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Most food congress’s end with obligatory pats on the back from all the participants, some small plates, lots of wine, laughs and catch-ups. The last one I attended, Diálogos de Cocina in San Sebastian, Spain, ended with a plane crash.
"Everyone on board, 'where is the captain?'," shouted a sweaty performer as the rest of us, dressed in aprons, stood in our positions. We were on a plane, one that was crashing and panic was in the air, "where is the pilot?" screamed the performer, the plane of gastronomy was coming down fast and we had to help save it. Each table was tasked with dissecting a key theme of gastronomy: creativity, politics, cooking, ego, science. We were slowly making our way through the major issues facing the industry - looking back at the key themes of the last two days, being challenged to discover and engage with the world of gastronomy away from the food, cooking, demos and delicious tastings.
The central theme of the two-day event was the "transformative power of cooking" but this manifested in a series of fascinating talks, debates and presentations touching everything from gender to politics, biodiversity to health, knowledge to ego. A two day event that showed perfectly how food is intrinsically linked to almost everything in society.
The event started with a strong, intimate and scary conversation with Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, who opened the festival with a personal dialogue, delivered from a seat at the table in front of the stage.
The activist used his time to discuss the dire need for more serious conversations around food. How it’s actually loosing it’s value in society, he cited the case of Italian dairy farmers who are paid 60 cents per litre for the milk they produce and carrot farmers who are paid just €0,07 for 1 kg of carrots.
He also warned of a loss of biodiversity in products, “80 percent of seeds in the world are owned by five corporations”.
“We will loose biodiversity and at the same time there will be a new biodiversity with transgenic organisms - by companies who have invented these organisms.”
Petrini also took time to address an ongoing and important dialogue within the industry: well-being and sustainability of those actually working inside kitchens.
“We need a new dimension in cooking - right now it’s violent: the origins of the history of Gastronomy - Escoffier studied and coded the organization of cooking and he studied an example from the army: hierarchy, discipline, a commander - but this doesn’t work now, it might have worked in the 1900s.
“This sadomasochistic relationship is happening all the time - owners are sadists and young chefs are masochists. We need to implement a situation of empathy - mental well-being. Escoffier paradigm, go get lost. Let’s build a new paradigm - because then the whole team work together.”
Pertrini’s words echoed strongly during another dialogue, one that was very different in the context of usual food congresses but one that was very much welcome.
Five young chefs around the ages of 20-years-old were invited for a conversation on stage with their peers. A dialogue between generations - a direct link between the millennial viewpoint and that of those currently running restaurants - offered a unique exchange and something that more congresses should look to do.
The young students from the Basque Culinary Centre spoke about their need to work in environments in which they’re happy, challenged, and, more importantly, part of the creative process. It was obvious and engaging to see these different views and ideals clash on stage - at one point - Mariela Michelena - a previous speaker and psychoanalyst, jumped into the conversation to explain that it sounded like that of a “couple relationship”. “I do all these things for you as an intern but yet you still leave me,” she said. Encouraging those on stage to try and reframe and think about the student, mentor relationship differently.
At one point, we were all asked to download apps only to have the entire auditorium light up as the technicians behind these apps took over 500 different mobile phones and forced everyone to consider creativity and community in a new way. We were encouraged to consider food journalism differently by Mikel L. Iturriaga and misinformation within the food industry by the biochemist Jose Miguel Mulet who explained how certain myths and downright lies are spread to sell the diets, foods and fads we eagerly consume.
Do we know what we eat?
He explained that “we are continually bombarded with messages about the dangers of food" and that "the amount of emergency necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it."
He continued. "Objectively speaking, food is safe but on the other hand the public is scared of food... The industry falls into this taboo game which is quite explicit - they play a game: everything is natural, even sliced bread." He offered more of the buzzwords that are used and often misrepresented to sell us on certain ingredients. "Traditional. Pizza made by grandmother. Forbidden words: artificial, technology, colorings, preservatives.”
Mulet summed up perfectly how this constant bombardment of misinformation is confusing when it comes to what and how to eat, making people “focus on the wrong issues”. He added: “The problem in the west is not that we don’t have food or food isn’t safe - it’s the fact that we make bad choices... Do we know what we eat?”
This question led well into a dialogue from the Brazilian chef Bela Gil who spoke about the importance of maintaining the basic skills and knowledge attached to actually cooking. She spoke about the generations of people who have forgotten to cook and how this disconnect is what drives people to make poor choices surrounding the food they consume.
There were talks from chefs, Enrique Olvera, Thomas Troisgros and Pepe Solla are just a few but none spoke about cooking, there were no demos or idle PR pitches on stages - the overriding theme of the festival was that we now inhabit a whole world of gastronomy and that world is multi-faceted, with a wide knowledge base and with arms that are reaching well outside the kitchen. It was refreshing to see an event take this stance, to show off just how varied the food world has become and to inspire a new way of thinking towards the connections food makes.
“Isn’t time for us to think about how to do congresses differently?”, asked Begoña Rodrigo at the beginning of the event. “Shouldn’t we leave and feel inspired? There must be a revolution of knowledge - we must show people why things happen with food.”