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The inspirational culinary conference, Sauce, returned for its fourth annual edition in its new home of Helsinki on 3 September. Across the Baltic sea and away from its debut address in Estonia, this year’s events unfolded in a spectacular 140-year-old Old Student house Vanha Ylioppilastalo in the Finnish capital. Food industry professionals gathered from around Europe to spend the day together eating, debating, presenting and collaborating on this year’s rousing theme of “The power of food”.
The day’s events highlighted several key themes underlined by speakers offering up some inspirational stories on the indisputable power of food but also on the overriding human factor in food. Although food in relation to power doesn’t sound like a new hit, several speakers blew away the cobwebs making it extreme to think we can move past this topic. Food is a tool in the hands of people and this relationship of power depends on the individual who seeks this interaction. Invariably, chefs were called to action, given their profile and visibility being asked to be unique, to diversify into roles other than only cooking, to be true to themselves, act as custodians of the culture of cuisine and to simply make food social again.
The End of Chefs as We Know Them
Andrea Petrini, one of the most influential food critics in the world and the brains behind the chef’s think tank Gelinaz!, kicked off proceedings by taking to the stage and asking the crowd to clap along to Four Tet’s “She moves she”.
In one of the most performative speeches of the day the Italian critic explored the “#thisistheendofasweknowit” hashtag. A confused and amused audience witnessed an unexpected manifesto in which Petrini signalled the beginning of the end of things—or rather chefs, as we know them. Using hashtag “#ihaveanidea”, Petrini went on to explain that “this is the end of a system we’ve been constructing for many years” and we are in a desperate need of chefs to change their stance and way of working. He went on to urge chefs to be more creative and stop following a routine, by saying “if your screenplay is played day after day the same way, guys, we have a problem”. The next thing for chefs, according to Petrini, is to abandon tweezers and return to the kitchen. Chasing into woods after the foraging fashion, deprived chefs of the act of cooking.
While making the whole audience repeat Centipede’s lyrics of “Unite for Every Nation” towards the end of his presentation, Petrini encouraged chefs to take a stand, have a different voice and oppose conformity and to instead grow like a Matsutake mushroom—in difficult conditions, in unexpected ways and forming alliances.
A New Approach to Awards
Setting up a new award system—The World Restaurant Awards—with Petrini, Joe Warwick stressed the importance of the distinction needed among unification. Ditching the ideology of the most popular current restaurant rankings and listings, Warwick pledged for the changing role of awards.
Warwick took to the stage to try to answer, "What is Best?": even though he is well known for being one of The World's 50 Best Restaurants list's founders and author of Where Chefs Eat, according to him, both the list and the book have become highly commercialized products no longer able to serve their initial purpose. In fact, after working with The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for ten years, Petrini walked out.
Conducting a workshop with the world’s top industry chefs and food experts and ensuring gender equality in the voting panel, they are making a veritable attempt to establish a more inclusive awards scheme.
Become the unexpected
João Wengorovius explored displaying uniqueness, rather than conforming to models and common restaurant concepts, as the "new blood" needed.
The author of We Chefs stated that to evolve further, chefs need to change the way they are, expanding by saying that in order to become agents of change chefs need to embrace change themselves, taking up many more roles other than just that of cooking. A dynamic highlighted in his book which filled with storytellers, mentors, curators, entrepreneurs, activists, artisans and creative thinkers rather than focusing on the sole role of a chef to cook. Having visited all the restaurants around the world Wengorovius wrote about and have talked to all the chefs, he was able to extract a methodology to create a unique identity.
Find your voice
“Food is power because (…) it gives voice to tell inspiring stories". Seattle-based chef and owner of Salare and Junebaby, Edouardo Jordan, spoke about using the power of food to confront stereotypes.
Before winning twice the James Beard Award this year, Jordan’s journey first led through a bumpy road of becoming a ‘fine dine French chef’ filled with alienation and inferiority. Culinary schools based on European cooking forced him to abandon his southern roots for Escoffier and La Rousse and to cook for the best “white males cooking classic food in America”.
As a black chef, he continuously hit a glass ceiling in a predominantly white environment. What was regarded as "best", he soon realized was flawed and contrary to principles that defined his background.
Instead, he chose to follow his own convictions, and follow his path cooking sustainable, southern food. Now, Jordan calls all chefs to learn to appreciate the simplicity and find their voice in the kitchen: “I am a chef, but more importantly I am a black chef”.
Chefs have a mission to be well rounded, providing mentorship, leadership and giving guidance at the same time being vocal about concerns and issues. They should be fluent advocates, politicians, who cook sustainable and inspiring dishes. Be at the forefront of change and equality, but not afraid to tell one’s story.
Other Sauce speakers took the evolving role of the chef even further. Dr Stephen Jones from WSU Bread Lab in Washington and Syrian born chef, author and TV star Mohammad Orfali from Dubai both spoke of the legacy that chefs must sustain.
Dr Jones spoke of our collateral responsibility to preserve species and varieties. Above all, he said, we have a right to good quality, delicious food. Instead of looking at statistical prophecies we must act now and when food is involved the role chefs choose to play, is fundamental. We all depend on the choices they make and the ingredients they decide to use in their kitchens.
Apart from preserving ingredients and being honest in delivering delicious food, chefs remain the custodians of culture as cuisines are the mediators of civilizations. Speaking of his mission to preserve Aleppian food culture, Orfali’s work extends beyond kitchen doors into piles of documentation, books and research.
Disappearing food cultures call for chef-storytellers with a vision. But a vision often requires a perspective, telling a story needs an audience and this may turn all but easy if your culture forms borders that are difficult to cross. Consistency and determination knocked down barriers for Orfali, becoming fundamental dispositions for chefs who want to preserve their heritage.
Make food social again
Finally, the current food system pressures chefs to consider the ways in which we eat.
Seni Glaister, founder of the new social eating craze at WeFiFo (We Find Food) inspires chefs and people to rewind and bring the social factor back to our lives by making room for the ways in which we eat and live together.
Food has always been a social activity. We are currently building an ill model of a disconnected society, where conversation becomes an awkward procedure, where emoticons and hashtags vent our emotions. Stiff and orchestrated dinners, the experiences that fine dining chefs have been creating, take dining and socializing further apart.
As everyone awaits the next big shift in the gastronomic world, small changes closer to home are already slowly happening, marking our new direction. As much as different experts, influencers and movements may inspire and set examples, it is up to chefs to make the right decisions and act out their inner selves, for food can give us new opportunities, but only if we see them, it can give us voice, only if we wish to tell a story, it can give us the power to change only if we are the trigger.
(All images in the article courtesy of www.borderlessco.com)