Food helps us to understand our place in this world, therefore education relating to and involving food is crucial, but what form should it take and where are the new nodes of learning?
In this five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for fostering a healthier relationship with food. Here: chef and food activist Arthur Potts Dawson, co-author of the Chefs’ Manifesto.
How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that means just cookery lessons?
Food education delivered in an inspirational and innovative way is vital for the future of the planet and for the future of our food systems. I mentor and work with many chefs who are not looking to learn how to chop a carrot or sharpen a knife, which, of course, are important, but what they really want to hear is about the world of possibilities offered by food marketplaces of Paris, New York and Johannesburg, or diving for scallops in the northern reaches of the Scottish Peninsula and harvesting wild seagrass in Greece. Romance and storytelling are an important part of food education.
For all the places I have worked in around the world over a 35-year career that spans continents, Michelin stars and everything in between, I find the tools that I use when teaching are experiential. My tools are colours, sounds, and stories, like why the slightly flinty, chalky soil on the hillside of a Tuscan vineyard brings a different flavour to a grape. In doing this, I’m not just getting people to taste the grapes, I’m telling them how the mist sits in the valley, which direction the sun rises or how the roots needs to run deep to get the nutrients.
What are you doing or what have you done to change understanding in relation to food?
I’ve been able to show a different path. Many chefs learn their skills from another chef and think it’s the gospel, so they then move on to their own establishment and replicate what they have learned. Over 15 years ago I wanted to think about food in a different way because I knew that the food systems I had been involved with for 20 years were destroying the environment.
For generations, all the rubbish in 90 per cent of restaurants across the world went into one big bag, which then went to landfill. There was food waste and plastic everywhere. The industry was in a terrible state. I looked deeply into the process of getting food on the plate because I realised that everything from the plate backwards was broken. This led me to open my own restaurants in 2006, Acorn House and Water House, both in London, both of which prioritised sustainability and strove for zero waste systems in terms of food and energy.
Acorn House was the first sustainable restaurant to open in the UK. At the time, the restaurant critic Giles Coren wrote that we were the most important restaurant to open in London in 200 years. I didn’t realise what a statement that was back then. My thinking was that we don’t need to be training people in the same way to replicate a broken system.The chefs that were coming through my kitchens needed to understand that everything needs to be reusable. My supply chain needed to be either delivered by bike or by electric vehicles. The problem with the thoughts around the ethics and sustainability of food is that it’s a Pandora’s box: you can’t put the lid back on it once you’ve opened it, whichmeans you have to begin driving even more towards a sustainable and resilient narrative.
With these two restaurants, the economy and the ecology of the food system went hand in hand. The economy of the kitchen that I was taught by Michel and Albert Roux was “turn off the tap, don’t waste energy, and don’t throw anything away”. With my own restaurants, this evolved into the ecology of the kitchen, and it was a lightbulb moment to see that the two are directly linked. You shouldn’t throw food in the bin because it is a waste of both money and energy!
Through that experience and since then, I’ve learned much about sustainability in terms of ethics and resilience and worked closely with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] recognising them as important factors for the future. Most important of all is the recognition that food is a game-changer for the planet: you can use food to feed the planet and you can use it to heal the planet. Both need to work together.
I helped to build and write the Chef’s Manifesto, which is a series of thematic areas simplifying what the sustainable goals are and what they mean for people in the culinary world and help to translate the SDGs as a communicable narrative for busy chefs in the kitchen.
Who would you say you’re trying to reach and teach? And why?
I advocate for the Chef’s Manifesto and also I’m a UN Chef Advocate for the World Food Programme. In the large scope that I’m allowed to have with these two platforms, I teach best practices by way of recognising them in everybody else’s work as well as my own. These two platforms give me a powerful position from which to implement change. There are now thousands of chefs around the world who are working toward this same goal.
I work hard to inspire chefs in order for them to let their customers be inspired to change. Part of understanding how you communicate with a customer is providing a good customer experience. You can’t give a customer a bad experience, and then tell them that they need to change. They have to be inspired; they have to think it’s amazing.
