Sustainability was the word on everyone’s lips as chefs and food industry thought leaders met in Macao for Asia’s 50 Best Talks 2019. Presentations and discussions in the Grand Ballroom at the Wynn Macao were centred around the theme of the ‘vital ingredients’ of Asian gastronomy, from soul and spice, to sugar and salt. But it was impossible to ignore perhaps the most essential ingredient of all when it comes to food: our planet.
A panel consisting of Bo Songvisava (Bo.Lan, Bangkok), Rodolfo Guzmán (Boragó, Chile), Shinobu Namae (L’Effervescence, Tokyo) and Valeria Mosca (Wood*ing wild food lab, Milan) debated some of the common myths around sustainability, what we can all do to eat and prepare food responsibly, and where we are heading next in the battle to preserve our environment. And one of the key take-aways from the discussion was that little actions can make a big difference.
One of Japan’s rising stars Zaiyu Hasegawa and the team from Den in Tokyo was first up on stage to talk about a vital ingredient that can’t be touched, smelled or tasted: soul. For Hasegawa, the connection with customers from the moment they take the reservation, to the actual dining experience, was vital in putting a sense of fun into fine dining. “The vital ingredient at Den is people,” he told the audience. “That includes our team, suppliers and customers. We learn all about our customers - whether they are left or right handed, or if they just like extra rice - just so they enjoy themselves more.”
Garima Arora of Gaa in Bangkok spoke about the role of spice in her restaurants, but also in her life growing up in India. Recently named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2019, Garima recalled that every household would have its own collection of spices, and that there was a spice for every occasion. But the most important thing she learned about spice in Asian cuisines was in negative food pairings. “We tend to use ingredients that have less flavour compounds in common, making different ingredients work together in a special way. It’s like yin and yang, the flavours highlight the positive of each other. This is something that really excited us at Gaa, and gave us our first signature dish of strawberry and caviar.”
Fabrizio Fiorani stood up for sugar, which is perhaps understandable for the pastry chef at Il Ristorante Luca Fantin in Tokyo. To highlight the essence of the sometimes maligned ingredient, he deconstructed his dessert ‘Zucchero’ into its component parts: cotton can-ìdy, Wasanbon sugar gelato, burnt sugar foam, hazelnut opaline and Okinawa black sugar syrup. “The idea is to use sugar as the main ingredient, as the main character, and not to consider it a demon to avoid,” he said.
Celebrated Thai chef Bo Songvisava of Bo.Lan in Bangkok delivered a speech about salt, a key ingredient in Thai cuisine. Not only does salt add flavour to food, but it is also a biological necessity for our bodies to survive, and it is vital in preserving food. But the sources of salt - both the sea and the land - is being polluted with plastic. “There’s 150million metric tons of plastic waste in our oceans already. We also have microbeads floating in our oceans. They call it mermaid’s tears, and the fish eat it. Wait a minute, where does our salt come from? The sea, and it has microplastic in it.”
The sustainability theme extended to a panel discussion chaired by food writer Crystyl Mo, who asked: “How can we survive if we keep using current industrial practices, when we poison the earth and water with toxic pesticides, fill the oceans with plastic and chemical wastes, destroy our healthy soils through industrial tilling and monoculture farming, and decimate our rainforests?”.
Valeria Mosca of the Wood*ing wild food lab in Milan said that education about foraging can help us think about a new concept of sustainability that goes beyond ‘organic’. “I use gastronomy and mixology as crucial ways to communicate. I believe in the next generation of foraging, which I call ‘conservative foraging’. Responsibility is the most important ingredient we have.”
As a chef who works with a wide network of foragers around Santiago in Chile, Rodolfo Guzmán agreed on the importance of education. “The government has to work more with schools and books to tell the next generation how important food is,” he said. He added his concern about the use of plastic bags in sous vide cooking. “We need to rethink what we’re doing. Maybe there is a way to avoid it.”
Bo Songvisava went a step further, calling for single-use plastics to be banned altogether, but Shinobu Namae said: “Sometimes a plastic bag can keep the quality of food to avoid waste. It’s about finding a balance and finding ways in which we can decrease the use of single-use plastics.”
Crystyl Mo concluded with a quote from American writer, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, which neatly summed up the day’s discussions and the concerns of all the chefs moving into the future: “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”