Sep 1, 2011

planting thoughts: session 1, saturday a.m., 8/27

early on saturday morning, a storm comes into copenhagen. though it stops after only an hour, by then the field of flowers in central copenhagen where the MAD food camp raised its tents has turned into a sea of mud. off in a corner of the field, the red and blue circus tent that houses the symposium titled "planting thoughts" has partly collapsed. by 9am, the sun and the danish mosquitoes appear. some of the most world's most thoughtful chefs, writers, and thinkers about food, few of whom have appropriate footwear, stand in the mud eating bread, cheese, and danish pastries while workers, heard but unseen, struggle to repair the tent.

it's a difficult start to a symposium designed to be difficult. planting thoughts is about learning to question preconceptions about food and, in the process, going into unfamiliar and uncomfortable waters. david chang commented the night before that "this is unprecedented. nothing like this has happened before." so when rene redzepi gets onto the stage in mud-spattered boots to open the conference, the first thing he does is admit to being nervous: "i had the same feeling in my stomach when i started noma. it's a feeling in your stomach, your skin, your hair, everywhere." the kind of feeling you get when you start down a path and you don't know where exactly it leads but you sense that it may be taking you where you want to go.

when noma opened, denmark was a protestant country where food could never be cuisine. "our protestant culture was about quickly eating boring food in silence. spices were always from out there, from somewhere exotic where the people are brown and the sun shines all the time. but we found them right here under our noses." for them, noma was the start of the cascade of good things that happen when people find each other and realise they care about the same thing in different ways. "delicious food can be made anywhere," they realised, by learning who to work with, what foods are available, when to buy it, and how to cook it. to be constantly questioning is hard and uncomfortable work but because of it, rene pointed out, "the world opens up. everything is possible. and even if it isn't, we have to try."

tor nørretranders (author and philosopher of science)
from wild to tameand back again

nature is diverse, delicious, surprising, healthy. tor nørretranders asks: "why are we so uniform, why is the food so boring, so inefficient?" the answer is that we got stuck in a rut: the food we eat today has deep roots in our history. back in the stone age, climate change made us prefer to get food by farming and taming plants and animals instead of hunting and gathering from the wild. because of that, we've become reliant on a very small number of short-sighted foods that are adapted to agriculture's short turnaround time. over 90% of our calories come from just 30 types of plant crops. the plant parts we eat must all grow and be harvested within a single growing season. they're energy-intensive to grow, not particularly healthy for us, and boring. gastronomy is about making these boring foods seem rich. and we farm these boring, unhealthy, energy-intensive foods with methods that exhaust soil much faster than it can develop. this is why farming has turned historically productive parts of the planet into expanses of wasteland todayplaces like the sahara and much of the middle east. modern farming delays the inevitable degradation of farmland with practices like fertilisation that consume enormous amounts of energy that we'll soon run out of. we need to develop a food system that works on a longer time-scale and reduces the long-term impact of our food production on the environment. one way to do this is by increasing the diversity of the foods we eat: entering a "high-tech stone age" by using modern technology to obtain more foods from the wild and relying less on intensive agriculture.

miles irving (owner of forager; author of the forager handbook)
the wild flavours of england
when miles irving was 6 years old, his grandfather taught him that there were wild foods, "treasures in the woods that were hidden in plain sight because people think of them as peasant food or, worse, just weeds with no value." when he got a little older, he wanted to continue his education  in wild plants. he couldn't find anyone to teach him so he learned to identify and use them on his own, finding a huge number of edible plants with amazing flavours in the english countryside. he and his wife began to collect foraged foods for their friends, then eventually began to supply restaurants. they were surprised, then delighted, by the sense of wonder and awe that discovering wild foods produced in people. they realised that when chefs cook with wild foods, they help make people aware that wild plants can be delicious, interesting, and worth eating. this is crucial: the diversity of wild lands makes them an enormously productivebut currently under-usedsource of food. chefs can help change that. 

