A taste of tomorrow’s meal

I’ve hesitated before posting this response to MadSyd, called, by one prominent journalist ‘Hillsong for foodies.’Funny metaphor, but it was a lot more than that.

At its best it was thought-provoking, at its worst, demeaning and, as I tweeted, banal. So many of the tweets from the house used words like ‘passionate’ and ‘inspiring’

I will attempt to not use them. One of the tweeted statements gives the flavour: “Tomorrow’s meal has to get rid of the divide between the rich and the poor.” Profound. There was a much like this. But in the light of David Chang’s exhortation to ‘call out the bullshit’ that’s what I intend to do.

The theme, which was often lost, was Tomorrow’s Meal. And a galaxy of chefs had been assembled by the Mad organisers Rene Redzepi,rene-redzepi the mastermind behind Mad; David Chang of Momofuku; Kylie Kwong of Billy Kwong; Massimo Bottura of the Osteria Francescana in Modena; with cameo appearances from Neil Perry, Rockpool et al; and Clayton Donovan, a chef without a restaurant at the moment.

Then there were non-chefs: food activist Chodo Givera, researcher Rebecca Huntley and native foods producer Gayle Quarmby.

After a too brief appearance by Clayton Donovan (he later told me he was supposed to have been joined Jock Zonfrillo of Orana in Adelaide), the first extended discussion was between Chang and Redzedi, chaired by Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Pat Nourse.

So I’ll throw the blame for what was little more than an idle chat – but for one throwaway remark – between the two celebrity chefs at Mr Nourse who had, quite obviously, prepared nothing. And the nothing discussion reflected that.

Except that, at the very end, Chang, who up until then had looked like he’d rather be at the dentist said something that, although not defensible (or even sensible) electrified the room, and came back later. Deliciousness, he said, would be impacted upon by sustainability.David-Chang

But overall, it was a piss weak performance. My heart sank. Was that going to be what the afternoon would be like? Thankfully, no.

Next up a wonderfully assured Kylie Kwong, who wove a tale of her Chinese ancestry, cooking, her conversion to the incorporation of native produce into her cuisine. She introduced us to the remarkable Gayle Quarmby, one half, with her husband Mike, of Outback Pride, whose fresh produce is being used in restaurants around the country.

Tomorrow’s Meal? Well, I guess the incorporation of the ancient foods of Australia into the ancient but modernised cuisine of China is a glimpse into a possible future.

Kylie and Gayle were followed by a remarkable young woman, Chido Govera, from Zimbabwe. Orphaned at 10, offered for marriage at 12, she went on to become a mushroom farmer and start a support program for orphans like herself, using mushroom farming. This is a potted version of a story that was – can’t avoid it – inspiring and heart warming..

Tomorrow’s Meal? Food being used to not only alleviate immediate hunger but provide a way out of poverty and enslavement. A variation on give a hungry person a fishing line, only with mushrooms. An important and relevant sidelight of Chido’s story is that the mushrooms are grown using waste.Chido

Continuing down the serious path, was social researcher and author Rebecca Huntley (and thanks for the ticket Rebecca) whose talk touched on the loneliness of aged care homes, and the importance of government policy in putting the future of food at the centre of policy making. Excellent idea, but what hope? For years I and others have fought to keep Sydney farms from falling to real estate development. And every year, governments of all stripes mouth platitudes about the value of Sydney agricultural land and roll out more concrete, more asphalt and more McMansions.

I guess one of the problems of these foodfests for me in particular is that I have been around for so long and have heard these arguments trotted out by ‘passionate’ people so often… and nothing changes. Am I an old cynic or an old realist?

Actually that nothing changes is not quite true. The attitude to native foods looks like it is changing, at last. Or as opposed to an old cynic, am I an old naïf?

I confess to knowing nothing of Massimo Bottura, and if that damns me in the eyes of serious foodies, stiff shit. But I did like what I saw. Bottura is, as you know and I didn’t, Italy’s molecular gastronomer for which he was reviled on television to the point where he couldn’t walk his dog. Whether as an act of retribution or charity, he set up the Refettorio Ambrosiano, which is, as explained on line:

‘Back in 2014 chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, Modena had the idea to contribute to Milan’s Universal Exposition (Expo 2015) with a project that addressed the dual issue of food wastage and hunger in our cities. His concept was to re-interpret the iconic church refectory, where monks once gathered for their meals, and turn it into a dining hall for the city’s neediest but cooking with ingredients from the edible waste generated by Expo.’

This site gives much background: osteriafrancescana.it/food-for-soul.pdf

Bottura also set up a foundation, Food for Soul (foodforsoul.it), a non-profit organization to promote social awareness about food wastage and hunger through a range of projects in collaboration with chefs, artisans, food suppliers, artists, designers and institutions. The more I learn about this chef and his work the more I am ashamed that he passed me by for so long. My excuse only that for that is for 5 years I have been buried in my thesis then my latest book.

