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When Lars Charas went to Africa he had a revelation. “I met a farmer,” says the genial Dutch chef. “He had a big pile of pumpkins that was almost rotten outside his farm. He said it’s really hot here, I cannot get it to the market quickly enough.” This got him thinking. What if he could create some simple recipes that preserved the farmer’s food, and helped him make more money from it?
“So I started to ferment pumpkin,” says Charas. “I made a juice out of it, and fermented some pieces. The farmer could use these for a long time, and instead of throwing it away, he could serve it with rice on a street food market. That way he could receive more money for his pumpkin.”
On one hand it was a simple human gesture, a chef helping a farmer understand his produce. But at the same time it was an exercise in thinking differently and fulfilling the social responsibility of a chef. Charas is one of a group of environmentally aware cooks tackling the problem of sustainability in our food cultures - although few are quite as driven and committed to the cause as he is.
The 'Feeding Good' Foundation
A chef and farmer with a keen interest in geography, Charas was one of the first chefs in the Netherlands to study sustainable food systems. In 2004, he set up the Feeding Good Foundation, which aims to collate, test and share ideas on sustainability as a resource for everyone interested in healthy food and a healthy planet. But it also lays down a challenge to the best chefs in the world to change the food we all eat.
“I was amazed that chefs were never a part of finding solutions for sustainability. That triggered me to write a book,” says Charas. Food Forever is the result, a heavyweight volume bursting with information on climate, agriculture, fossil fuels and biodiversity, and their effect on the food chain.
As well as interviews with the likes of Yoshihiro Narisawa and Alex Atala, it contains 70 diverse and distinctive recipes aimed at changing our perceptions of food, from blueberry peppermint rejuvelac smoothie, to mealworm hummus.
In search of alternative ingredients
The essential premise is simple: with a growing population, and dwindling resources, how can we continue to feed the planet? “I think there are three ways,” explains Charas. “Produce more food, make food chains more efficient, and change diets. With the last one, chefs can provide the main solution. They are the shepherds of food culture, and they influence what people eat. This is the main issue in the Feeding Good Foundation.”
According to Charas, the human diet once consisted of 1,000 different ingredients, but currently just 30 ingredients account for 98 per cent of the food produced in the world. Yet there are 60,000 edible foodstuffs available. “A solution is to eat more diversely, and to use the food resources on this planet more efficiently,” says Charas.
One alternative ingredient Charas aims to promote is pistachio flour. A waste product of nut oil, it can be used to make cookies, spreads, breads and even sausages. “In pistachio there’s a lot of protein, and because you take out the oil, the level of protein in the powder is two times more than in the nut itself. Therefore it’s a really good solution to feed the planet.”
Charas outlines three key areas of sustainability. “The first is resources – water, energy, a stable climate and biodiversity – basically all the aspects we need to produce food. The second is responsibility – the way we treat animals and land, the chemicals we use, etc. The third is resilience – that the food system is able to cope with all the challenges ahead of us.”
The social responsibility of a chef
His vision involves what he calls ‘culinary playgrounds’, forums in which chefs can create the food of tomorrow. “To experiment with how we can make food cultures resilient, I envision hotel schools and culinary schools creating those culinary playgrounds. People like Mehmet Gurs, Alex Atala and Margot Janse have stepped into my advisory board of the Foundation, and I will ask them to inspire those culinary playgrounds.”
But as well as chefs, both farmers and consumers also have a key part to play. “The interesting thing is that farmers and consumers never communicate,” says Charas. “Farmers think they provide the food the consumers want, and consumers think farms produce the food they want. In fact we eat the stuff the food industry wants us to eat. But there’s 25,000 years of farmer experience, lying out there in the field. That knowledge will form the base for the dishes of the future.”
As Lars Charas and his African pumpkin farmer friend discovered, the key to a more sustainable food culture is collaboration.