Food Citizens: Building Communities through the Kitchen

Mar 16 · 9 min read

Yesterday, I had this big opportunity to share my belief of how the value of cooks extends way beyond kitchen doors.

Through my little time, (five years) of working in the kitchen, I’ve seen and had experiences where food has been the centre of understanding people, economy and places and possess this incredible power to be a non-traditional form of education. This is the journey of how I came to believe that we as cooks can be more than what the world might see.

I’m going to backtrack a bit to where it all started, my final year at my culinary arts program at MAHE. I did some crazy things back in college most people say — mine had less to do with the big boss and deetee (uni watering holes). The real high was completely to do with…

When in doubt, steam some Idli’s (picture source: Wikicommons)

…IDLI’S!

Yes! This simple, cheap widely available breakfast food. I titled my project “The Future of Idli’s” and through interdisciplinary experiments with the biophysics department to test amylose/amylopectin and viscosity and the dental materials lab for compression testing.

It was an exciting time. In my opinion, the experiment failed but what was really the outcome was this exposure to the world of food through the lens of incredible minds and the possibilities to do challenging things.


Last year I stepped out from the kitchen and attended a program to learn more about how to food system worked. It was an exciting year. We travelled to about 12 cities across the world, met and interviewed over 160 people making a change in food system from agriculture to restaurants to education, a colleague and I started Edible Issues, a publication to keep up with the Indian food system and during the last phase worked with a food service company, we got them to put on chef hats, literally and made them realise the value in terms of knowledge of their nearly 900 cooks and chefs across their cafeterias.

This was a year for me looking on the outside; observing, understanding and relating the entire food value chain back to what I knew — cooking.

…and so I thought

What if as cooks our value doesn’t end in the kitchen? What is our role in the entire food system? How does our creativity influence produce before it gets through the kitchen doors?

As part of our research trip, we were looking into circular economy and sustainability.

We observed how food establishments were moving from a take-make-waste linear system into one that used resources optimally through innovation.

We saw companies like Rise and Regrained that were using spent grain (the by-product from brewing beer) to create nutritious bars and flour. We also visited a food waste factory in the Netherlands that collected things like tomato butts and tops from McDonald's to make shelf-stable tomato soups and sauces.

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the circular economy is based on three principles

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use
  • Regenerate natural systems

All of these revolve around resources; As we met people and organizations: we realized something was missing in these diagrams and theories and models.

What was the biggest resource on the planet and where did it fit into this kind of economy?

There are currently an estimated 7bn of us humans on this planet

Where were the people?

Human beings are the largest resource on this earth. Not just for the ability of labour but the special ability that makes us different from the rest — our brains and the power of knowledge and thought.

As humans, we are an integral part of the food system. We grow food to cook food to eat food. We ALL eat food; most of us at least who are privileged to have access to food.

So what is our role as creators and consumers of food? Hey, the 7 billion of us, where do we fit into this economy? Now, of course we weren’t the only ones thinking of this.


The circular humanosphere: Alexandre Lemille

Alexandre Lemille was working on circular economy 2.0 a concept to put people at the core of this system. His main goal was to address the issue of poverty and find ways to design it out of the system by putting the human being at the centre and using their knowledge systems to increase value in technology.

Read more about his work here

#EdibleIssues

Along with poverty, our world is filled with issues. Many are linked with or stem from food-related issues. So what does this mean for us as cooks? We transform food every single day. Do we play a role in addressing these food-related issues?

BUT...

Can we use our knowledge as cooks to address these issues?

Let's talk about the industry in India a little:

The F&B service industry employs nearly 6 million people from direct employment and grows at 10% annually and majority of the people who work in this space have no formal education. And that’s Kamal with a stellar plate of soft shell crabs.

Kamal was an integral part of our kitchen team when I worked at a small restaurant called Red Fork in Bangalore. When he first joined the team he had no prior kitchen experience. Over the years he was able to speak broken English enthusiastically; very sharp at math and was the most curious about where and how we sourced ingredients, always sharing knowledge about agriculture and foods and tastes of his home town and would never let any intern waste a single gram of offcuts.

There this incredible exchange of information and we saw the kitchen eventually become a space to learn languages, math, science in a non-traditional sense.

Coming back to the theory, we start off by first putting the chef in the centre of the economy. Not because we think we are important, but because of the sheer complexity and diversity that our industry includes and the sensitivity of the topic of food.

