The past two days I attended Food on the Edge, an annual symposium held in Galway that brings together chefs and food activists from all around the world to give talks, lead discussions, and network for two jam-packed days.
Food symposiums/conferences like FOTE are becoming an integral way for the restaurant industry to gather and discuss ways to move the industry forward, whether that’s on an environmental, social, service, or culinary front. Some of the biggest conferences include MADFood in Copenhagen, Mesaméricain Mexico City, Misturain Peru, and the Gastromasa Gastronomy Conference in Turkey.
I’ve never attended something like this before and was thrilled that it would cap off my time in Ireland. But I must say, I’m going to be a bit critical.
Leaving day 1 of FOTE, I was simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Overwhelmed because I had never been in the presence of so many high profile chefs, but underwhelmed because I was oddly uninspired.
I was looking for people who were doing something out of the ordinary to make an impact outside the restaurant kitchen. I wanted to see chefs tackling issues of climate change, food security, malnutrition, social justice, etc. But instead, what I heard were a lot of stories of how these very well-respected chefs achieved their two or three Michelin stars by embracing their relationships with the local farmers and their local environments and how they are innovating ways to push culinary boundaries. Talk after talk flashed idyllic pictures of chefs buying whole hogs from farmers, diving for seaweed, foraging for mosses and mushrooms, and of course, producing very high-end food intended for a very small, affluent audience.
There was a big focus on environmental concerns – primarily food waste – and I did hear from some chefs who are doing amazing things to combat food waste. Matt Orlando, previous Chef de Cuisine at Noma and now chef/owner of Amass in Copenhagen led a small group tasting discussion called “No such thing as a byproduct, only another product.” At Amass, he and his team have reduced their food waste by 75% and send 0% to landfill through various means of fermentation, acidification, and dehydration. The products we tasted included “garden nori” made of veggie scraps, “almond ricotta” with almond pulp from almond milk, “horseradish chips” with peelings, and my favorite, “yogurt miso” made from some concoction of leftover yogurt whey (it tasted like blue cheese in the best way possible).
Then there was the wild duo, Douglas McMaster and Dan Gibeon of Silo in England. These two were mad!!! I heard “zero waste restaurant” and was skeptical. They had a few catchy mantras like “Waste is the failure of the imagination,” “To maximize resources is to minimize waste,” and “Eat the problem.” But these guys are the real deal. I’m talking crazy stuff like bringing chocolate in from the Dominican Republic on a pirate-like sail boat, going out and foraging for the alexander plant weekly, filtering water through reverse osmosis and using the wastewater to flush the toilets, grinding their own grains, making their own butter, cooking carrots in compost (yes, dirt), serving invasive species like the American crayfish and the Japanese knock weed, and even furnishing the restaurant with all reclaimed items. Sounds pretty cool right? Sounds like these hippies are real environmentalists? I don’t question Chefs Matt or Doug and Dan’s intentions, and I do admire their work in creating self-sufficient and sustainable restaurants. However, the reality is they’re feeding such a small, niche group of people that, I’m sorry to say, isn’t making a dent in the larger picture of food waste and global environmental sustainability. For the majority of restaurants, the models that Amass and Silo use are just not feasible in the existing food (and labor) systems.
I was frustrated. Give me somebody who has tackled the system, tackled an issue – any issue! – head on! Then came Joshna Maharaj. A Canadian chef who has tried to overhaul institutional food systems like hospitals and public universities by changing the culture around food service and hospitality. I’m not going to do her two talks justice by just saying “it was inspiring,” but you should check out her work . She also was one of only 2 speakers to get a standing ovation at FOTE.
That ended Day 1. Why was I so underwhelmed? So disenchanted? So cynical? Why did Joshna inspire me so much but not the other chefs whom I’ve looked up to for so many years? There was so much talk among chefs about making a bigger difference outside the restaurant, but I wasn’t seeing any action. I suppose this year’s theme for FOTE, “Conversations” reflects the content at the event (or visa-versa). Conversations only go so far, conversations are also free.
