It’s that time of year again when chefs, and the food world in general, makes its way to Galway for Food on the Edge. Among the themes for 2018 are mental health, gender equality, food waste and changing our food system, but the overriding theme is conversations - the idea that talking can make things happen.
Day one seemed to have a more relaxed feel than previous years and the first of the 50 speakers was of course FOTE’s founder and director, JP McMahon of Aniar and Tartare. JP’s hope is that FOTE’s conversations “Will help break down barriers and share the diversity of food cultures and cross-fertilise knowledge… to build a food culture that spreads not just to restaurants but to everyday life.”
Our MCs this year were chefs Matt Orlando (AMASS, Copenhagen) and Sasu Laukkonen (Ora Restaurant, Helsinki), who both brought a relaxed atmosphere to what is often a rather intense couple of days.
First up was a moving tribute to chef, traveller and most of all, ‘eater’ Anthony Bourdain, given by Nathan Thornburgh who worked with him for a number of years. Thornburgh spoke of how Bourdain would happily break bread with everyone, something to be encouraged.
Chef Jordan Bailey spoke next about what brought him to Ireland - his new restaurant Aimsir is due to open in the Cliff at Lyons in spring 2019. Bailey arrived in late summer with his Danish partner Majken Bech Christensen, who will run front-of-house at Aimsir. Genuine excitement seems to be building around Aimsir given Bailey’s reputation, having ran several Michelin starred restaurants in Scandinavia and the UK including the three star Maaemo in Oslo. Bailey seems truly excited about getting to grips with Irish produce.
Vladimir Mukhin of White Rabbit in Moscow spoke of the revival of Russian cuisine, and as a fifth generation cook he spoke with passion about the influences of his parents and grandparents. Mukhin sees it as his duty to bring the joy of Russian cooking to the world and also spoke of the challenges of working under the Russian embargo, which severely restricts imports of basic items such as cheese. A positive that came from this is that it got him working much closer with local Russian farmers and producers. Chefs are artists, not rockstars he concluded and as proof he showed a video of one of his performances at the Museum of Modern Art cooking on the fly with ingredients brought by members of the public.
Helena Puolakka of Aster Restaurant and café in Edinburgh spoke about the importance of our senses. Puolakka has zero tolerance for shouting in her kitchen these days; atmosphere in a kitchen is key she feels and you need to be aware of every sensation - the feel of the soft feathers when you pluck a pheasant, smelling the entrails, experiencing the food at every level. Chefs need perception and awareness of the atmosphere in their kitchen and their staff and most of all they need common sense, she concluded.
Food writer supreme Diana Henry introduced a panel of British chefs to talk about British food now, and spoke to Nathan Outlaw, Clare Smyth, Paul Cunningham and Luke French, all chefs at the top of their game. "British Cuisine is a rustic cuisine but it can be elevated by technique and a bit of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ (and tongue and cheeks)," said Smyth. "We like to have fun with our food - spelt has been grown in Lancashire for 5,000 years so of course I want to use it in my restaurant along with dulse and salt and vinegar crisps or jellied eel with seaweed and malt vinegar."
"Our core ingredients are amazing but so are our influences, with the cooking of the Caribbean and South India as much a part of British food culture these days," said Paul Cunningham who grew up in Essex eating Vesta curry and Frey Bentos pies, a long way from the west coast of Denmark where he is chef at Henne Kirkeby Kro in Denmark. The food culture of Babette’s Feast is more familiar to Danes than the TV chef culture of the UK. The world of the TV chefs has "Something desperately desperate about it all!" he declared - "Give us Keith Floyd doing proper regional cooking, not faddism - nobody wants to see you cook Orc’s testicals!"
The local theme continued with Sharon and Carrie from Two Sisters Bakery in Homer Alaska, who talked about ‘baking bread, raising babies and feeding the community’ on bread and cakes made from scratch in their café and fine dining restaurant. Local is key of course, with amazing sustainable seafood resources and farming produce on their doorstep. Sustaining themselves and their community, starting from scratch every day using the past as much as the sourdough starter from yesterday, to make something new.
