Be bold, be brave, be daring, make mistakes, take chances, and show that you really care – Massimo Bottura
Food is always evolving and changing; it’s one of the things I love about it. However, if we are to take a step back and observe objectively, what is the future of food? This was the main topic on the agenda of the TED style Food on the Edge symposium that took place on the 24th and 25th October when a veritable who’s who of the culinary world descended on Galway for the second of the now annual event. The brainchild of JP McMahon, chef and proprietor of Michelin starred restaurant Aniar and two other restaurants in the EATGalway group, this is an event designed as a way of creating a global network between chefs, food producers, and food enthusiasts. However it’s not just about that and it was also charged with looking at channeling and empowering real change in food and in how we eat by asking a number of questions; how we can make good food accessible to all, how do we educate people properly about food, how do we respect our own culture and others when it comes to creating a new identity for Irish cuisine, how do we support farmers more, how do we foster an educated approach to embrace underutilised ingredients such as seaweed into our cooking?
The event was kicked off, not by an internationally renowned chef, but rather and perhaps more fittingly by local poultry farmer, “The Friendly Farmer” Ronan Byrne who challenged the chefs in the room to continue “to disturb” as he put it. He explained how he had an idea, a vision of how poultry could be raised in this country, of a bird that could be pasture reared and live a life not pumped full of antibiotics. He made his vision a reality however it was by the chefs taking his products on board, that the vision became a viable business that continues to grow from strength to strength. Looking at the future of food one cannot but be impressed that it lies in the hands of people like Ronan who are passionate about creating a product that is ethically reared, produced with care, and offers the customer an alternative to the regular. As Ronan can testify, chefs have the power to change the structure of how food is seen, but the real progress begins with home cooking and in food education. For me, cooking skills and food education should be a compulsory subject for all students in our secondary schools. There is a disconnect from animal when it comes to meat and poultry, a disconnect from farmland when it comes to fresh seasonal produce, and a disconnect from simple techniques when it comes to home cooking.
I have been and continue to be lucky enough to have eaten in many good restaurants all around the world. Galway has an incredible food culture emanating from the great work that people like JP McMahon and Jessica Murphy have put in to raising the standards and belief of what food can be like here, and in Ireland in general. Real improvements stem mostly from the home and home cooking. That’s generally where people gather to eat the most often. I consider it a big act of generosity of spirit for someone to invite you into their home, share their food and table with you and of course their company. It’s about experiencing and appreciating the simplicity in what we do every day but also realising that it should be an act that brings out the best in the food that we eat. If we can educate our young to at least appreciate this then we are off to a good start.
“Maybe it was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life”, was how Massimo Bottura described his involvement in setting up a community restaurant project in Sao Paulo this year. Of course this is who the audience was awaiting to see, when on Tuesday the new demigod of the culinary world took to the stage. “Chefs are much more than the sum of their recipes”, he said on opening and indeed he represented that ideology implicitly throughout his talk. Using his status for social good he inspired all in the room by discussing his most recent project in Brazil, which uses leftovers, scraps and donated food to create a gourmet meal and dining experience to feed the marginalised and needy of Sao Paulo’s favelas. Trevor Moran in his strikingly honest talk, “Making water delicious”, spoke of the need for avant-garde thinking. Perhaps the most pertinent usage of avant-garde needs to extend outside the parameters of food creation to include a wider social context like this.
Another highlight for me was Douglas McMaster who is chef-proprietor of Silo in Brighton; the UK’s only zero waste restaurant. Douglas tells us that “Waste is the failure of the imagination” and indeed there is no evidence of imagination lacking in Silo. Everything that doesn’t appear on the menu is added to the giant composter, the plates are made from melted down plastic bags into discs of artistic beauty, mushrooms are grown on the used coffee grounds. This is just a touch of the zero waste philosophy that he has incorporated into his mindset and consequently his business. He also challenges the audience to begin “Thinking in circles” as opposed to the linear consumption truck thought process that infests all of our lives, whether it is in the restaurant and food industry, or indeed even at home. Acquire, consume, dispose, is a perspective that needs to be changed in all of us. While zero waste may not be a practice that we can take wholly and completely on board just yet, we can simply make a change, a change for the better. Nothing is changed completely overnight but by each of us making simple, real, and achievable changes, we can make a difference. As Massimo Bottura said, “No more excuses”. And that for me summed up the objective of food on the edge. The future of food is the responsibility that each of us takes in deciding it to be.