The city of Galway on the west coast of Ireland was once again hosting to some of the gastronomic world’s key influencers this week. Food On The Edge 2018 welcomed over 60 speakers from Ireland and the rest of the world for a two-day symposium tackling some of the most pressing issues facing the future of food.
Founder and director JP McMahon was joined on stage by fellow chefs Matt Orlando (AMASS, Copenhagen) and Sasu Laukkonen (Ora Restaurant, Helsinki) to welcome a host of top names, including Clare Smyth, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Nathan Outlaw, Emma Bengtsson, Albert Adria, and Vladimir Mukhin.
“The whole point of this symposium is talking about things, but then doing them,” said JP McMahon. He conceded that change can be a lengthy process, but alongside recurring themes such as sustainability and food waste, new ideas are gaining traction around bullying and harassment, national identity and the things we are teaching, or failing to teach younger generations.
Here are six takeaways from Food On The Edge 2018.
Responsibility begins with respect
Ideas around sustainability and social responsibility have been discussed ad infinitum at conferences such as FOTE. But how can chefs unite to develop them if they cannot work in a culture of respect? “We have to decide that harassment and bullying are no longer accepted in the kitchen,” said Emma Bengtsson from Aquavit in New York. Matt Orlando echoed that chefs frequently push themselves too hard and feel guilty “for not being there” but are unwilling to take time off. For Bengtsson, managing the pressure on chefs by creating a calm and mindful working environment is paramount. “A quiet kitchen is the key,” she said. “There should be no screaming and yelling, and I have zero tolerance for swearing in my kitchen.”
Imagination is key
Doug McMaster from Silo repeated his now-familiar axiom: "Waste is a failure of the imagination." Turning the single-use glass into "faux porcelain" and Japanese knotweed into treacle is a testament to that. But his mantra has been embraced by the likes of Alexandre Silva from Loco restaurant in Lisbon, who told of taking more than a ton of coffee grounds each year to make vinegar, misos, and chocolate. The repurposing of waste into something useful remains a key issue, but chefs and consumers alike must think creatively. Andoni Luis Aduriz thinks context is key: “From creative people, you learn to be creative. The question is, who are you sitting next to?”
Don't be a hypocrite!
“I’m a chef. Not a prophet. Not a guru. And hopefully not a hypocrite,” said Albert Adria. The Catalan chef was mindful of a chef’s responsibility to his customers, but also to the wider world through his or her actions. South African chef Duncan Welgemoed’s powerful speech castigated chefs for talking up sustainability on one hand but then selling supermarket brands despite “turning a blind eye to how these products are produced or their impact on the food system. With the lure of money and exposure we are often bought.”
National identity is not what you think
“Vindaloo is not even Indian, it’s Portuguese,” said Dublin-based Indian-born chef Sunil Ghai. His talk was one of many that highlighted the idea of national identity in a world where migration and the cross-pollination of ideas shape food culture. Polish chef Adrian Klonowski admitted his food began to resemble Scandinavian and Nordic: “It lacked its own identity.” Meanwhile, in a panel discussion on British food, Clare Smyth accepted there is no such thing as British "haute cuisine", highlighting its simplicity and reliance on “quality ingredients, technique and tongue-in-cheek.” Russian chef Vladimir Mukhin told of his efforts to rediscover a national cuisine beset by political and historical upheavals. “It is important to understand what Russian food was before the Soviet Union,” he said.
Think of the children
If the future of food lies with future generations, then we are responsible for teaching our children about food, said JP McMahon, who called for food to be a mandatory subject in schools: “Unless it goes into the curriculum, it’s never going to be taken seriously. We teach computer programming in schools, but no food subjects.” Cook, writer and activist Karissa Becarra spoke of her "La Revolución" programme for kids in Perú, which ensures learning about food is fun. “Pleasure and joy should be a part of the change,” she said.
Take time to commemorate our food heroes
“You never know what’s behind you, so you never know what’s in front of you,” said JP McMahon in response to some moving tributes to two sadly departed but hugely inspirational people in the world of food. Remembering Anthony Bourdain, the writer and TV producer Nathan Thornburgh said, “I like Tony when he’s at his most caustic, but hope in a cynical man will grab you every time. He saw in chefs, for all their faults, people who do more good than harm.”
Later, the Irish chef Ross Lewis delivered an emotional eulogy to the groundbreaking Irish chef, hotelier, and writer Myrtle Allen, who died recently at the age of 94. “She is the godmother of the great Irish food family,” he said. Though Food On The Edge remains unashamedly progressive, it is nothing without a little reflection and introspection from time to time.