Food On The Edge (FOTE) is now in its fifth year, and 2019’s theme was migration.  Over 600 people attended the two day food symposium which saw more than 50 speakers take to the stage to share their stories.  There were also workshops and of course innumerable conversations.

Suffice it to say that this piece can offer only a flavour of what has become a remarkable event that is often both inspiring and moving as well as a call to action.

The ‘migration’ theme allowed for dozens of issues to be raised from globalisation to local sourcing, from feeding our children to feeding the world, from social responsibility to political action to personal responsibility.

Day One

The event opened with Shinobu Namae (L’Effervescence, Tokyo) who spoke of the modern and historic influences on Japanese food, and was similarly followed by Darina Allen and Rachel Allen on the importance of looking to the past for knowledge – ‘”Teaching basic cooking skills and educating our children in both the joy and importance of nourishing themselves through food” should be a national priority.  Following on from this theme, everyone present signed letters urging the Irish Government to make food education a part of the national curriculum.

Pic: Declan Monaghan.

Ireland’s food culture was spotlighted as I found myself comparing it to that of a dozen other countries through the speakers.  Given how many chefs are working in a country they were not born in, the overall theme of migration also again came into focus throughout the day with inspirational and sometimes unnerving stories such as the chef that made his way to the UK from Albania under a lorry, to the inspiring story of Selassie Atadika’s New African Cuisine and her journey from Ghana to the US, reminding us of the diversity of Africa’s cuisines.

Fish was the next major theme tackled: from the sustainability of the seafood industry, to using less common species, to learning how to talk to your fishmonger.  Josh Niland, the ‘fish butcher’ (Saint Peter Restaurant, Australia), uses 91% of the entire fish and has explored using fish eyes and fish sperm as ingredients in his dishes.

Equally inspiring was Denis Lovatel of Pizzeria Da Ezio telling us how to change the world through perhaps that most global of foods, pizza.  Changing society through gastronomy (Blanca del Noval), looking to the past and family histories (Derry Clarke, Graham Neville) and the noble aim of building a better future by changing food culture (spoken of by almost everyone) left everyone on a high after day one.

Day Two

Day two began with Ben Shewry of Attica Restaurant in Melbourne on work life balance and most inspiringly on Australia’s native foods and people, neither of which are given the respect they deserve.  “Food can be the thing that changes the mainstream… we need to celebrate the differences in food culture,” said Shewry.

Chef Liam Tomlin spoke of his community cookery schools in poor communities in South Africa and the benefits of allowing chefs to migrate and gain experience abroad.  He called on the chefs in the room to make such swaps happen.

Chef Paul Carroll’s talk was entitled ‘From Tallaght to the Tsars’ as he spoke about his path from the Clarence Hotel in Dublin to Royal Hospital Road in London to the Caribbean, to foraging and cooking for his restaurant Polly in Vladimir, Russia.

Pic: Declan Monaghan.

Dan Giusti, founder of Brigaid, spoke of tackling the quality issues in school cooking (he serves almost a million kids every day) – meeting the $1 per student budget while cooking nutritious food.  Of course the kids hated his squash and coconut milk soup – “What was I thinking!?”. After a year of trying to force his culinary ideas on the kids he stepped back, parked his ego, and began to listen to what the kids actually wanted to eat such as pizza (but of course from homemade dough and fresh sauce).

Brian McGinn of Netflix’s Chef’s Table told stories of his hugely successful show, how he ripped up the ‘food television’ rulebook and followed his core values – he moved from Michelin Star chefs to Buddhist Monks and then he realised they had become a parody, so is now focusing on gender balance, cultural histories and street food.

Chef Dalad Kambhu of Kin Dee Restaurant Berlin spoke moving there from the West Village in New York – she begged Chefs (and restaurant critics!) to ditch the loaded word ‘authenticity’.  Why won’t people pay more for Thai food, why is our food simplified and relegated to street food when a proper Thai green curry should take hours to cook? Local ingredients are key to all good cooking so she stopped worrying about Berliners’ idea of ‘authenticity’ – “No it is not relevant that you spent a week in Phuket!”

Ivan Brehm from Restaurant Nouri in Singapore spoke about crossroads cooking, pathways of food, exploring the connections between foods and exploring the global story of human connection, further exploding the myth of ‘authenticity’ given the multilayered multicultural origin of many so-called authentic foods. Brehm gave two of the best quotes of the day: “Cultural appropriation is ok if done with respect and rigour”, and “Support bacteria, they’re the only culture some people have!”

Proof FOTE does have an impact on people – criticism of of young chefs taking over kitchens before they are qualified (due to the chef shortage) was heard by chef Adam Kavanagh – they could be talking about him, he realised.  So Kavanagh resolved to learn more and migrated to Helsinki where he ended up working with the man that made the accusation, Finnish Sasu Laukkonen of Ora restaurant.

When Romy Gill (MBE) opened her restaurant in Thornbury she was the only female Indian chef-patron in the UK.  Originally from West Bengal she spoke of her journey to independence (out of an abusive arranged marriage) and finding her own voice through food.  In more migration stories, Chef Rosio Sanchez told of moving from the southside of Chicago to New York to Noma and now runs the inspirational Mexican restaurant Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen.

JP McMahon uses no spice or imported fruits such as avocados and wondered should he reconsider given that nutmeg has been used in Irish cooking for over 1000 years. Nicolai Norregaard of Kadeau and Bo Bech of Geist in Copenhagen spoke about the Nordic food movement but refused to predict the future, although Nicolai did suggest that “In five years we should not be talking about sustainability, it should already be part of everything… the next generation is so much more alert to climate change than us and it will be natural to them to just fix things”.

The last speaker, Alberto Landgraf of Oteque in Rio de Janeiro, focused on the future of migration and he began with a couple of questions: “Would you go back?  Has migration not made the world a better place?” Not everyone moved by choice, would we take the chance to go back to where our ancestors began?

The future of migration is not about exploring new planets, it’s about fellow feeling, about what makes us feel at home, it’s about people and making those people feel at home.  History is a record of migration, and the future of migration is not written yet. Be nice, vote, trade fairly, look to diversity, look to your staff, the environment and cook – the world is listening, it is up to us.

JP concluded the day with a map of the world before the continents separated, showing how the world was once just one big landmass – Ireland was not originally an island.  Maps show how things change, how migration changes places and people. The Irish went everywhere, there are 15m Irish passports out there, let’s pay attention, let’s speak up and “Have the courage to be disliked” – referencing the book of the same name.

Charmingly, JP gave the last word to the next generation – his two daughters Martha and Heather, whose favourite foods are Bolognese and dough balls – neither is keen on oysters but JP is working on it…  Until next year!

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