Chefs and foodies set out to change the world in Ben Shewry's WAW festival of ideas

Jill Dupleix
Obsession: Inaki Aizpitarte's talk took the cake.
Obsession: Inaki Aizpitarte's talk took the cake. Photo: Supplied

It was a day of talks about connecting  - people to place, people to food, people to people - designed to be an intimate gathering of ethically minded chefs and like-mindeds to discuss what it is to be a chef, and to debate the power of chefs to effect change in the food world.

The inaugural WAW [What a Wonderful World] gathering, engineered by Attica chef Ben Shewry last weekend, saw a variety of chefs, writers and activists give short, sharp 10-minute talks on everything from forging knives (and that by an 11-year-old), to finding your inner creative spirit.

A keen 300-strong audience of chefs,  media and groupies gathered in a theatrical space in a laneway in leafy Gardenvale, the rafters hung with blush-pink, crab-apple blossom – prunings from Melbourne's eco-florist Joost Bakker's Monbulk trees. A pensive David Thompson of Bangkok's Nahm restaurant opened proceedings, musing on the growth of "eco-Buddhism" in his Thai kitchen, and "the importance of a collegiate, consensual, considerate approach" to cooking. "As you get older," he said, "you realise these things are more important than yourself."

A frank and funny Chris Ying, editor of cult American food magazine Lucky Peach, proposed that chefs could turn the act of eating at a restaurant into a GOOD thing for the environment, rather than a bad thing. "I'm not the guy who does the things," he said. "I'm the guy who talks about the guys who do the things." But still, he said, he shares the feeling that we all need to do more than we are doing, and that a general dissatisfaction and disappointment with life is not such a bad thing. "If we were all a little unhappier with what we do, the world would be a better place."

New Zealand chef Michael Meredith gave the secular equivalent of a sermon on the subject of giving, turning the morning session in to an "Eat. Love. Pray." session. Sommelier Banjo Harris Plane got things back on track, doing a great service for sommeliers everywhere, by talking about "hooch", "piss" and other fermented beverages as "stimulants for the mind", and the changes to our drinking culture as being positive rather than negative.

Inaki Aizpitarte of Chateaubriand in Paris spoke of his obsession with cooking that goes back to its origins; in particular, his fascination with a Portuguese cake called tocino de cielo, made of egg yolks and sugar. He didn't tell us what to do with all the left-over egg whites, however.

The tall, ascetic Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi told chefs to "stay off the f---ing internet". It's very distracting, he explained. "You see how every other chef plates the food, but you don't see what has happened long before that."

He, too, laboured the point that it is important to cook with love in your heart, "then everything is possible".

Author Bruce Pascoe overturned the "convenient lie" that all Australian Aboriginals were nomadic hunter-gatherers and not husbanders of soil, with his stories of the cultivated terraces and supple, rich soil around Port Phillip Bay encountered by early explorers. He spoke of his dream of bringing back the murnong (microseris lanceolata), the yam daisy that had great benefits for land and people alike, and whose edible tubers were a key food for the local tribes. "We need to learn the love of that plant and help it grow again," he said.

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For Peter Gilmore of Sydney's Quay, life as a chef is a search for meaning. "What changed for me was when I started to grow my own food," he said.

Shewry described many of the "7 million seconds" that occurred between deciding to stage WAW, and actually producing it, listing just some of the trials along the way. "I cried at the staff meeting in front of 33 of my staff - at times, uncontrollably," he said. "But nothing good ever comes easily, and nothing easy ever lasts."

Bakker spoke eloquently of the good mental and dental health of native people who lived on pastured, rather than grain-fed beef, stoneground grains and fermented foods; and the need to send our organic waste back to enrich the soil in which we grow our food.  Food truck pioneer and son of the mean streets of Los Angeles, Roy Choi (referred to by co-host Pat Nourse as "wearing a lot of hats, many of them backwards"), spoke of the need to be a dreamer, both idealistic and childish.

"All my life people have called me childish, even when I was a child," he said.

His most recent "idealistic, childish" business venture, to open in San Francisco late this year, is with fellow WAW speaker Patterson, called Loco'l. Basically, it's a fast food chain that challenges the business model of cheap, industrialised, high-profit junk food, attempting to build nutrient density and goodness into the familiar 99¢ burger/fried chicken/taco menu. "I have a great belief in the power of chefs to change things for the better," he said.

Just when WAW was starting to look like it stood for "Where Are the Women?", along came potter Kris Coad, who formed beautiful vessels from clay on stage; Bo Songvisava from Bo.Lan in Bangkok, with her inspirational girl-power journey to becoming a chef; and Paulette Whitney, a small-scale farmer in Tasmania, who presented a compelling case for eating local. "The grains, the honey, everything that grows where you are," she said, "is what is best for you." Then up popped a very composed 11-year-old, Leila Haddad, to describe how she forges steel into long-lasting chef's knives in the family company Tharwa Valley Forge, just south of Canberra.

By the end of her session, we were all thinking the same thing: vote Leila, for prime minister. And Ben Shewry, for Minister for Food.