How to Give the Restaurant Industry a Future: Notes from Food on the Edge : New Worlder

The first generation of chefs to have grown up in an era when cooking has become a desirable profession that also requires stepping on stages all over the world to talk equally well about techniques than about policy is looking for ways to create a more sustainable industry. Nowhere was this sentiment more strongly expressed than at the recent Food on the Edge in Galway, Ireland, a conference organized by local Michelin-starred chef JP McMahon. Speakers from all over the world echoed each other plainly: if the restaurant industry wants to survive, it needs to take better care of itself, its resources, and its environment.

The format of the 41 presentations, which each lasted 15 minutes and were labeled as Action, Reaction, and Food Story, encouraged dialogue between presenters and an audience consisting mostly of other industry members. While the relation between those labels and the actual content of the presenters’ talks was at times nebulous, some of the bigger names on stage were also the ones clearest with their mission and the ways in which they have indeed modified their approach to the restaurant business.

The relation between a restaurant and its community was stressed by two of the conference’s most prominent presenters, Ana Roš and Christopher Kostow. Roš’ Hiša Franko is tucked away in a Slovenian valley with no highway or supermarket. The restaurant’s impact on the region has been both economic and social, Roš explained. More than 100 farmers and suppliers have an economically viable venue for their products, which also allow them to not forget or let go of their traditions. And young people, away from everything, can have a vision of what remaining in the valley and work there might mean. The restaurant also directly employs 37 people, up from 12 three years ago.

Kostow’s presentation about his restaurants in the Napa Valley and their relationship to their community took place just about when Ireland was hearing news of the fires engulfing that region. Kostow spoke of the responsibility to one’s community that comes when running a business there, especially when opening a more casual restaurant, like his new Charter Oak, after the success of the three-Michelin-star The Restaurant at Meadowood. Kostow explained that while he and his team saw themselves as advocates for the Napa Valley, diligently sharing the area’s story around the world, the locals saw them as people who had taken the space of a beloved local restaurant, Michael Chiarello’s Tra Vigne. The lack of what he called reputational transference and reputational equity from his work at Meadowood was a gut punch, Kostow said, calling for caution when chefs speak only to groups of like-minded people, like those in the room in Galway, and the need to do better within one’s community. “Have we given them reasons to care?” he posed as a leitmotiv to make sure bridges are built with one’s local audience.

Scandinavian chefs spoke of reducing the number of days their restaurants are open in order to give their staff more work-life balance. Esben Holmoe Bang of Maaemo in Norway now only opens three days a week; his cooks still work the typical 12 to 14 hours a day, but have four days to reenergize. “We need to be sustainable for ourselves and make more sustainable lives for everyone in our restaurants,” Bang said. While he regrettably did not explain how the financial structure behind this business model works, Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Sweden provided an extensive breakdown of the changes he has made at his remote restaurant. “Chefs, including myself, tend to overestimate our importance. In the bigger perspective, the world doesn’t stop if you miss a service,” he said. After a meeting during which none of the staff, not even him, saw themselves still working at Fäviken five years down the road, Nilsson decided to rethink his entire operation. Opening fewer days wasn’t feasible because it would still have mean long hours for the cooks and would have put the restaurant in a potentially precarious financial situation. The key was to increase the number of staff, reduce everyone’s hours, and not make anyone—again, not even him—indispensable. He increased the number of seats at the restaurant from 16 to 24, sopped closing for vacations, and raised the price of the tasting menu from 175 to 300 euros (nobody blinked; the remote location of the restaurant, on an island, makes it a destination for people with disposable income regardless). The 37 staff members now are each scheduled for 40 to 45 hours a week, and can never work more than 50. They each receive five weeks’ vacation that include three weeks in a row in the summer, sick time, and work half of their days 8AM to 5PM, Monday through Thursday, and half their days 1 to 11PM. Friday-Saturday. Nilsson works three nights and two days each week and has cut down on the number of events in which he participates.

“At 33, I have a hobby. I garden,” he said. “When I wake up now, I don’t think about work problems anymore. I think about tomato seeds, manure, I read the paper. And when I’m at the restaurant, I feel like I really really want to be there.”

At a time when abuse and sexual harassment cases against prominent media personalities and chefs are surfacing, acting against bullying and watching for one’s own is becoming a priority in many a chef’s discourse. Anna Haugh, who worked for some of the top chefs in London, told the story of a disabled porter of color who didn’t speak English well and was subjected to bullying every day. She encouraged cooks to “talk about things that are hard” and to not be afraid to say, when hearing harassment or bullying, “That’s not how we speak to each other here.” She added that what she wants to be known for, and what every great chef should be, is to be kind and to be strong.

