Sustainability and zero-waste are noble buzzwords. Tossed around by marketing teams they are meant to evoke a sense of good and self-righteousness, they absolve us of responsibility and make the associated activity ‘acceptable’. It was with some scepticism, therefore, that I sat and listened to two young lads (it’s all relative) from Brighton present on “waste is a failure of the imagination”. The bio of one speaker read: “He opened Silo [the restaurant] in 2014, lovingly designed from back to front, always with the bin in mind”. Any questions of what this meant quickly disappeared as we heard of the relationship between the restaurant and local farmers, use of reusable crates for produce, composting at the restaurant then going back to the farms to replenish the land, restaurant furniture made from upcycled materials. That’s all well and good, and not that uncommon, but add in the restaurant’s own brewery (from foraged and intercepted plants, vegetables and fruits), their own milled flour (avoiding flour packaging and inferior ingredients), and the ‘nose to tail’ ideology: if an animal dies for food they respectfully use the whole animal. Ok. I was impressed (and feeling slightly exhausted by the amount of work and the amount of energy these chefs had). They were truly committed to zero-waste and seem to have considered and mitigated every place where waste could occur, plus, they have a reputation for fine food.
Day one of the conference was excellent. It turned out that day two was also inspiring; with a consistency between philosophy, messages, practice, and calls to action. Food on the Edge is designed for those on the edge of the culinary comfort zone- which, coincidentally is also where you find the geniuses and leaders. It was not just about those behind the stoves, however, day two saw the very suave Didier Fertilati on stage to talk about the importance of service. In his words: “a good waiter can save a bad meal, but a good meal will not save a bad waiter” – a truism for many things in life – a professional relationship will solve/save many situations.
According to James Whetlor, the perception that goat meat is the most commonly eaten meat in the world is a myth and, as a goat meat producer, he should know. Goat was, however, the first domesticated farm animal, but fell out of favour in the UK with the rise of the wool trade. Goat is raised for both meat and milk with around 100,000 milking nannies in the UK. Speakers noted that the rise in demand for goat milk brought with it a subsequent rise in unwanted male kids; a fact that most of the public seemed to be blissfully unaware of as a consequence of demand for dairy products. In response to this, the goat meat industry had grown – one speaker noted that if you are wanting to drink goat milk or eat goat milk cheese then you should be willing to eat goat meat; as you could not have one without the over. A fair point, and a good reminder that consumers do need to be educated about the cause and effect of their dietary decisions.
Paul Ivic made the provocative claim that “chefs have to take the customers back in time to when food was really food and when food meant something”. Hailing from a vegetarian restaurant in Austria, Ivic noted that when working with excellent produce you had to use everything “from leaf to root”. Building on this, he noted the current overproduction that is required so that we can waste a third of what is produced. Sobering thoughts.
Perhaps one of the reasons I was first drawn to Food on the Edge was the commitment to the need for education of children; JP McMahon (Symposium Director and visionary) argued the need (well, it wasn’t really argued, I think that all 600 people in the audience were in violent agreement with the notion) that food education should be a mandatory curriculum subject. It was noted that coding is now in the curriculum but not the actual ability to feed yourself.
The conference drew speakers from a vast array of backgrounds and interests. Joshna Maharaj was one of the speakers who got me most fired up. If you have ever visited anyone in a New Zealand hospital you will know the quality of the food is not good. Maharaj has worked to revolutionize institutional food – for the betterment of local producers (no more shipping grey stodge around the country), the patients, and the staff. Based in Toronto, Maharaj presented results that demonstrated how ‘social gastronomy’ was creating social change. Achieving this in organisations that are notoriously convenience and budget driven was quite something else; even more so when those same organisations were full of people who desperately needed safe, fresh and nutritious meals. It was not quite a standing ovation when she spoke, but, it should have been.
There were many ‘take homes’ from the event. I learnt a great deal and had the opportunity to talk to some really interesting and informative delegates, I sampled a number of different types of seafood, cheeses, and seaweed, and was awed by the passion and commitment of the chef network. As a non-chef, I felt privileged to be in the audience, but, I also think that it is important that more people come and hear the messages of this informed group of true food leaders. During the course of the two days someone noted that the rise in TV programmes has meant that we all think we are experts. Perhaps it is time for the true experts to share their expertise and wisdom more broadly.