in New Zealand). One speaker (Clare Smyth) noted that by using techniques gained while abroad but applying them to British ingredients created British food. Although a somewhat simplified analysis, it does ring true, with another speaker talking about the pride that was now coming through in British cuisine. There was disdain, however, for those who cooked what they did not know; ‘you don’t cook Japanese food if you have never been to Japan’. In essence, the speakers were talking about an approach that was authentic – adopting techniques and styles from elsewhere was fine, as long as you had first appreciated the cultural context in which those techniques were created. The honesty and drive for authenticity was refreshing. It has to be remembered, however, that there was good reason these chefs were on the stage – they had already proven themselves in kitchens around the globe as culinary visionaries and leaders.
There were many snippets of brilliance throughout the day. Neven Maguire’s comment that the “greatest gift we can give our children is the love of food” rang true for me. It is, of course, premised on the fact that we have the ability to provide food for our children, but never-the-less, one of the most useful (and least available) skills among our young people is the ability to turn ingredients into food. To address food insecurity, food waste and food safety, we need our kids to understand food, and, as one speaker dryly noted, some kids couldn’t see the relationship between the egg in the shell and the fried egg in a pan.
Representatives of the Irish Seed Savers Association; an organisation working to protect the genetic biodiversity of seeds and the sovereignty of growers, noted that while chefs were guardians of taste they were the guardians of the seed. The association between the two being that if we forget what ‘real’ food tastes like we will not have the motivation to save it. That is, chefs have a role to play in keeping alive the taste of heritage fruit and vegetables and in educating diners about the origin of the food on the plate.
I am hoping to return next year – I am also hoping that Nicolai Ellitsgaard from Norway will return and provide an update on his underwater restaurant. The concept of dinners being underwater would certainly take the dining experience to another level. Literally. My own dining experience of Galway was somewhat marred on the first evening when, while wandering the docks in search of some local cuisine, the local seabirds made their presence known. In some ways, however, that little incident just reinforced why it is called the Wild Atlantic Way and the proximity and relationship of the sea to the cuisine of Galway.