Day 2: I woke up realizing that I may have been approaching FOTE with the wrong attitude. I had been searching for how chefs and restaurants are currently making an impact outside their 20 seat fine dining restaurant. But, to my surprise, the restaurant world as a whole simply isn’t that far yet. Chefs are only beginning to realize the influence they have and some of them don’t know what to do with it.
On Day 1 Chef Duncan Welgemoed criticized celebrity chef culture for being “narcissistic” and “hypocritical.” He said on one hand chefs say they care about things like environmental sustainability but on the other hand, turn a blind eye and endorse commercial food brands or commit time to reality cooking competitions that do nothing but entertain. He told the crowd, “Whether you believe it or not, we actually have power, so think about what you stand for, not what they stand for the next time your inbox gets hit with another offer.”
Chefs want to make a difference. Many (not all) want to be a part of broader issues, but I’m finding they don’t know how and they don’t have the time to figure it out on their own. For Joshna and Karissa Becerra (another inspiring chef-activist), their work is a full-time job, but restaurant chefs cannot do it all. They can’t be present running the kitchen 5 days a week, answering calls for interviews, appearing on guest shows and events, (sometimes) raising a family, and go tackle something like Joshna and Karissa. Joshna even recognized the commitment it takes to step outside the kitchen ending her speech with: “Chefs, if any of this inspired you or if you are tired of restaurant life, get out there. Your community needs you.” Chefs have not been trained in how to tackle food security or write grant proposals or campaign against the industrialization of agriculture. Chefs were trained to cook delicious food and run restaurants, and now that they want to expand the job duties of a chef outside the restaurant, they need a platform or an outside structure to help them get it done.
(In the US, it’s exciting for me to see organizations like the James Beard Foundation acting as that platform.)
Like Duncan and others had said, I believe chefs today have more influence than they realize they do, but unless someone comes along with expertise in specific issues and ways to address them, and makes it clear and streamlined for the chef to use their influence for a broader good, fine dining chefs will continue to exist in their back-patting bubble (sorry, harsh, I know).
A scale where I think chefs can and should make a tangible change now on their own is right in restaurants themselves – in restaurant culture. Emma Bengtsson, Executive Chef at Aquavit in New York City, ripped the band aid off of this topic that had been looming in the background of FOTE.
“How do we get our kitchens to be better? How do we lead and be the role models for the new generation?” she said. “I think that right now at this moment we are at a tipping point. We are at a very privileged spot to make a change. To preserve everything that was good in the old days [work ethic, long-term drive, passion for learning], but push forward into a better kitchen. And to start that we all have to decide that harassment, bullying, hot pans, and burning is at a zero tolerance, it’s no longer accepted in the kitchen.”
Emma’s speech was not just about being a woman in the kitchen (more on this in a later post). The core of it was simply about being a good human being and creating a work environment where cooks, servers, kitchen porters, managers come to work excited to work hard (even if it’s a long 12+ hour shift). To create a place where people are not leaving after a month, but instead are staying for years. “That, to me, is the evidence that I’m running the kitchen the way I want,” said Emma.
I think going into FOTE I was so focused on macro-level problems and about how restaurants can “save the world,” that I lost sight of the need for restaurants to take care of themselves first. Before chefs and restaurants can have an impact outside the restaurant, they first have to have an impact inthe restaurant. The community outside the restaurant needs you, but so do your employees that work long hours at minimum wage often sacrificing their social life, family time, hobbies, and personal health to fulfill your vision in the restaurant.
There’s all this talk about the environmental sustainability of the restaurant industry, but none of that is possible if you can’t sustain the mental and physical health of your employees, the backbone of your business.
This was a lot of rambling (thank you for reading to the end), but I think Matt Orlando summed it up well in his closing remarks: “If you don’t walk away from FOTE with a plan, then you’ve missed the point of the whole thing. Pick something, commit to it, and do it. So many of us talk about doing stuff, but a small percent actually does. Be that percent.” Whether it’s networking and finding out how to get involved in changing an entire food system or showing up to work the next day humbled and ready to listen to your cooks and servers, find where you can have a realistic impact with the resources you have – and I’ll do the same. Then, perhaps we can turn this year’s theme of “Conversations” into next year’s theme of “Actions.”