Action is the bridge between intentions and reality… Intentions are lovely but actions are stronger – Margot Janse
In opening with Dominic MacSorely, CEO of Concern international, this year’s Food on the Edge symposium made a clear statement of the nature and message that it was propagating this year. The injustice of world hunger, inequality in the division of resources, and ultimately sustainability for the planet and its peoples were some of the messages that Mr. MacSorely broached upon in what was a short but appropriately toned speech which laid out the path for other speakers to follow over the course of two days in The Black Box in Galway. Now in its third year, the conference which is run by Michelin starred chef JP McMahon, Drigin Gaffey and a wider team, saw more than 50 of the world’s best international and Irish chefs, and food leaders take to the stage to share their food stories and debate a diverse range of topics from creating a better food system to encouraging creativity with food “waste” in restaurants. The outside artisan food village, sponsored by La Rousse foods, showcased the variety and quality of products from over 70 Irish producers.
With a theme of Action:Reaction, this event was all about enacting social change such as mental health, which coincidently fell in line with World Mental Health Day on Tuesday 10th October. This theme, along with general wellbeing, was covered in a number of talks over the two days most notably by Irish-born, London based chef Anna Haugh who presented a talk called the Silent Kitchen in which she spoke about everything from substance abuse and associated mental health deterioration that exists in kitchens. Haugh championed a simple, kinder approach, “Kind is a really important word. I want to be known as kind and strong. It’s up to you what you want to be known for”. New York based chef Elise Kornack in a raw, brave, and honest presentation spoke openly about her difficulties with mental illness. In an industry where “pushing through” is often seen as the only option, Elise revealed when (not to) push through when she said that “Taking care of my mind and body no longer became options, they became a necessity”. She also encouraged chefs to look outside of cities when considering where to open restaurants and has adopted an approach to working that requires a mandatory outside activity. She closed her Brooklyn restaurant in March that she ran together with her wife and plans to open in the Catskills in the future. Kat Kinsman, a New York based writer and author of the book “Hi, Anxiety”, asked difficult yet important questions regarding mental health, “Why does the food have to matter more than the people”? She asked. Speaking openly about her own struggles with anxiety she said, “We don’t have the capacity to talk about something that is wounding and killing people before us”, and encouraged anyone with mental health issues to open up, talk, and connect through the Facebook group Chefs with Issues. On a side note, in writing this article I noticed an increase in the number of women speakers over the three years going from 10% in 2015, increasing to 20% in 2016, to just under 30% this year. Although it’s not 50% it’s certainly encouraging to see it moving in the right direction so well done to the organisers.
Sustainability and reimagining food waste was highlighted by Matt Orlando who encouraged creativity so that “We need to stop using the terms waste cooking or trash cooking… It needs to become another ingredient” while Adrian Klonowski and Matylda Grzelak from their restaurant Metamorfoza in Gdańsk, Poland, have a philosophy where “We don’t have waste, we have products”.
Another common theme was highlighting social change through different community projects. Margot Janse, a Dutch born chef who has worked in South Africa for over 20 years, became disenfranchised with the work that she was doing and felt that, “I couldn’t be a part of a greater picture of no connection”. She proceeded to set up a project called Isabelo which has grown to a stage where 1400 children are fed everyday and she encouraged those in attendance to action on their intentions, “Action is the bridge between intentions and reality… Intentions are lovely but actions are stronger”. Quique Dacosta ambassador for Action Against Hunger echoed these thoughts when he said, “Let’s put your creativity to work for change… but you have to act”.
Finally, in what is an area that is close to my heart, JP McMahon called for a change to the Irish education system by demanding the introduction of a mandatory subject in our primary schools.
“I want to emphasise the importance of food and food education in Ireland. It’s essential to have food as a mandatory subject on the school curriculum. I think it’s really important that we do that. Food education can help combat childhood obesity, poor eating habits and it teaches the importance of Irish food culture.”
I’d go even further than that and say that it also needs to be a mandatory part of the new Junior Cycle programme in, preferably a mandatory subject, or indeed even a short course. With a key focus on wellbeing, how can a new Junior Cycle programme leave it solely responsible to the schools to implement a programme that a school may or may not deem to be a priority? What can possibly encapsulate wellbeing more than educating our young people about what they are eating and providing them with the tools and skills to change societal eating habits? The action needs to come from a national level in a mandatory fashion. But this isn’t just about placing another burden on the already overloaded curriculum. As a full time educator it can sometimes seem that the needs of society are entirely placed on the desks of our teachers. Food, food education, basic cooking skills however it may materialise needs to be there to support an overall collaboration between home and school. That is the purpose of education. We all have a responsibility to engage with our food culture, to become proactive in our cooking, engage with each other, start cooking at home, encourage our children to do the same, embrace local farmers, become aware of the food we are consuming.
I cannot underestimate the importance that this brings to life. Food is far less than just simple sustenance. Learning how to cook makes for healthier people, it connects people, and it breaks down cultural barriers. On a basic level it gives people a new skill but on a much broader, in a much more significant way it promotes confidence in young people. It also means that the educated now become the teachers, bringing their skills, understanding of ingredients and their food heritage into their homes to share with their own families. We all need to do our jobs in promoting this. This is my reaction to Food on the Edge, and my action for the coming year.
“Small changes make big changes” – JP McMahon