Debate carves up our obsession with food

Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver can inspire ordinary folk to eat better, Richard Cornish believes.
Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver can inspire ordinary folk to eat better, Richard Cornish believes. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

There's little doubt Australians are obsessed with all things food; cooking shows are television ratings gold and we'll jump on any food bandwagon that's going, from food trucks to cold-drip coffee - we'll even give activated almonds a go ... Or will we? Just exactly what is it about food that gets us so darn excited? And is the shape of our obsession healthy?

On Wednesday Melbourne Town Hall will play host to what promises to be a spicy debate. The topic: Our food obsession has gone too far. Jane Holroyd speaks to a foodie from each corner in a quest for some early enlightenment.

Gourmet farmer Matthew Evans will speak for the motion

Matthew Evans, of SBS series <i>Gourmet Farmer</i>, will argue our food obsession has taken an unhealthy turn.
Matthew Evans, of SBS series Gourmet Farmer, will argue our food obsession has taken an unhealthy turn. Photo: Supplied

1. Isn't this a tricky proposition to argue for someone who is, clearly, obsessed with food?

Well, yes, I am obsessed. I don't think that my obsession is really that healthy, but as a chef, food writer and food telly presenter, I'm supposed to be obsessed. It's the unhealthy obsession with food that I worry about in the population as a whole – a nation fixated on food, yet plagued with eating disorders.

We'll buy countless recipe books and watch endless food shows and still think we're cooking if we open a jar of simmer sauce to tip on pasta. Being interested in food is far different from our current obsession, where novelty is rated higher than quality, and being new or unusual is feted just for being new, rather than great. How many people who watched the final of MasterChef cooked a meal from scratch (raw ingredients) that night?

Food journalist and Fairfax columnist Richard Cornish will argue there's nothing wrong with being food-obsessed.
Food journalist and Fairfax columnist Richard Cornish will argue there's nothing wrong with being food-obsessed. Photo: Eddie Jim

2. Worst thing about celebrity chefs?

The clue's in the name. It's a vacuous word for a vacuous profile. Good cooks are craftspeople, and I think cooking is a noble pastime, but celebrity is the strange worship of people who happen to be in the public eye, which doesn't make them noble, or ethical, or role models. It just means they're visible, and that doesn't make them or what they say that much more interesting than a good mate, your granny or the farmer who grew your carrots.

3. No. 1 culprit?


I could say Ferran Adria and get into all sorts of hot water.

4. Organic food ... just a fashion statement?

Yes and no. Some use it as a fashion statement, but in reality, if you don't know who has produced your food, a certified organic product is at least answerable to someone. They have to care not just about what goes into the food, but the environment that supports the farm that grows it.

5. Your lightning bolt moment?

Having a $12 cup of coffee in a Sydney restaurant and realising the milk in it wasn't as good as the stuff a mate found in an organic store, after doing 10 minutes of research.

6. What's one thing food lovers should be doing differently?

Don't try to cook restaurant food at home. That's why we have restaurants. Perfect, good home cooking first, then maybe – one day – attempt a restaurant dish.

7. Why should people come to the debate?

Because Wendy Harmer is really funny. And because Fuchsia Dunlop is the English speaking world's expert on Sichuan cookery and one of my greatest food heroes (though you'd have to ask her if she's a celebrity!)

Fairfax writer and food obsessive Richard Cornish will argue against the motion

1. Best thing about celebrity chefs?

They take the pressure off the real celebrities.

2. Who's your favourite, and why?

Bernard King for his lapels, Keith Floyd for making public drunkenness at 7.30pm must see TV and Jamie Oliver. He took an agenda to change the way people eat, put it on the telly, and actually made effective positive change around the Western world.

3. At the end of the day, food is just fuel, isn't it?

Yes. And sex is only for making more babies, right?

4. What will be our next great food obsession in Australia?

Food itself. At the rate we are driving farmers off the land in this country we probably won't be growing anything locally by October 2019.

5. Your view on no-bookings restaurants and the people who queue to get in?

I personally don't queue but respect the rights of those who adopt it as a lifestyle. As long as it doesn't hurt anyone else that's fine.

6. Your lightning bolt moment?

When I applied the axiom that food, water and shelter are essential to life I changed the direction I had in food writing, focusing on exploring growing food and cooking food as essential life skills not decadent distractions.

7. Why come to the debate?

The Melbourne Town Hall filled with people who approach food with their brains wide open, taking part in a debate with some skilled thinkers and speakers who have chosen food as their careers will make one of those Melbourne nights you'll walk away from turning it over in your mind as you walk up to Pellegrini's for a coffee.

Richard Cornish and Matthew Evans are taking part in the Intelligence Squared debate Our Food Obsession Has Gone Too Far, at Melbourne Town Hall on Wednesday March 6. Tickets at They will be joined by the Lake House's Alla Wolf-Tasker; Sichuan food expert and British chef Fuchsia Dunlop; comedian (and former MasterChef contestant) Wendy Harmer; and Katy Barfield, director of food charity SecondBite.