Changing the world through food is not an easy task. But today, it is a challenge that is increasingly within our reach, thanks to the passionate work of chefs willing to look at the world beyond their kitchens. One of them is Xanty Elías, the Andalusian chef who has just won the Basque Culinary World Prize 2021 for his initiative Children Eat The Future, which aims to educate future generations about a healthier diet.
Elías believes that what we eat can be a tool to not only generate change in our lives, but also to transform our environment. He co-founded the Prenauta Foundation - a non-profit community organisation to promote socio-economic growth - in 2017 with other local entrepreneurs.
A year later, he felt the need to create an initiative with companies and institutions throughout Andalusia to sensitise schools to changes in the diet of children, especially to stop the increase in childhood obesity, diabetes and health problems associated with food. "I experienced all of these in my childhood and I know perfectly well that they are the result of social issues," he says.
Cooking as a classroom topic
The challenge is to be able to introduce gastronomy into the classroom - not to take the children out of school to put them in a kitchen, but to make gastronomy something learned at a desk, from your chair, in the classroom. “We created a methodology that allows the teacher to generate many activities that are easy for students to develop, conducting small tastings of raw produce, visiting different farms and small projects such as artisan bakeries, orchards, creating a connection stronger between them and food,” he says.
The program teaches students traditional Andalusian recipes and how to apply learning to cooking, as well as educating them about healthy and sustainable eating. As part of the program, chefs visit schools and give masterclasses. In the academic year 2019/20, the program reached more than 15,000 schoolchildren in at least 10 schools in Andalusia. Now the plan is to expand Children Eat The Future nationally. "We are about to start the project in Madrid with about 20,000 students from 100 schools at the same time," he says.
For Elías, learning about our diet is even more important than much content currently taught in schools. "It's a way of giving children deep knowledge and a certain degree of autonomy about their own food. It is not bad that you go down to a supermarket and buy a gazpacho that is ready to eat. But if you buy it day after day you will only know that it is a ready made gazpacho, and your gastronomic memory will be the property of the food industry. We cannot let that happen to our children," he says.
The chef believes that it's necessary to open children's minds so that they are aware of what a consumer society is, and thus introduce a change in behaviour when buying their food. "Nobody is going to buy a calculator that says that 2 + 2 = 5, because we have learned the mathematical calculation in school to know that 2 + 2 = 4. The same thing happens with food: if we learn very early on how food should be, we are not going to buy things just because they tell us to.”
In the three years since starting the project, Elías says that “the response of the students has been dramatic”. Cooking has become popular among them, partly because of television programmes and because of the prominence that gastronomy has nowadays, food has a creative aspect of “manufacturing” that they like a lot and that helps them significantly develop their potential.
"We are studying how students' minds behave subconsciously to generate healthy and positive habits when it comes to changing their diet," he says. "And although we still haven't finished the study - because it is something that will take us about 5 years - we already see that there is a great downward trend in childhood obesity and diabetes when we put them in contact with the ingredients, with the field."
With the 100,000 euros from the Basque Culinary World Prize, the objective is now to take the initiative to other autonomous communities in Spain.
A sustainable restaurant
Elías is also busy with another challenge: the opening of Finca Alfoliz, a 10,000 square meter space located in Aljaraque, a restaurant totally focused on sustainability. "It is a project based on permaculture, solidarity with the environment, we are in a natural place protected by UNESCO, and that is why it has to be as sustainable as possible, even economically, of course," he explains.
The restaurant is linked to the philosophy of local products - "We are not kilometre-zero, but we are meter-zero, since we are surrounded by orchards," - with a simple kitchen that has embers as a common thread and democratic prices. “We intend to offer a meal with a more conscious philosophy of life, with a closer relationship to food and nature. To combine calm, freedom and a greater awareness of food,” says the chef whose previous restaurant, Acánthum, was the first in the Spanish province of Huelva to achieve a Michelin star.
Scheduled to open in August, the restaurant has 180 seats and includes spaces reserved for naps "in a deep connection with the landscape and with the sound of birds". The dishes will follow Andalusian traditions, especially the concept of sharing dishes. “We have moved away from the tasting menu format but without abandoning the level of demand of a great gastronomic restaurant. But we want to make dishes that can be eaten from the centre of the table, and thus remember that sharing the table is celebrating life.”