Alexandre Silva from Loco restaurant in Lisbon serves just 18 people per night in a tiny room. Silva eschews foie gras, scallops and caviar in favour of local Portuguese ingredients such as cuttlefish, mustard seeds, wild flowers and seaweeds. "Waste is a lack of imagination!" he declared, so he uses everything, such as fish trimmings made into garum sauce, or spent coffee grounds used to make miso and chocolates.
Duncan Welgemoed from Africola in South Australia was angry and it energised the room. He spoke about celebrity chef culture and how it influences us for better and worse. Chefs do focus on local produce - but the next moment they are shilling supermarket products that are the diametric opposite. "Some cooking shows resemble a Grimm fairy tale where peasants must endlessly create food to please an ogre." Jamie Oliver’s Garden promotion for Woolworths in Australia was paid for by the actual farmers who were already on wafer-thin margins. It used to be that cooking was one third cooking and two thirds cleaning, but now it is also half pr and social media management. We should publicly question and call out our peers on the misuse of their public platform for their own gain, to make sure chefs remain a force for good and not ill.
Nevin Maguire and Andy McFadden chatted about the changes in Irish food in the last few decades, as well as their inspirations and the gift of teaching people to cook. McFadden trained with Maguire early in his career. Next up was Sunil Ghai of Pickle, who spoke of spices and his influences and the joy of a pickle made by his grandmother decades ago that he still uses today. On the tradition theme, charcuterie maestro Joshua Smith spoke of how his business has grown from a tiny shop to a massive facility that is now properly Impacting the community by adding value for local farmers and helping ensure they stay viable - meat that used to go into sausages now gets made into speck and high quality salami. An ancient tradition that was begging to be revived - surely Ireland’s farmers need someone like Smith?
Eric Kragh Vildgaard from Denmark spoke about meeting expectations with traditional cooking in Copenhagen. There are 16,000 places to eat in Copenhagen, so all he can do is source the very best wild ingredients and convince customers to try it all! Persistence is key.
Taka Miyazaki gained a Michelin star this year, less than a year after opening Ichigo Ichie (and two years after opening Miyazaki) and he spoke of his shock at the lack of interest in seafood in Ireland, especially given the quality. The success of Miyazaki made fishmongers sit up and take notice of what he was doing, and now with Ichigo Ichie he's allowing seasonal food to tell the story.
Padrain Óg Gallagher spoke about our most famous immigrant, the potato - a 16th century immigrants’ influence on the destiny of Ireland. Ireland before the potato was a land of food and we particularly loved dairy - cows were only killed when they no longer provided milk. Cured meats and vegetables was our diet ,but the arrival of the potato changed things utterly. In Peru there are thousands of potato varieties, including poisonous varieties that are used to ward off pests. In 1573 the potato arrives in Spain, soon after it hits Ireland and between 1600 and 1700 our population doubled from 1 to 2 million. By 1800 it was five million and by 1840 it was 8 million with most people eating 5kg of potatoes per day. The potato took over because yields were much much higher than other crops, and crucially you didn’t need to pay a miller to process them.
Nicolai Ellitsgaard, Danish chef at Under in Norway, was up next. Under is partly submerged 5.5m under the Atlantic Ocean, with picture windows of course, and seats 40 people. Working with local fishermen to catch rarely used local shellfish which they keep in their live tank, he also forages around the coastline and uses stone crabs, sea snails, and seaweed, and likes to use foods nobody else is using.
Anita Hayes of Seedsavers in Clare and Mads McKeever from Brown Envelope Seeds spoke on 'Seeds - Feeding Ourselves,' and how 70% of the world lives on food derived from seeds which use just a quarter of the world’s farmland. The preciousness of seeds and the importance of saving seeds for the world is often forgotten about. We learned of the seedsavers of Stalingrad who, despite starving under siege during WWII, refused to eat the seeds they were protecting. Seeds are saved throughout the world but often they are in vulnerable places, so we can never save enough. Mads spoke of how much we import (try finding an Irish product in a health food shop), when we could easily grow things like quinoa, and just about everything else. Working with local growers is the ideal; regional hubs are needed to ensure that a diversity of seeds are kept and we need trials on what seeds grow best in different regions - many a home gardener has failed to produce a crop because the imported seeds were not appropriate. We need to do more than look at the pic on the pack, chefs need to work with farmers more to find the best varieties that suit their needs.