Kat Kinsman started Chefs with Issues in response to the countless chefs and cooks asking her to go off the record during interviews so that they could talk about their or their staff’s struggles with mental health or addiction issues. “The industry cannot afford to lose more people, to lose its future,” she said, encouraging chefs to talk about their issues and to be aware of what takes place in their establishments, to create a support system.

A number of chefs use the platform their restaurant has offered them to feed people much beyond the confines of a dining room. Jurriaan Momberg, in Holland, worked with volunteer cooks at a refugee camp to set up a professional kitchen capable of feeding thousands a day and take on catering gigs for income. “We can give them shelter but they need to work, we have to give them jobs,” he stated. The project shut down suddenly one day when all of the camp’s refugees were relocated but Momberg decided to turn it into a restaurant, The Syrian Chefs, which will open in 2019. Stemming from a presentation at the first Food on the Edge in 2015 during which he said he wanted to “do something,” Quique Dacosta said he wanted to do more for Action Against Hunger than be the face of its campaign. He went to northern Senegal and taught women how to cook nutritious recipes for their children from within their culture and using their ingredients. Ashley Palmer-Watts, executive chef for the Fat Duck Group, went to Kenya to help a local fish farming community develop added value around its products and replenish its fish stocks. A year later, the community is thriving and the village’s kids are now in school. In East London, near his restaurant Clove Club, Isaac McHale is collecting and studying data to examine the feasibility of opening businesses that respond to the wants of the community but are healthier than the current fried chicken shops. Margot Janse gave up her position as head chef of Le Quartier Français, one of South Africa’s most acclaimed fine dining restaurant, to dedicate herself to Isabelo, the charity organization through which she feeds 1,400 disadvantaged children daily.

Matt Orlando of Amass in Copenhagen has built a social and environmental mission into the restaurant since opening its doors in 2013, ranging from programs for children and growing food for the restaurant in its backyard to recently taking over a soup kitchen. While discussing how his creative process is inspired by trying to reduce to a minimum what goes into landfill, showing a dish featuring the entire spectrum of the pumpkin, for example, he spoke of the importance of changing perceptions by changing labels, asking chefs and diners alike to stop using the term food waste or trash cooking but rather to speak of upcycling. “If we want this way to be the new norm, we need a new language around it,” he said. “They are another product we are cooking with.”

Latin America was represented by Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó in Chile and Kamilla Seidler, the Danish chef who established Claus Meyer’s Gustu in Bolivia. Guzmán took the audience on a virtual foraging tour of Santiago, showing them that even a city can hide edible bounty in its wild spaces, and acknowledging how difficult it can be to master ingredients that are never found in culinary schools. It took him and his team 10 years to learn how to cook a wild vegetable that resembles an asparagus, he explained. Along with the farm he’s had since 2013 and a test kitchen, Guzmán also spoke of Conectaz, the first-ever encyclopedia of Chilean ingredients on which he is working with his team, which will create a lasting record. Seidler, who is leaving the restaurant in the hands of two Bolivian chefs as of next month, explained how the business model of Gustu and its associated cooking school evolved to be as impactful as possible. From the original 30 students that Gustu could train at time, the teaching network has expanded to 10 schools in Bolivia and two in Colombia, with 2,700 alumni.

The importance of diversity to the future of the industry and the need to change the current power dynamics resonated through several presentations but never as convincingly than in the words of activist Saqib Keval, founder of People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, CA and the upcoming Café Zena in Mexico City. “I want to see an equal food system, with more indigenous cooking and labor, and voice given to the base,” he stated. “We have to challenge ourselves to think about the root cause of the issue. Whose labor gets valued, who do you call a stage? We need to challenge the food media to change whose voices are heard. We need to decide what we want the future of our food system to be.”

Events featuring chefs have become a dime a dozen. The ones offering the most introspection, like Food on the Edge, often also reveal a tension among chefs between words and action. The desire to change is large; the economic realities and day-to-day tasks of the restaurant business make that change challenging to achieve. But as many presenters this October showed, the challenges are not so insurmountable as to be impossible to conquer, and action can take on many forms. Whether on one’s rooftop or across the globe, whether dealing with compost or hunger, the willingness to act is the most important thing to put change in motion.