daniel patterson (chef at coi, san francisco and plum, oakland) 
a short history of the beet
"ingredients have no meaning by themselves," daniel patterson argues, "you have to give them meaning." the now-cliched beet and goat cheese salad is an example: it dates from 1977, when laura chenel first made a fresh chevre. before then, most people knew beets only from the can. a freshly cooked beet was first a revelation, then emblematic of an approach to cooking good food simply. today, permutations of the same dish appear on menus everywhere. the question for chefs is: how can an ingredient like a beet (that now has a firmly entrenched meaning and set of associations) be used in a way that expresses something personal without losing that kernel of familiarity? understanding history and culture is part of the answer, and a crucial tool for chefs hoping to infuse new meanings and interpretations into familiar ingredients. patterson illustrated this with three beet dishes that coaxed something new and stimulating out of the roast beet: 1) beets roasted in ash before a slow fire for 6 hours, served with lingonberries, sheep sorrel, berry vinegar, and beet juice thickened with reindeer blood (a different way of roasting that produces a startling, unexpectedly sweet and juicy beet); 2) roasted beets on a rose-scented snow with yogurt (a novel pairing of floral and earthy flavours, united by the familiar combinations floral/milky and earthy/milky flavours); 3) roasted beets with a heavy glaze of their own juices thickened with gelatin and agar (the familiar roasted beet flavour/texture combination complemented by an unfamiliar texture reminiscent of a gummi bear). culture and history, patterson shows us, are not only ways to understand what food is, they are what allow chefs to transform ingredients into food.

yoshihiro narisawa (chef at les créations de narisawa, tokyo) 
satoyama and reconstruction after the earthquake
"the whole earth," yoshihiro narisawa says, "is both the source and the inspiration for gastronomy." satoyama (里山) represents an approach that treats the entire landscape as a complex food production system. to understand how this influences a chef in search of new foods, take narisawa's exploration of soil as an example. good vegetables only grow in healthy soil, which is alive with micro-organisms. healthy soil changes through the seasons, and its flavour changes as well. he makes a soup distilled from soil to demonstrate this to the people who eat at his restaurant. the soil soup is a metaphor for developing an inventive cuisine by exploring the relationship between the landscape, flavours, and food. narisawa's satoyama includes not only the wild and cultivated landscape but also the cultural and historical landscape in which he operates. he showed how he built up the flavour combinations and platings of some of his signature dishes from close observation of the natural and cultural landscapes from which their ingredients were gathered. one dish was reindeer, cedar, and a bouillon of oak and cedar, designed to combine the flavours of the japanese alpine forest on the plate. another was a dish called "sumi," which is a piece of rare beef rolled in pitch-black leek ashes to recall the long japanese tradition of producing charcoal for making sumi ink. working from the natural environment involves looking deeply to understand and then accept their complexity. even the massive earthquake in japan a few months ago has many meanings for those who know how to read them: while it created widespread destruction, it also stirred up the ocean, bringing nutrients up from the deep and creating a burst of marine life in the seas around japan today. the complexity and nuance of narisawa's dishes mirror the complex environments which inspire and produce them. chefs lose a powerful source of inspiration if these environments disappear. 

hans herren (president, millennium institute)
food systems of the future
we grow more food per head than we need, hans herren tells us, but we grow the wrong food, in the wrong places, in the wrong way. with existing knowledge, we can feed everyone good, healthy, sustainably produced food without relying exclusively on large-scale, fossil fuel-intensive, industrial agriculture. herren is one of the lead authors of the international assessment of agriculture knowledge, science, and technology for development (IAASTD). this international report emphasises that hunger and food shortages are caused by food waste and ineffective food distribution: the world produces enough food for everyone, yet a billion people today eat too much for their own good while a billion people have not enough to eat. our present system of industrial agriculture is also over-dependent on replacing human labour with machines, pesticides, and fertilizers that consume fossil fuels. this is connected to the rising concentration of humans in urban areas, leaving depopulated rural areas unable to support more sustainable food production practices. future food systems should emphasise rebalancing populations across urban and rural areas and encouraging the small-scale, diverse, local, organic agricultural production that can feed a rapidly growing world population.

other posts about planting thoughts:
planting thoughts: a symposium without dissenting views,
summariessession 2, session 3, session 4

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