For our five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for a healthier relationship with food. Here: chef turned food researcher Elizabeth Yorke, who is fostering curiosity and conversation about the Indian food system.
The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline to someone who might think that means just cookery lessons?
Elizabeth Yorke: I’m a cook by profession. I worked in hotel and restaurant kitchens for six years before I decided to explore what food was outside of the kitchen space. I then had various opportunities from attending events like the MAD Symposium and the Oxford Food Symposium to internships with bread historians and visiting other countries, like Mexico. Through that journey, I began to see food as a medium through which to talk about everything else as well as to talk about other very different or difficult things. For example, when I was cooking in Mexico, there was a terrible earthquake and then food was used as a place to communicate or to comfort.
I never did very well in school because I couldn’t quite grasp things like science and maths, but at culinary school, learning chemical equations began to make sense. So food and education can range from small things like that to larger, more systemic issues. Back home in India, through sharing food and eating someone else’s food, you can bring up conversations about issues like the caste system, women in the kitchen or the politics of food. So in that way, food can either facilitate larger conversations about difficult things or can help us to learn about something that we didn’t know we could relate to.
Working in a kitchen space as a chef, the biggest thing I learned was what it means to use food as a tool to educate people within the kitchen space. In our kitchen, we had people who had maybe left school in eighth grade or ninth grade and cooking was their first job. There are so many interesting learning opportunities in a kitchen. We needed to do maths, because we had to multiply ingredients for recipes, or we had to write ingredient lists in English. So we used to do writing practice occasionally with our staff. It was a small team, so it was so easy to facilitate learning new words.
But this was not just a one-way educational experience. In the kitchen, and elsewhere, everyone brings their own knowledge – traditional knowledge exists within everybody. When we talked about things like sustainability and using ingredients, it was this kitchen community that said, “We used to farm rice, this is what we used to do with it.” Or, “When my mom used to make tomato chutney she used to do this with the peel: we should dry it and add it to this.” There was so much traditional knowledge that was there waiting to be tapped into.
What happened when we set up our waste segregation systems and trained our team to use them was even more exciting. We had people coming in from culinary schools to intern with us and our team would draw me to one side and say: “Look, he’s in culinary school and very well educated but still, he doesn’t know where to throw the garbage”.
In these ways, our kitchen became a learning space – a space to show people that they’re not just there to cook, but they are valued at a very different level. So education can mean so many things in so many spaces.
The Common Table: What are you doing or have you done to change understanding related to food?
Elizabeth Yorke: Well apart from learning to approach the kitchen as a life skills education and learning exchange space, I founded and run a space called Saving Grains here in Bangalore where we upcycle brewers’ spent grain. Last year it was around 1000 kilogrammes. I am also the co-founder of Edible Issues, a collective fostering thought and conversation on the Indian Food System. We are building micro-upcycling kitchen units to set up in community centres, in order to use upcycling food as a tool for education or to learn or share knowledge. We have our first prototype kitchen running and hope to scale up to maybe two other kitchens this year or early next year.
Our space has an oven. Ovens are a novelty for many here. Last year, we had one cooking event where we had about 20 people around the table learning to bake cheese biscuits because somebody said “I don’t know how to bake cheese biscuits. Can you teach me?” So we said, okay, we’ll make cheese biscuits. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds because in Bangalore there is a lot of migration on various levels. So we had people with five different languages and dialects around that table, talking and helping each other in English and Hindi and in Kannada. Helping each other to learn what we mean by shortening the flour. As well as sharing knowledge again: ”Oh, this is similar to how I knead my samosa dough.”
The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?
Elizabeth Yorke: I think everyone has the right to know about their food, to be educated, to have the tools to make choices and decisions and to be able to access food in this way, where it’s not just seen as a resource or sustenance. But unfortunately, our world is not made that way. For us, whether with Saving Grains or Edible Issues, it’s about trying to tap into people who are curious, and having them then share with their community, in order to have that trickle-down effect.
With the waste segregation example that I gave you earlier, our kitchen boys then went on to tell us they were now segregating their garbage at home. For me, that was a very powerful moment. Our small kitchen had a staff of 15. If they, in turn, educated their families, then we are able to educate even more people, and it spirals off from there. It all starts with people who are curious to build out their tools so that they can empower themselves. They then in turn empower others to learn about food or to use food in an educational sense.
The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
I think something that really excites us is to be able to lay the groundwork for people to be empowered to do this work on their own. Edible Issues as a collective looks to be able to build out tools for people to then go out there and have an impact in their own communities in different ways. And, I think that that for us is a great way to share the tools as well as the power of food and education and knowledge with others.
The focus for me and Anusha Murthy, my partner at Edible Issues, has definitely been on building an ecosystem in India at the moment. But the international connections are growing. While Anousha and I were at the Food Innovation Programme Future Food Institute in Berlin recently, there was a lot of talk about innovation regarding leaf plates. Anusha and I just looked at each other because this has been around in India for years.
This got us thinking about what it means for people back home when ideas like this trickle down. What’s going to change? What’s going to shift? How is power going to change in different ways? Is this going to change anything on a ground level? And who’s going to have the bigger power when it comes to decision-making?
It also set us thinking about how we also share with our team and share with the world, these innovations that already exist on the ground in many places. How can we share such practices that can be an inspiration to build more and build better?
The Common Table: What changes would you say need to happen in our understanding of our relationship with food, and therefore education related to food?
Elizabeth Yorke: I think, at least from our context, we tend to get trapped in our so-called traditions. The idea that something is traditional, and therefore is the only way to do things. As the food system changes, our understanding of it should also evolve and change as well.
As an example, we have a plant-based movement that’s happening now which I find a little ironic considering our food and our cuisine generally across India is largely plant-based or vegetarian already. But plant-based as a word and a term completely changes what it means in order to understand food in this way.
As these things progress, our curiosities need to keep evolving. Every day we’re learning something new and we’re having to reframe our thoughts and perceptions. I think that’s also the biggest challenge.
I think what we have done to change our understanding, at least through Edible Issues, is to try to stay involved and try to be curious, not from the position of being experts but in terms of developing and building a mindset: that we’ll never be experts in the food space but that we’re all learning together.
We need a more democratised way of engaging with food. Generally in our educational systems, there is some interest in looking at food in the ways I have described, but it’s in very rare spaces, maybe just some elite schools. Government schools are mandated in some states of India to have gardens and small plots where they can test out some kinds of farming and things like that but it’s not very streamlined and there’s not enough information to work towards. I think that gives greater opportunity to learn or build certain systems or ideas and the food space is especially good for that.
I think there also needs to be more spaces for food professionals to educate themselves, or spaces where they can go to learn. I’ve noticed, in India at least, that over the last two, or three years an increasing number of chefs are getting put on pedestals as experts: in sustainability, in history, or whatever. And I’ve seen their frustration there when I ask them, “Where are you going to learn more about where things happen? How are you keeping up because it’s a continuous process, there are new things happening every day?” And they’re finding it really hard to do so. So whether it’s chef residency programmes or spaces for bringing together food professionals so that they are being informed, we need to build better spaces for curiosity and learning.
Elizabeth Yorke is a chef turned food researcher on food innovation and the circular economy, as well as a writer and advocate for sustainable food systems. She’s co-founder of Edible Issues, a collective fostering thought and conversation about the Indian food system, and the founder of Saving Grains, an upcycling food initiative inspired by the historically circular relationship between brewers and bakers.
Image source: Serendipity Arts Food Lab 2021