Food waste, farming and endemic ingredients were the buzz phrases of the first ever RE Food Forum, held in a sweltering Bangkok this March. Organised by chefs Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and Dylan Jones of the city's Bo.lan restaurant, along with journalist and heirloom food purveyor Leisa Tyler, the event, which drew some of the world’s best chefs, producers from across Asia, and established and up and coming names in food technology and policy to the Thai capital, offered an intimate and relaxed environment for these conversations to take place, with two days of short lectures, q&a sessions and cooking masterclasses. By the end, the organisers had everyone on their feet, holding various Thai ingredients aloft, as they made a pledge to work and live a more sustainable and waste-free life.
Will it return next year? They couldn't say, they needed to take stock first, but here are some of the top talking points from this year's event.
The Producer as Star
Producers were given equal billing to the big name chefs at Re Forum, from pig farmers to coffee producers, and of course rice farmers, both Asian natives and ex-pats, and much of the discussion focused on the need for chefs and restaurants to support them. Chef Dan Hunter, who’s acclaimed restaurant Brae in Birregura, about two hours drive from Melbourne, Australia, sits on 30 acres of land, from which 90% of the restaurant’s plant-based ingredients are grown, argued that chefs often overlook the need to support their local communities and producers in the pursuit of being 100% self-sufficient. “We want to give customers the luxury of just harvested food in the restaurant, but you can’t grow all the food you need in a temperate environment,” said the former Mugaritz head chef, urging chefs to “support the endeavour” of local producers. “You shouldn’t want to grow all the food you serve,” he said.
Bridging the Gap
But of course, there is still work to be done when it comes to securing the supply chain, especially in the tropics, where food can spoil so quickly, and Brazilian chef Ivan Brehm, once of The Fat Duck’s development kitchen and now Singapore’s Nouri restaurant, pondered on how much producers know or care about what is happening in restaurants, noting how chef visits to producers are often not reciprocated. However, could chefs be doing more to educate producers about what to do with ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables we were asked, and do we need to reassess what we view as good and bad farming? For example, in the hills of northern Thailand, the slash and burn method of crop rotation is still popular, because, as Nutdanai Trakansuphakon of the Karen people argued, the charcoal is a great natural pesticide.
We were also introduced to plenty of entrepreneurs who are providing the link between artisanal producers and the wider market, like Helianti Hilman, founder and CEO of Javara, which promotes endemic organic products from Indonesia, but the next challenge, we were told, is to try to build demand for these products in the mass market.
Go Local or Go Home
From the likes of Will Goldfarb (Room 4 Dessert, Bali), who will star in the upcoming pastry-focused season of Chef’s Table and who stated his belief that “in 20 years, all desserts will be plant-based,” to Luis ‘Chele’ Gonzalez of Gallery VASK in Manila, we met a number of chefs from the West who now call Asia home and have fallen in love with indigenous produce.Joannès Rivière of Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, Cambodia, revealed how he has given up on Western products all together, apart from dessert ingredients – and this is from a chef who has worked at Spain’s best restaurants – which also allows him to keep his prices low, while Gonzalez now uses 95% local ingredients he says, but admitted that at first, he lost “a lot” of customers as a result.
Who is Wasting What and Where?
While it was argued that 50% of food waste in the hospitality industry is pre-consumer, chef Magnus Nilssonof Sweden’s two-Michelin-star Fäviken restaurant took something of a more controversial tone given what had gone before him, with an attempt to put things into perspective: only 5% of food waste in Sweden is created in hospitality he argued, a statistic he says is likely applicable across the board, at least in the West. “People are deflecting from the real problem,” he said, “which is consumption.” At Fäviken, the only thing that goes to landfill is the ceramics and they are working on eliminating even that says Nilsson, but the chef was candid in his defence of the unsustainability of the fine dining restaurant – Fäviken is of course, once you’ve got to Stockholm, still an hour’s flight away. “We fully admit that our fine dining restaurant is entirely unsustainable” said the Swede, “but I like to think that the world is a better place with it in it.”
Staff shortages are hitting the hospitality sector hard, prompting some restaurants to look outside the industry to train those without restaurant experience for life in the kitchen. Andrew Friedman finds out more.