Bottura was a mixture of extravagant self-promotion, brilliant creativity for the good of mankind and an exceptional intellect. Having saved an entire spoiled batch of parmesan with a single recipe he asked ‘can a recipe be a social gesture?’ Of course it can. Another of his dicta is ‘cooking is a call to act’ which he uses to gather volunteers for his Refettorio project. Bottura borrowed the title of a book about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s only book Tractatus, entitled  Wittgenstein: Ethics and Aesthetics by B. R. Tilghman) which discusses Wittgenstein’s argument  (I haven’t read it this is a crib)  that only through aesthetics and art can what is truly important in human life be shown. This strikes me as both thought provoking and essentially Italian, the land of the bella figura where aesthetics are so very important.

If only Wittgenstein had been Italian.Massimo1

Tomorrow’s meal? In his war on waste alone and his Refettorio Ambrosiano which created a space which feeds the body and enriches the soul, both by the aesthetics of the site and the generosity of the offering is, even for this old cynic, a wonderful example of what tomorrow’s meal may be like, in a society not divided by 1 per cent filthy rich and 99 per cent struggling.

As you can see I was impressed by Signor Bottura. And also, at the panel discussion at the end by the moderation of Jenny Brockie who had studied the topic and had prepared and thus lead a dialogue which touched on the topics of the day and rounded it off superbly. A real journalist.

Bottura’s “We need more chefs who know about soil and more farmers who know about food” was one important statement from this segment as were the discussions about education, the value of cooking and finally, back to sustainability will be the death of deliciousness. When asked to expand on this, the best Chang could do was offer another little dictum along the lines of hydroponics makes great marijuana but bad food, and talk about the lack of good soil for farming.

Now there’s one chef that needs to get his hands dirty. Just as waste can be used to make good food, as Bottura and Govera both demonstrated, so too can it be used to make good soil. Ever heard of compost David?

I’m posting this some weeks after attending MadSyd. Trying to make sense of the hodge podge of brilliance, mediocrity, courage, silliness, insight and wishful thinking.

And I find I have to look for the meaning of Tomorrow’s Meal through the prism of that elusive, perhaps even mythical bunyip, Australian cuisine.

After all, it was founder René Redzepi’s musing on what was lacking in that cuisine in 2010, and he was specifically talking about native ingredients – ‘…it’s a poor culture if it doesn’t have a true, unique expression that can only be represented right there at the place’ – that led him to return and to open his pop-up Noma and to end his sojourn with MadSyd.

And it was David Chang who said, during that last panel, that Australia could and should be, because of its immigration, one of the greatest food cultures in the world. He also said, and I’m paraphrasing here, if he was an Australian chef, in a country where there was no immediately recognisable cuisine – no distinctly Australian dishes – he would miss having something to rebel against, to play with.

This reminds me of a chef whose food I ate in Spain, one of the disciples of Ferran Adrià, Jose Antonio Campoviejo. The dishes he de-constructs, overturns and has fun with are all dishes he learnt to cook in his mother’s Meal, dishes from the repertoire of Spanish cuisine. When asked why he cooks the way he does, he told me “my mother is such a good cook, I couldn’t possibly compete with her.”

Australian chefs don’t so much play with their mother’s dishes as the dishes of those who came here from afar.

So, we ask, what will this food of Australia be tomorrow when we finally learn to add the food native to the land to the rest of what we use?

In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of his book, Satanic Verses that it:

It is a love-song to our mongrel selves…Perhaps we are all, black, brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once said, like flavours when you cook [my emphasis].

This is a fine definition of what the best Australian chefs are doing. Australian food is, as Rushdie writes of his book, ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’: flavours, ingredients and origins leaking into one another.

Looked at in that way, the best exponent of tomorrow’s meal at MadSyd, in Australia at least, was Kylie Kwong.

CbUHgG6UsAAyymY

Walking together. Eating together.

IMG_1536

“This is a book about Australian food. Not the food that European Australians cooked from ingredients they brought with them, but the unique flora and fauna that nourished the Aboriginal peoples of this land for over 50,000 years. It was to try and understand why European Australians have almost entirely rejected these foods for over 200 years that I wrote this book.”

We celebrate cultural and culinary diversity, yet shun the foods that grew here before white settlers arrived. We love ‘superfoods’ from remote, exotic locations, yet reject those that grow in our own land. We say we revere sustainable local produce, yet ignore Australian native plants and animals that are better for the land than those from Europe.

In this, the most important of his books, John Newton boils down these paradoxes by arguing that we need to eat the foods that will help attune us to this land and, he believes, play a part in reconciling us with its first inhabitants.

Along the way, he documents the devastation visited on the indigenous inhabitants by our forcibly removing them from their food sources and the foods that had nourished them.

