Ireland's leading gastronomy symposium, Food On The Edge, took place on 18-19 October, but there was a change of location for the Galway celebration of food and food culture.
JP McMahon kicked off proceedings, speaking about how moving it around Ireland was always in the plan, but after the pandemic, the opportunity to hold the gathering at Airfield estate presented itself.
The event's founder, McMahon spoke about the theme – ‘Social Gastronomy’ - and how food can be an agent for change. So it’s fitting that the event was held at Airfield, an urban farm in Dublin with a history of preserving traditional, sustainable farming practices, and educating the community on the importance of food and its provenance.
CEO of Airfield, Grainne Kelliher, shared the work that they do and explained their regenerative farming practices, before introducing Rory, a delightful young man who has overcome his disability to find a place of work and purpose in the restaurant at Airfield. An example of social gastronomy in action.
Relaxing between service at Food On The Edge at Airfeild Estate
It set up the next speaker perfectly, as Alice Zaslavsky streamed in from Australia, sharing her work in food education. She started on a bombshell, saying there is “too much food education in schools”, but qualified her statement by saying that there is not enough food in education. Zaslavsky works extensively to develop new ways to teach about food, and is a big believer in data, in getting input from children, and developing teaching methods that speak their language. Kids want to learn through fun, games and interactivity and not through learning the food pyramid and nutritional values of food groups. It's a pragmatic approach that reaps big rewards in changing how food is taught to the next generation.
Dr. Bill Schindler started with reminding us that “our food system is a complete failure. It has created people who are simultaneously obese and malnourished”. In just 15 minutes, Schindler took us through 3 million years of human history and evolution, explaining that humans, biologically, lack the ability to process their food, instead they rely on technology to do it. It is this relationship with technology that has shaped modern humans, but also which has seen us separate from the food system, leading to the predicament we now find ourselves in. The solutions are manifold – use wild resources, rely on hyper-local resources, utilise under-used parts, look for authentic and real ingredients. And chefs should buy into full transparency in where they source and how they treat their food.
Finnish chef and long-time friend of FOTE, Sasu Laukkonen, used his 15 minutes to call for action. "It doesn't matter who you are, if you've ever thought about cooking for your neighbour that you've seen around but never met, now is the time to do that," he says.
Carolyn Steel streamed in from London, where she works as an architect, author and academic. The author of the award-winning Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives and Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World, explained the concept of 'sitopia' - a kind of grounded utopia with food at its heart. Going back to ancient times, she enlightened the audience on what it means to live a good life - to eat well means to live well, she says, with a nod to Epicurus.
One of the highlights of the event was Alice Waters' talk, which she delivered sitting in her garden in California. She spoke about her ambition to utilise the buying power of the school system to support organic producers. The education system in the US has a huge potential to support agriculture in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Dr. Johnny Drain told us all about his work with food, from his research project on butter for Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab, to helping Mirazur develop a goat's milk butter. Food stories can change culture, he said, reminding us of how turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving all comes down to stories that we're told. If we change the story, we can change the world. Chefs have a unique power in their hands and they can affect huge changes in society that can benefit all.
One of the highlights of the two-day symposium was the discussion given by Dr Martin Ruffley, lecturer in culinary arts who shared his story of addiction and his inspiring journey to sobriety. A powerful story of redemption that is covered in his new book, Rekindling the Fire, which is part-memoir, part-cookbook, part-wellness guide.
All the way from Peru was chef Virgilio Martínez, with his sister Malena, who explained their Mater Iniciativa project, and how their restaurant in a remote part of the Andes at an altitude of 4000m relies on the ingenuity and traditional farming practices of a unique people and culture.
Another remote destination, this time, Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) in Iceland, featured as chef Gísli Matt told us about his project to revive his local fishing community with a restaurant. His experience tells us a lot about what is wrong with our food system and inspires us to change it, one meal at a time.
Garima Arora told us about her lockdown experience and how her quest to feed her community led her to open a more casual restaurant with the tandoor oven at its centre. She explains to us how the traditional method of cooking in India has been used for thousands of years as a way to break down the caste system and unite people and cultures.
Irish chef Cúán Greene, who represents the future of the country's gastronomy, told us his vision for Ómós, which is a restaurant based on an idea of community and change. Having worked in some of the world's best restaurants, including Noma, in Copenhagen, Cúán is ready to return home to start a food revolution in people's minds and hearts.
It was up to chef Mark Best to add some levity to proceedings, as he outlined in stark detail the problems facing the industry, and how a period of further upheaval is inevitable. There was not much hope in Best's message, but forewarned is forearmed, and we can only meet the challenges of the future by being realistic and meeting them heard on.
Italy's Denis Lovatel took the stage and allowed us to enjoy his passion for pizza. He explained how, with the world's most democratic and popular dish, we have an opportunity to share and spread ideas through food. Lovatel is a pizziaolo who works in the Veneto region and is known as the 'Mountain Pizzaiolo'. He is about to open a new restaurant in Milan.
While Food On The Edge overcame many challenges to transplant itself from Galway to Airfield, the quality of speakers, ideas, producers and food meant the event is still in rude health. After a traumatic year and a half for the restaurant industry, this event demonstrates, once again, that it is people, and their spirit of community and connection that will chart a way out of this and towards a better future.