Chefs rebuilding the plates and the biosphere by sourcing consciously

The first aspect we can think about is the environment. The environment is the space where we draw out all our resources from.

Ingredients: Our profession only exists because of the ability to transform ingredients. Where are we getting them from? Why do we use them? Who makes or grows these products? Can we look for a local alternative?

Understanding our ingredients is the first step to being more conscious about food.

We as chefs are greatly depended on agriculture and by knowing more about farmers their issues and tools that help them have access to markets we can also source efficiently.

For example, one of the main problems farmers have is access to markets. Loop by Digital Green is like an Uber pool for farmers, giving them shared access to a van that helps them get produce to market.

Is it possible for chefs to look out and support innovations like this while sourcing food?

So now our prep is done, our mise-en-place is ready to go, but wait, what are those scraps we are about to throw away?

Chefs adapt, drawing value from waste

A good chef is flexible for innovation and creation. Adaptation of ingredients or recipes to wasteless or create value from wasted ingredients make us the solutions that could change the conversation; not waiting on technology to find a solution instead.

1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted annually, on the field and off our plates and chopping boards.

Instock is a restaurant that primarily functions of food that will be discarded from supermarkets. They take this nearby expired food ferment, pickle, dehydrate and use other techniques to preserve it and use it in their daily kitchen operations. As of today, they have saved nearly 600,000 kgs of food from going waste. They have even now created a system where they share the “waste” or rescued food with other restaurants as well.

Waste is what’s left when imagination fails.

— Gayathri Rathinavelu

The Technosphere

Chefs use their knowledge and skill to improve technology

We are in this age of incredible technology. We’ve seen our role as cooks in the biosphere but how are we taking and giving back in the technosphere?

As human beings naturally we are a resource full of knowledge, education and skill. Food has a long history of evolution and its traditional knowledge is an important one. As creators of food, it is important to harness that information to create a space for innovation through traditions.

When we think of cooks adding value to technology the first one is tech through social media. Instagram has no doubt being a great force in showcasing what chefs do and promoting the local food system like #indianfoodmovement. But let's look beyond.

Bernhoven Hospital is catered by the Hutten group. It’s a great space, doesn’t look or smell like a hospital and serves great food. Their menus are specially designed by chefs to match the changing palate of the patient who is undergoing particular kinds of treatment to create an appetite to eat and healing through food. The role of food as a medicine is clearly seen here. The patients get to take the recipes home and learn through an online channel so that they can continue healing through food outside the hospital.

This economically is able to benefit the hospital and the government as patient stays have reduced and their food waste is bare 2–3% only.

So this is our contribution towards the technosphere, what is it that we should take away from it? Efficiency is really important as a cook. Technology enables efficiency.

Food waste management platforms like leanpath or winnow or LightBlue Consulting, through their technology, help restaurants save money each month, by helping them to be economically sustainable by monitoring and enabling them to waste less food. Or even AI and machine learning driven kitchen intelligence platforms that help chefs to develop recipes through recommendations to match consumers tastes and seasonal ingredients

Development not just of technology but of spaces designed for everyone working at the restaurant to have an accessible space to dine or work at.

Do you think you practice the concepts of food citizenship?

So as cooks we see give and take the relationship between the environment and technology that are redefining our roles in the food system.

We start to follow the concept of a food citizen where we engage and practice food-related behaviours that support, rather than threaten, the development of a democratic, socially and economically just, and environmentally sustainable food system. (Wilkins, 2004)

And not just us as cooks, but behaving in this food citizenship-like way we are creating an environment for these behaviours in our kitchen and with our diners as well.

And if you are thinking, well, I don’t really have a say in what the restaurant thinks, you could be right. There are many spaces that don’t care at all about their staff or the community or the environment.

But that should not stop you from using these tools and concepts to learn, teach others who haven’t had the education that you have and find ways in your own small tasks to be better as a cook. Being a better cook in all forms, by staying updated with the world of food around you and consciously cooking to create better food.

We should always remember that food starts way before it enters the kitchen doors, it takes months to grow and produce- and its lifecycle doesn’t end either when it leaves the kitchen. But us being one of the intermediaries, we have the tools and the potential knowledge to make a change.

Elizabeth Yorke

Written by

When in doubt steam some idli’s

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