Newton also shows how the tide is turning. European Australians are beginning to accept and love the flavours of our own foods, everything from kangaroo to quandongs, from fresh muntries to the latest addition, the magpie goose.

images-1

And working with and learning from indigenous Australians, new and sustainable industries growing these foods are taking root around the country. We must walk together. The two cultures walking together will create something that’s going to find a positive way  ahead.

Newton’s argument for this change is made more persuasive by recipes from chefs such as Peter Gilmore, Maggie Beer, and René Redzepi’s sous chef Beau Clugston who show that cooking and eating the native fruits, meats, herbs and spices that sustained people for millennia is nourishing – and delicious.

This is a food book that will change the way you look at Australia.

imagesimages-1

 

Criticising the restaurant critics.

The press mage used by the late Howard Twelftree, who reviewed as John McGrath - and stayed as anonymous as possible.  A wonderful reviewer

The  image used by the late Howard Twelftree, who reviewed as John McGrath – and stayed  anonymous.

What should we look for in a restaurant critic? Firstly, at the very core of the critic’s response are two questions: what are they trying to do, and how well have they done it? It doesn’t matter whether what is being criticised is a play or a poem, that is the core question.

It means your criticism should be based on the aims of the creative person – in this case the restaurateur and the chef. For a restaurant, it means you don’t use the same criteria for a three hat aspirant as you would for a cosy suburban bistro: in fact, the suburban bistro may outscore the higher reaching place because it achieved what it set out to.

For the restaurant critic there are other imperatives. Give me an idea of what the restaurant feels like. Is it warm? Friendly? Snooty? Casual? Elegant?

I want some context. What is this restaurant with this chef and these owners doing in this place now?

Only then do I want to know about the food. Because the food should tell the same story as the place. Is there a disjunction between what is on the plate and where it is served?

And finally, and perhaps most  importantly, how is it served? Heston Blumenthal, of all people, recently said that he believed service was more important than food. I agree with him.

All  this has to be wrapped up in a writing style that is amusing, informative and authoritative. Amusing is the difficult one. The critic should remember he or she is playing with people’s livelihoods and, without pulling punches, should not sink to the kind of cruel jibes used by the repellent A A Gill. Sure he’s a brilliant writer. But why use your pen as a sword to inflict pain?

Before I move on to a critique of the critics (and this may take place over a couple of posts, too long for one) I should mention that the expert critic may well be an endangered species. My own daughters, both with a keen interest in food and restaurants do not read any of the newspaper or magazine critics. They read online reviews or, more often, blogs. Most of their generation do.

And while I admit there are some  very good blogs, I worry about the unedited, unsupervised, untrammelled nature of them. As a writer, I view editors the way I view dentists: not pleasant but necessary. And here I am writing on my own unedited blog. But that remains my view.

As for the crowd-source sites like Eatability and Yelp, I have nothing but contempt for them.  My experience with Zagat was enough to make me distrust them all.

Zagat works somewhat differently from say, Eatability. Whereas the one prints user comments directly,  Zagat employs what they call ‘surveyors’ of which I was one. You are sent a batch of restaurants with a number of user comments and scores for food, décor, service and cost. You then string the user comments together to build up a review and add the scores.

The problem was the quality and content of the comments often made it impossible to write an even halfway favourable review. But that did not deter my Zagat manager in New York. One example.  I was asked to start a review of a certain restaurant with a comment on the food. But as I wrote to my manager ‘How can  I start a review of  (restaurant) XXX with a comment on the food when the only comment is ‘food average for the price’?

Another time I wrote ‘Sorry,  once again, five reviews, one of them – the longest – seriously negative, I can’t build a meaningful review from that – recommend not including this one.’ I was instructed to: ‘Filter out the negative comments and use the relevant ones.’

I am ashamed to say that I did as I was told – thinking of the money which was pretty good – but determined never to do it again. As it was, Zagat did not come to Sydney for unspecified reasons. If they do, my advise is to ignore them completely. They are dishonest.

I’m not particularly elated at the demise of informed and professional critical dialogue. Restaurant critics have had an enormous influence in educating us — at least those of us in the Anglosphere (America, Australia and the United Kingdom) – to eat better and smarter. In particular, in my native Sydney, Leo Schofield. After one of his pieces, restaurateurs told me they would be inundated with people waving the review and wanting to eat exactly what he ate. And he retired at exactly the right time: when we trusted our own judgement. Thank you Leo.

Rigorous critical dialogue is a positive force for any creative endeavour, as much for gastronomy as for literature, theatre or the visual arts.

The film critic Richard Schickel nailed it when he wrote, in a 2007 response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: ‘Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions…It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.’

But if the latest commentators are right, and the lumpen-cybercrats  are, collectively, taking over the role of the critic, and heeding their peers rather than the professionals, then the days of the critic are numbered.

In my next  post on this site, I’ll provide a review of the reviewers, a critique of the critics. The four I have chosen are: Terry Durack [The Sydney Morning Herald], Larissa Dubecki [The Age], John Lethlean [The Weekend Australian] and Guy Griffin [until its demise the (sydney) magazine