Picking up on your own faults and failings and honestly criticising ‘you’ is one of the toughest things a person can do. However, open the door and welcome others in to help, give them a chance to air opinions, voice new criticism and share subjective views, and you’re immediately on the road to improvement. Just think about the times you’ve ignored your own faults only to have a friend, family member or peer suddenly point them out.
Critiquing is an imperative part of self improvement, in all aspects of life, both personal and professional, and it’s with this in mind that some of the culinary industry’s leading figures touched down in Mexico City for Mesa Redonda - an intense, one day round table critique of all things food.
“The idea is to talk about gastronomy and the opportunities that we have to do things better”, explained Mexico’s biggest chef Enrique Olvera who started Mesa Redonda as a direct offshoot from his Mesamerica festivals. “There are many of us that have sincere doubts about the processes in fine dining and the things that we can do better as cooks and it’s a nice opportunity to be critical of our own work. If a few of us can get some cool ideas on how to change things we can start having a small impact, we realise it’s a small forum and that fine dining is a small part of the food world but the ideas trickle down”.
Speakers included journalists, chefs, biologists and social entrepreneurs with Ruth Reichl, Wylie Dufresne, Michel Bras, Lara Gilmore, Soledad Barruti, Alex Ruiz, Nicola Twilley, David Hertz and Jorge Larson all taking 15 minutes to present on certain topics before the floor was opened to a 300+ crowd of industry professionals.
We spent the day attending the round table and here’s some of the strongest observations, dialogues and ideas that were discussed.
Identity, Terroir and Tradition
Michel Bras spoke about the responsibility he feels as a chef in Aubrac, France. The small village in which his world famous restaurant is situated. He spoke about the importance of a strong connection to the place in which a chef cooks and why he feels so at home away from the big cities.
“I wanted to understand my country differently, away from the cliches of the city’s. Sometimes people laughed at us became they said we were like the farmers of the kitchen, that we had no culture and weren’t refined…as people of the earth we just focus on harnessing the lands of our region. We have to find a way to look after our cattle with love and properly grow our fruits and vegetables… I like cuisine that touches our heart much more than our heads.”
He finished with advice to all chefs in the world: “Listen to your land, dream, it’s full of fruits, take advantage of these opportunities. Now, more than ever, our cuisine allows us to express ourselves and I hope that all the cooks and all the chefs take advantage of protecting our identities.”
Is Refrigeration Sustainable?
This was an interesting question posed by the journalist Nicola Twilley who started by explaining that around half of the produce grown on farms in China rots before it ever reaches its intended destination. She also startled the audience by explaining that “a sixth of the world’s energy supply goes towards refrigeration.”
Her speech was packed with provocation as she questioned the audience on the idea of sustainability, what it actually means and how it really applies in the world of gastronomy. She bravely admitted she doesn’t really know what sustainability means herself, a sentence that sparked reassuring nods across the crowd. This was before inquiring about people’s views towards GMOs and whether or not the crowd thought GMOs were sustainable - only three people raised their hand… but this is Mexico and as the day progressed it was obvious that GMO carries a negative connotation in the country.
Another interesting point was that of ‘life cycle assessment’ - a way to understand the multiple impacts a single product can have on the environment from cradle to grave. Something she says in the future will help give a much more detailed and quantifiable view of how ingredients specifically impact the environment - a technique she says that France is currently employing.
The Big Issues
Speaking dearly to my own heart and the niggling voice that keeps me awake at night. Ruth Reichl touched on some of the systemic problems facing culinary journalism and the people who work in the field. Her topic centred on the state of the food press today and what that means for the future, as she jolted the crowd, many of them journalists, with some rousing words: “It’s not a pretty future - we are not getting context. I can’t think of any great epicurean publication that covers any social issues.”
She spoke of big topics that are not being addressed by food media publications, such as food safety, tax policy information, GMO news and she asked everyone: “Why aren’t we reading about governments who are thinking about food as a weapon?”
Somewhat of a trailblazer as a writer and editor, she spoke about personal occasions where she was faced with tough decisions to run stories that weren’t happy or pretty but stories that provided people with important information that they needed to hear - even if it meant upsetting the large companys that purchased advertising in the publication she edited.
Most interestingly she said: “chefs are stepping into the gap that has been left by food press.” A statement that’s hard to argue against as more and more chefs become writers, publishers, educators, presenters and ambassadors for important social issues - important roles that journalists should also be occupying.
We’ll be back with more from Mesa Redonda tomorrow as we focus in on the importance of social responsibility, the fear of GMO corn use in Mexico, biodiversity and an interesting look at creativity from chef Wylie Dufresne.
Until then, here’s René Redzepi asking his very own question to Michel Bras. Let us know your own response to Redzepi’s question on Facebook.