Food on the Edge, the annual food symposium organised by chef JP McMahon, this year drew over 50 of the biggest names in the food world, including chefs, writers, activists and CEOs, and 400-plus attendees to Galway on the rugged West Coast of Ireland, for two days of fruitful food discussion.
This was a solutions-oriented coming together. Indeed, one of the themes for this year was Action/Reaction: how were speakers tackling the issues raised at previous events and overcoming obstacles in their professional and personal lives? How do chefs tackle hunger on a global scale and could we be the first generation to end hunger, asked Quique Dacosta, explaining his work in Africa with Restaurants Against Hunger, Spain.
Another was ‘Food Stories,’ and the honour of being the first to share hers to the assembled audience was chef Ana Roš, who recounted the long road to success at Hiša Franko whilst raising two children. Mitch Leinhard also shared his experiences of winning S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016 and what he’s been up to in the year since.
Here then are some of the top talking points from the event:
A Work/Life Balance is Possible
Both Esben Holmboe Bang of Oslo’s three Michelin star Maaemo restaurant and Magnus Nilsson of Sweden’s Fäviken have heavily cut back on staff hours. At the latter, staff work a four-day, 50-hour week, with five weeks holiday a year and “time to be ill”, while Bang, having first experimented with a four day week has reduced it to three. “Chefs working three days a week are like Duracell bunnies ... we often focus on sustainability, but forget about ourselves, its crazy,” he said. For Nilsson, it was an epiphany whilst watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi – he had become too obsessional, and the restaurant all about him. He now works three nights and two days a week. “I don’t want to deny myself a normal life. Creativity is a subconscious process, if you limit yourself, you limit the creative toolbox,” he said. For chef Bo Bech, it was important for chefs to take a step back now and again, to “have fun every once in a while, get refueled and eat a shit cheeseburger,” he said.
Left to right: Ana Roš, JP McMahon, Magnus Nilsson, Robin Gill
We need a new language for food waste
“If we want these products to become the norm, we need to find a new language,” opined chef Matt Orlando of Copenhagen’s Amass restaurant, whilst explaining how the restaurant had managed to almost flip it’s landfill and recycling stats in two years. The key, he argued, was to see these products as new products rather than ‘waste’ or ‘trash’ products, an idea echoed by chef Robin Gill of London’s The Dairy, who has built a snack bar, Counter Culture, around all the leftover produce delivered to him by an over-zealous supplier.
It’s Vital We Talk About Mental Health
With World Mental Health Day falling on the second day of the symposium it was fitting that so many of the speakers decided to address the topic. Writer Kat Kinsman, who runs the Chefs with Issues website and has both written and spoken extensively on the subject said a common language was needed and praised the likes of chefs Daniel Patterson and Sean Brock for speaking out – “bravery has a ripple effect,” she said. Elise Kornack described the terrifying deterioration of her mental state whilst pushing herself so hard at her acclaimed and now defunct New York restaurant Take Root that she “completely disconnected from the craft.” She now advocates the use of talking therapies in restaurants and rallied the crowd to join her in a brief breathing exercise.
Anna Haugh (Bob Bob Ricard) argued passionately for the need to talk about mental health and challenge bullying in restaurants to avert staffing crises, while chef Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House, who trained under the fearsome Marco Pierre White, said those at the top need to set an example: “If you can’t run a kitchen without losing it [at the staff], you shouldn’t be in the kitchen,” he said, candidly sharing how winning his first star had made him “not a very nice person,” the second, “terrible.” In the words of Kadeau’s Nicolai Nørregaard: "Leading with love will take you further than leading through fear.”
Diversity? The Food World Needs to Do More
“Chefs need to take a stance against systemic racism, the food system is a reflection of systemic inequality,” said Saqib Keval, of California’s Kitchen Collective, a political restaurant project, during a panel discussion alongside chef Daniel Berlin and journalist Joanna Blythman. Drawing huge applause, he continued: “Why don’t we have dishwashers up on the stage? I want to see a food system where everybody’s labour is valued equally.” Now was the time for action, he said, for an end to the romantic notion of the young white chef working his or her way up the ranks, while none whites are consistently passed over for promotion. “Hire more diversely,” he urged the chefs present, “build from the ground up.”
Left to right: Abeer Najjar, Joanna Blythman, Saqib Keval, Daniel Berlin, Ruth Hegarty
Earlier, chef Victor Liong of Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook pondered the inequalities in restaurant reviewing: “Why when the person speaks Chinese should the food be cheap, but when they speak Italian, it’s ‘amore’?” he asked. Abeer Najjar, who runs a Palestinian supper club in Chicago, urged us all to “challenge the subtle racism in the food world,” admitting that she had struggled early on with how to make her food “more palatable for white people” before realising that the fight against appropriation was her fuel.
Can Irish cuisine become the new, new Nordic?
The question of Irish cuisine’s place in the gastronomic world cropped up time and again across the two days, but those who got to sample the wares of Irish producers in the Artisan Food Village outside the venue and Galway’s famed seafood in the town’s restaurants will have been left in no doubt of its standing. It was put that perhaps it hadn’t quite found its true identity in the modern culinary world and needed a visionary, but when asked if Irish food could become the new, New Nordic, Amass’s Matt Orlando seemed confident: “Yes, just stay true to yourself,” said the Noma-alumnus.
Copenhagen still bubbling with creativity
The food world may be eagerly awaiting the reopening of Noma in early 2018, but there’s plenty of creativity bubbling away in Copenhagen in the meantime, with the likes of Rasmus Munk of The Alchemist, Sam and Victor from Bror and Noma’s own Cúán Greene taking to the stage to share their inspirations, dishes and stories.