On Food and Connection

David Matchett grew up on a farm in Armagh, Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. He spent the ’80s and ’90s in the thick of the London restaurant scene working with, amongst others, Sketch, then Jamie Oliver, before spending a decade as Head of Policy Development at Borough Market, then Technical Director of the Oxford Food Symposium. David’s work-life path is a personal and professional trajectory of many food-linked experiences. Here he shares his thoughts on food, belonging and identity with The Common Table. 

My story begins in the north of Ireland, where I grew up. I was six years old when the Northern Ireland conflict started in 1969. I lived in the countryside in what was affectionately known as the “murder triangle” around the counties of Armagh and Tyrone in a rural farming community. There was a lot of connection within the community but it was very much a divided society – so I grew up with a sense of division rather than a sense of cohesion, or connection, or any idea that a community, a country and a people can live like that. So I left the country and moved to the city of Belfast in 1981 when the hunger strikes were on. It was a very disturbing time. 

It was very much a divided society – so I grew up with a sense of division rather than a sense of cohesion.

I studied at university; I think probably because that was what you were supposed to do. Meanwhile, I moonlighted in bars, because I loved the lifestyle very much. I came out when I moved to Belfast. I was 18 years old. You still had to be very careful then. Again, there was that sense of hiding, that sense of division, that sense of not feeling or being connected. Yet at the same time, it was a lot safer and a lot better in Belfast. In 1987 I moved over to London. That’s when I started working in hotels and nightclubs – finding my way into a different sort of life and the idea of life being more than just a job.

It was only when I began to work in hospitality that I started to really get involved with food. Now, I had grown up on a farm and therefore had a connection with food and food production, but in the 1970s, I and my siblings would beg to get processed food. All the other kids in school were eating crispy pancakes whilst we had to make do with the chicken that wasn’t laying on a Saturday night. So there is a country boy in my heart who feels very at home when I come back to Ireland – very connected from the land point of view. But from a cultural point of view, it’s a different story.

All the other kids in school were eating crispy pancakes, whilst we had to make do with the chicken that wasn’t laying on a Saturday night.

Twenty years ago, I had an epiphany moment while I was working on the pre-opening team of the now three-Michelin-starred Sketch restaurant in London as the food and beverage manager. One night I was sitting at my desk, costing up a plate of food and realised it was going to have to sell at £200 just to reach the break-even point. I thought: I can’t be doing this anymore; this is not where I come from. So I left.

A few months later I was approached by someone because of this young chef, Jamie Oliver, who had a television programme and then started up a restaurant called Fifteen. The television programme was very successful but the restaurant looked as though it was about to collapse. I felt this restaurant, which was actually set up as a charity, was doing something good, so I decided to give it a go and brought it into operating profit in about three months. I ended up staying there for two years. Looking back, it was the most enjoyable time because everything about it was quite new and nobody really knew if it would work. It was designed as a school for chefs and as a television set as well as a restaurant and was a phenomenal marketing concept that became a global empire for a while. 

What I learnt along the way in all this is that if you are devising a project that is financially driven, you will end up not being able to go anywhere because money is always finite whereas ideas are not. If you follow the idea, the creativity involved means that if you get stuck, you’ll find another way. That creative vision is what I always look out for in people that want to work with me. Because I know that if they are doing it for the money, I can’t afford to work with them. 

There was a fantastic baker at Fifteen who wanted to set up a bakery. I thought it was a great idea. Jamie had the money, and I decided to get involved. The deciding factor was, apart from being able to bring my own financial skills to the table, that I just loved the idea of working in a place that smelled like bread. My grandmother and my mother were of the generation of women in Ireland who made bread daily on a griddle. There was always a smell of fresh bread in the house. It’s the smell of anticipation. It means that there’s lovely food coming that is not yet ready, but it’s there. I also love the consistency of bread, the warmth… there’s just so much that goes along with bread baking.

My grandmother and my mother were of the generation of women in Ireland who made bread daily on a griddle.

There’s a reason that so many people started baking bread during the first COVID-19 lockdowns. It’s not just about comfort, it’s part of the whole issue of food and identity. The act of making your own bread is not like other cooking, it’s not the same as putting together a roast beef dinner, for example.

To me, making a loaf of bread has the same kind of importance as boiling a pot of potatoes. When I am back in Northern Ireland and I go to buy potatoes, I have to make sure that I get the right variety for what I want to do with them. I am often able to tell which variety is being cooked by the aroma coming from the kitchen. 

It is interesting how the Irish are sort of mocked for their potato eating. Through Elisabeth Luard’s book European Peasant Cookery, which I bought in London in 1993, I realised the part of me that had this sense of rural shame (that, as a child, wanted industrialised food to give me a sense of validation) was starting to change. The kind of food I was once ashamed of was now starting to become elevated. Shame plays a very important part in the Irish food identity because being one of those remaining after the Great Hunger((The Irish Potato Famine 1845-52, in which one million people died and Ireland lost a quarter of its population to starvation and emigration.)) meant you had survived.

Shame plays a very important part in the Irish food identity because being one of those remaining after the Great Hunger meant you had survived.

