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Food on the Edge: Day Two

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Day two of Food on the Edge coincided with World Mental Health Day, so it was inevitable and correct that so many speakers focused on the challenges of restaurant life and maintaining a work-life balance.

The strongest voice on the issue was food writer Kat Kinsman of the website www.ChefsWithIssues.com – who laid out concisely the consequences of not paying attention to mental well being; the website address should be on every kitchen noticeboard.

Chefs such as Nicolai Norregaard of Kadeau and Magnus Nilsson of Faviken spoke of the importance of balance and flexibility in running a restaurant.  “If your staff are happy, you get to keep them!” said Norregaard.  “Chefs now are like rockstars – let’s make sure we don’t take on the worse aspects of rockstars also!”

Magnus Nilsson of Favikan spoke of finally achieving the right balance for their restaurant and staff and how he finally has a hobby (gardening).  He now has at least two people that can do every job, so “Nobody needs to feel guilty if they take a day off or are too ill to go to work”.

Inspirational stories came from the likes of Soenil Bahadoer, who was born in Suriname to an Indian family but grew up in the Netherlands.  His 2 Michelin Star De Lindehof combines his French classical training, local Dutch ingredients with influences from his Hindi culture and upbringing to create something new – “It wasn’t always easy for a brown boy like me to convince people that I could do this!”

Heinz Reitbauer from Vienna focused on biodiversity and how he works with farmers and producers to save flavour.  From thousands of pear and apple varieties we now have just a handful available commercially – “Up to 30,000 species per year are being lost – the nutritional habits of today are threatening biodiversity – the plants we are losing are not just diverse sources of nutrition but also crucially sources of flavour – our world will be significantly poorer without them”.

Crispy Dicks.

On a similar theme, the day began with a story of the resurgence of the native Irish Dexter Cow from Eavaun Carmody of Killenure Dexter Beef.  The chefs from Denmark’s Bror restaurant ‘talked trash’ about the importance of actual nose to tail eating and using every skull, hoof and testicle and passed out some fried ‘crispy dicks’ to the audience (tasting a little like pork scratchings).

The overall theme of Food on the Edge – Action and Reaction – was given focus by inspirational stories about chefs reacting to hunger and nutrition issues.  Food on the Edge had opened on day one with a talk from Dominic Macsorley of Concern, who spoke about ‘Reaching Zero Hunger’.  Quique Dacosta of the eponymous 3 Michelin Star restaurant in Alicante spoke of his work with Restaurants Against Hunger in desperately poor communities – hunger is increasing despite food waste increasing at the same rate – “It’s disgusting,” he said.

Dutch born South African chef Margot Janse told how her Isabelo charity, set up in 2009, now feeds 1400 pre-school and primary school children every day – often the only healthy meal they receive that day.  “Intentions are good but actions are better – there are lots of hearts of gold that care but an egg also has a heart of gold and is a lot more practical,” she concluded.

Rasmus Munk of Alchemist Copenhagen serves a 45 course menu with highly creative dishes, many of which make a political point such as ‘grandmother’s ash tray’ in tribute to his Gran who died of lung cancer, and ‘organ doner’ which comes with a blood bag (actually cherry juice) and a card to sign up for organ donation.

Adrian Klonowski and Matylda Grezelak met at a pig slaughter and run Poland’s best known fine dining restaurant, Metamorfoza in Gdansk, and gave an entertaining talk on the millennial paradox of searching for Polishness through food in a country that lost almost all of its food memories under communism.

Perhaps most charming talk of the two days came from Isa Mazzocchi of Restaurant La Palta (population. 100) in Emilia Romagna, who performed barefoot (feet on the ground) and ‘brought pieces of me’ to show us including her grandmother’s recipes and various other items from a ‘Mary Poppins’ bag.  She finished with a drop of milk which is her signature on all dishes – “A simple gesture but important because milk is the first thing humans and most animals consume”.

Paco Reallis from Andalusia’s Noor restaurant spoke of finding “New creative paths through history” by exploring Cordoba’s Arabic past – serving dishes that reflect the 10th and 11th century.  Similarly New York based (but Halifax Nova Scotia reared) Daniel Burns spoke about ‘Blueberries and Such’ – picking blueberries as a child and eating lobster and seaweed but also how the world has changed since those days with intensive chemical use on the land of his birth and how there are more floods, droughts and heatwaves every year, and the small things chefs can do to engender change.

Jeremy Charles of Raymonds Restaurant in St. John in Newfoundland also spoke of his love of his homeland and the importance of a sense of place and celebrating local food culture.

Early in the day we got a useful bit of provocation from the panel on Creating a Better Food System, which saw campaigning food journalist Joanna Blythman and chefs Saqib Kerval, Tom Adams and Daniel Berlin teased out some of what is wrong with our food –  about the abuses of big food and industry that leads to glyphosate tainted ice cream (cf. Ben and Jerrys).

We need to take responsibility, and “Chefs need to stop taking money from the food industry for dubious projects – and while we are at it (to quote Banksy) let’s stop making stupid people famous!” said Blythman to applause.  All the panel spoke of optimism and how “Grass grows through concrete,” and how “The younger generation of chefs know the issues and are not to be underestimated and they will set the new food agenda. The citizen agenda will also grow in importance and crucially we need to include everyone,” said Kerval.

Noma based Irish chef Cúán Greene, who has just come back Mexico where he was hugely inspired by the people he met, not just the local chefs, producers and market sellers.  The mango seller that refused to sell mangos to the restaurant “As then I would have none left to sell to my neighbours and regular customers – the mangos should be for everyone!”

Education was addressed by JP McMahon, who launched a campaign to make food education part of the national curriculum and all the audience signed letters to send to the Minister for Education.

JP McMahon’s letter.

The day finished with inspirational essays from local children on the future of food and a deserved standing ovation for JP McMahon.  Over the two days following the event a number of the speakers visited Irish producers along the Wild Atlantic Way, such as Kellys Oysters and Burren Salmon.