The platform helps chefs who aren’t yet implementing the SDGs but recognise that they need to because it is an important factor in good food. This is why I like talking about the advocacy of sustainability rather than being an ambassador for sustainability. An ambassador tends to stand in one place waving a flag, whereas advocacy is the support mechanism that stretches through thousands of chefs all over the world that can give them tools for change and put delicious food on the plate. The food on the plate is the real storyteller.
Chefs have got this unbelievable capacity, almost a power and responsibility, to say “Hey, I’m challenging the old school food systems through this plate of food. It is the best possible product I can find. It’s the best thing that I could get you to eat to make you a better person
Kitchens are brutal places. The problem with food is that it takes time and there is a level of trying to find the excellence within yourself within that time. There is burnout potential there because you work really hard, perhaps three to four days on a dish, for example, that then you can’t charge the custom three to four hundred pounds for although that is the real cost of how long it took you.
There is a very fine line between excellence, innovation, teaching and good chefs and what comes with dealing with the stress. This is where the abuse comes from – the drinking, the smoking, being tired and under pressure and perhaps living a long way away from the workplace. It can in turn put a lot of pressure on your relationships: you might lose your husband and your kids and so on. There are so many ways the pressure in the kitchen influences chefs’ lifestyles. That had, and has, to change.
A lot of chefs have pulled out of the industry now which means that the level of service and cuisine is dropping. Particularly the top to mid-tier, which used to be really good, has now fallen away because there are not enough chefs. At three Michelin stars and above, there are still people willing to give everything for nothing but learning. Ironically, on the other hand, the restaurant industry would not exist if people were not prepared to do that to some degree.
Where would you like to take your work in this field? What are your goals?
The direction I am going is breaking food down to its final point – in terms of what it does to each one of the cells in your body. I am focusing on the idea that healing comes through the body and that a healthy mindset comes from a healthy diet. There is a perfect diet for every person. Teaching how to personalise and optimise how you eat will improve nutrition as well as lessen the amount of food on your plate because your gut is doing a better job at extracting the nutrients and energy from it.
In a nutshell, the future for me is about healing both the body and the planet through food. It’s about raising awareness and helping people to do that. And if they don’t have time to do it themselves, then making it possible for them to turn to chefs and food outlets to provide these solutions, without everybody needing to be their own doctor.
What is the big-picture perspective in terms of the future of food education and where is it coming from?
It is such a huge, huge subject. I have come to realise that food is a mechanism for change. Firstly, there needs to be an understanding that food is not a commodity. Everybody should have equal access to it. We have to be working on this from a one-planet perspective. If we don’t, all our bodies and the planet will suffer as a result.
The food that we surround ourselves with every day needs to be understood by the next generation. School meals, for example, are not only about individual health education and nourishment, but also vital for the economy of a country. You need a healthy workforce! So there needs to be a much, much stronger focus on food.
Unfortunately, in the UK, food is treated more as an inconvenience than a priority. The British Government really need to be much more involved, but they leave food education and decision-making to the supermarkets, letting them write white papers and dictate policy on how we purchase food globally so that they can make more profit.
The government’s responsibility is to the people. That’s why I opened The People’s Supermarket in London, which is a member-run cooperative supporting British farms. It’s about empowering people to build their own relationships with their supply chains and between urban and rural environments. I just think we need to take the control of food away from those who make money from it.
Arthur Potts Dawson is a chef and food activist. Having trained with the Roux brothers and held multiple executive chef positions at Michelin-starred restaurants across the globe, he’s a UN World Food Program Advocacy Chef, a TED talker, and the author of two food books. He had a prominent role in the writing of The Chef’s Manifesto – an actionable document that aligns with the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and incorporates a global network of thousands of chefs. He also spent four years with IKEA, driving innovation and sustainability across their supply chain and menus internationally. Arthur also conceived and founded the People’s Supermarket, a not-for-profit, cooperative social enterprise food shop that was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary series and is the Head of Sustainability for the tailored nutrition start-up Feed Me Seymour.
Title image © Nicolas Souza