This realisation about food and identity continued to grow in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, when I started working at Borough Market.((Borough Market is one of London’s oldest wholesale and retail food markets dating back to the twelfth century.)) I got involved there when I persuaded them to let the bakery I was working for have a stall to sell their bread. In 2007 the market’s managing director at the time asked if I wanted to consult on a project. I stayed until 2020 and helped turn it from a traditional market into a market to fit the urban setting it is in – by inviting in alternative types of producers etc. I also developed a food policy for them, as they are a charitable trust and wanted to focus more on policy work. 

How do we actually bring about change? This is what I have been exploring over the last few years. The idea of having a food policy for Borough Market was about having more of a voice within the food world. So I felt I needed to find out more about food and communication, which in 2015 was the theme of the Oxford Food Symposium. Why do a Master’s on the subject when you could spend a weekend talking to experts from all over the world about it? I thought. Attending that symposium opened up a quantum space in my head. I found myself overwhelmed, I found myself daunted, but I also found my spiritual home because nothing made sense and everything made sense.

The idea of having a food policy for Borough Market was about having more of a voice within the food world.

The Oxford Food Symposium is a non-profit organisation whose founders first met in 1982 to bring the subject of food into the academic realm. Meals and feasts are devised pertaining to the annual topic and I’ve been lucky enough to help with the Sunday lunch for a number of years: a sonic urban landscape and a meal focusing on women producers. The Symposium is a place where cookery writers and researchers – including leading academics and independent scholars – and others involved with food from all over the world submit and can then discuss the papers relating to food together. Its goal is to “change the conversation around food, expand the table and improve the plate”, through debate and the annual publication of the symposium proceedings. 

At the 2019 Symposium entitled Food and Power, I got my first chance to host my own discussion. I brought a conversation to the table about the idea of a food policy, as a discussion point by asking: Is it valid for an organisation that’s not a government or a political organisation to have a food policy? The resulting conversation became a really important part of that weekend. One of the reasons that weekend also became really important for me goes back to that little kid in my heart (who grew up in a place based on disassociation and not connecting) suddenly finding himself in an environment where everybody was coming together and getting involved in a conversation for which I was the actual conduit. It led to the Symposium asking me if I’d like to become a trustee, which I did, and for the last few years, I have been working on bringing the OFS online.

That little kid in my heart suddenly found himself in an environment where everybody was coming together and getting involved in the conversation.

Family circumstances brought me back to my former home in County Armagh for the summer months of 2021. It became a time of reflection and personal reconciliation. How do you bring a country like Northern Ireland, which has an identity that is associated with hatred, war, terrorism and fighting, into a different context? How do you bring it into a different conversation? The time I spent there helped me realise that, yes, I am of that place, but I have a different way of looking at it now. It also helped me to realise that a way needs to be found for people to be able to honour the place that it both was and is.

One of the things that I find when I’ve been speaking to people in Ireland is they’re fed up with ex-pats, or, as I would say, returning migrant workers (like me) coming in and telling them what to do when they actually haven’t a clue because they have forgotten where they came from. And this is what I think about with identity and food and initiating change. On one hand, it’s about bringing the experience to open it all up and then seeing where you can actually go, and on the other, it’s about finding out and respecting how people do things differently in different places. What would be right for Ireland would not be right for Guatemala; what would be right for London, would not be right for Berlin; but still, there are learnings that can be shared. I’m not saying that they’re universal truths. But there are definitely common experiences where people are concerned.

The vast majority of farms in the north of Ireland are between 40 and 60 acres [16-24 hectares] in size. These farms are still able to make a living and are capable of contributing to an economy by producing good food, but the level of distrust in collaboration and working together is still high in the region. A process to begin change could be to move away from nationalist identity politics towards a regional identity that has more to do with the land, good husbandry of it and the production of food.

I was looking at a study of sectarianism in Northern Ireland recently, and it was difficult reading because, despite definite change and definite hope, there’s still a long way to go. There was only one mention of food in the whole paper. And the word “table” didn’t appear once. Is it still the case there that you would not think of inviting your neighbour, who is a Catholic, or a Protestant, or whatever, across the sectarian divide for a bite of dinner? This to me is the biggest weakness and the biggest strength; it’s an easy action to effect.

We need to find the best common denominator and perhaps the best common denominator is food.

There are of course cross-community initiatives, but why not just sit across a table? It’s just a table. This is what we need. We need to have a table to invite people to. We need to find the best common denominator and perhaps that best common denominator is food – paired with the openness of talking about it across a table. One of the most interesting things I find about any group of people is the universal openness that comes with talking about food. 

And now, after all this time, I’ve come to realise that my purpose in all this is through the process. It’s through the process that I engage and this helps me feel part of rather than apart from. Perhaps the process will bring about an outcome. Perhaps I may not always know what the outcome is but ultimately what it leads to is a feeling of belonging through connecting, and, for me, food is the catalyst to that connection.

David Matchett is the Technical Director of the Oxford Food Symposium where he also hosts the Kitchen Table talk series.

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