Have whites and knives, do travel. An Irish chefs abroad discussion featured a conversation between Danni Barry (formerly Clenaghans and Eipic at Deanes and currently on hiatus), Aidan McGee of Corrigans in Mayfair, Kevin Burke of The Ninth in Fitzrovia and Marguerite Keogh originally from Sixmilebridge, now at Five Fields Restaurant in Chelsea. There are great opportunities in London, especially for women, said Marguerite; in Ireland chefs can get elevated to sous-chef at too young an age thanks to our chef shortage, while in the UK the opportunities to learn are everywhere. Burke for example first worked in the Mandarin Oriental cooking with a wok, and got to travel to Bangkok and elsewhere, a huge culture shock from his previous job cooking 200 people weddings in an Irish hotel. There is less need for young chefs to travel now thanks to improvements in Ireland’s dining scene but they still should. Head chefs should not be afraid to let their young chefs go get experience, but keep your doors open - they may come back! Listen to the right people, take advice and most of all get out there - you can always come back!
Sommelier Julie Dupouy (who placed no. 3 in the world sommelier competition) spoke on the topic ‘A Vista da Nas’, a French phrase that means a journey through the nose which also means to do something on instinct. Seeing the world through her nose as a sommelier, she spoke of the benefits of training our noses - "Aroma molecules go straight to the brain, the same part of the brain used for memories. Scents, particularly unpleasant or satisfying ones, get hard-wired into memory and linger forever, our noses protect us but also bring us pleasure." Convenience food provides a quick fix of tasty flavours but this is merely short term satisfaction, the memories created by the smells of slow braised meats or baking bread cannot be replaced by convenience foods.
Ross Lewis of Chapter One spoke movingly about the Godmother of the great big Irish cooking family, Myrtle Allen, who died earlier this year. He spoke of her supreme confidence in the produce of her farm, opening a restaurant in 1964 by simply leaving a note on the gate - this was a long time before Instagram. Sourcing meat, veg and dairy from the farm, fish from the local fishermen, and mushrooms from the estate. Surrounded by fellow women chefs, she created vernacular Irish cooking with menus in English (unheard of at the time). Healthy food began with healthy soil, and healthy bodies thrive on healthy food. Feeding her guests like friends, a true hospitality pioneer, she loved food, she loved feeding people and perhaps most of all she loved the land. A Michelin star and dozens of awards followed and she even opened a restaurant in Paris - "Why wouldn’t Parisians want to eat Ireland’s wonderful produce?" In the 1980s she was invited to become a founding member of EuroToques and eventually became President for a time. Two parts Alice waters, one part Nelson Mandela! Lewis (and of course Mrs. Allen) deservedly received a standing ovation, the only one of the day.
The final talk of the day is an unenviable task, but the guys from Silo restaurant in Brighton had us in thrall. "Waste is a failure of imagination," they declared, the second or third time we heard this phrase today, but these guys really do go all out. Their furniture and fittings are all recycled, upcycled and rescued from landfill. Veg arrives in crates which are returned to the farmer, flour sacks are re-used, coffee is delivered by sailboat from the Caribbean, whole animals are used (often retired breeding animals), invasive species such as American crayfish feature on the menu as does Japanese Knotweed (as a starter when young, and slow cooked into a treacle when old). There are sous vide machines but no vacuum packs as they are used to make yoghurt and cheese. Restaurant waste is entirely turned into brown and green compost and given back to nature, and waste glass is ground into powder and fired into pottery for use as serving dishes. Creativity is key - finding solutions to problems and opening the mind to new things such as the time they cooked carrots in the citrus-scented compost (“They tasted like they were possessed by lemons!”). Inspirational.
"There was a lot of talk about potato today," concluded our MC Sasu Laukkonen, but also about our choices. Our choices matter, you can make changes and you can think, but you only have to start thinking outside the box and business or creative ideas can flow and that was the main theme on day one. Use mustard seeds instead of caviar, waste nothing, and perhaps a better world awaits!