Late nights, hot kitchens, the pressure of cooking innovative dishes at consistently high standards. It's not often that top chefs get a chance to step back from the burners and reflect on what they do. Which is why the recent spate of chef-driven forums presents a tantalising opportunity to see what's really on their minds. Whether it's The MAD Symposium at Noma in Copenhagen, masterclasses at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Ben Shewry's recent WAW Gathering in Melbourne or events around the country at Fairfax Good Food Month, chefs are increasingly sharing their knowledge and ideas with each other and us, the dining public. So, without further ado, here (in no particular order) are some top international and Australian food thinkers and their big ideas for the future of food.
Joost Bakker, artist
The idea: futuristic urban orchards
Particularly known for his innovative ideas around food waste Joost Bakker's zero waste closed loop system was recently adopted by Rene Redzepi's Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. Bakker has a grand vision for the future of food. He predicts that in five years up to 20 per cent of our food will be grown in cities and urban areas, driven by high youth unemployment, social and commercial demand and new media sources showing us how to grow food on empty blocks, rooftops and urban back yards. He sees a future where councils reward property owners with reduced rates if they use their rooftops for food production, further driving investment in new technologies, such as machines that harvest urine and faeces, which will be turned into safe, rich fertilisers. "By 2030 a third of the population will be either growing or involved in the distribution of urban grown foods," says Bakker, adding that constant discoveries of links between cancers, heart disease, mental health problems and many other modern diseases and "dead food" (food grown in poor soils without proper nutrition) will power this shift. "Health will be the new wealth. A trend that will become a lifestyle that by 2030 will be mainstream."
Yotam Ottolenghi, bestselling author and London chef
The idea: black garlic and the death of cupcakes
He owns three London cafes and a restaurant but Yotam Ottolenghi is best known for his books – bestsellers including Ottolenghi, the Cookbook, Plenty and the latest, Plenty More. The Israeli-born chef makes several predictions about how we will eat in coming years, starting with black garlic. "It's a totally different thing to white garlic. The cloves are jelly-like in texture and taste almost like a balsamic-liquorice all-sort – and we are all going to be working out new and wonderful ways to get thin slivers into our dishes or blitzing it up to make sauces, marinades and dressings." Look out for tamarind pulp, which he thinks people will increasingly try to source to make their own pastes, and variations in dried chillies. "Urfa, ancho and chipotle are some of my favourites but I'm looking forward to knowing more myself in the years ahead." Also, specialty ingredients such as good quality tahini will move into mainstream supermarkets, which are feeling the pressure of online shopping; pop-up restaurants are likely to set up more permanent digs, while more fancy restaurants will look to open informal sister venues. "The popularity of [London] places like Dishoom, Leon, Comptoir Libanais and so forth shows the market for this space in between a formal restaurant and a street-standing stall." Finally, Ottolenghi says interest in ancient grains such as "emmer, spelt, einkorn, amaranth, quinoa, freekeh, teff, sorghum, millet" will continue while cupcakes continue their decline. "Sugar stays public enemy number one and the debate on fat will continue to fought on both sides," he predicts.
Roy Choi, founder of the food truck movement
The idea: nutritious fast food for inner city poor
Known to friends as Papi, this Korean-American chef lives in Los Angeles. His Korean taco truck business Kogi was among the first real success stories of the food truck movement and he now runs two permanent venues as well: informal bar-restaurant A-Frame and tropical "cookshop" Sunny Spot. Choi is concerned about the diets of people he says have become marginalised and "brainwashed" into accepting trashy, sugar and chemical-filled food by powerful corporate interests. "It's like there's all this wonderful food but we do everything to make it impossible for those that can't afford it to ever experience it," says Choi. "We can't continue to gawk at food and have privileges while others are eating things many in the food world sardonically scoff at." The next five years, he says, are crucial and chefs must lead the way in making good, nutritious food available for all. For his part, he and fellow-Californian chef Daniel Patterson have started their own fast food company called Loco'l. "Sometimes massive problems are best solved by just starting with the things you can do locally. We are going to start by making a fast food store and cooking delicious food that is affordable and relates culturally."
Daniel Patterson, San Francisco chef
The idea: chefs become change makers, not celebrities
Daniel Patterson is known for his French-influenced cooking and reputation for foraging local ingredients. His North Beach district San Francisco restaurant Coi boasts two Michelin stars and he presides over three others: Alta CA, Haven and Plum Bar and Restaurant. "The biggest problem in food is that we don't produce enough of it to feed a growing global population. My question is: how can chefs participate in those solutions? How can we be leaders in terms of how our cultures eat and cook? All over the world, there is a growing trend of well-known chefs moving beyond passive celebrity towards active participation in larger cultural and environmental concerns." Patterson points to examples including Brazilian chef Alex Atala at ATA institute (using native products and supporting indigenous populations); Rene Redzepi, founder of MAD and Nordic Food Lab (new ideas around edibility of native plants and insects) and New York chef Dan Barber, developing new strains of wheat (combining flavour and productivity). Then there's Patterson's own Loco'l project with Roy Choi. "We hope to change how people eat in the US by going after the biggest, and most unhealthy market, and doing it better."
David Thompson, runs Asia's best restaurant
The idea: eat less meat
Known for his inventive Thai flavours in Bangkok, David Thompson runs Nahm, named Asia's best restaurant in this year's S.Pellegrino Asia's 50 Best Restaurants Awards. "It's only in the last 60 or 70 years that you've had this distortion of protein," says the Bangkok-based Australian-born chef. "Now it's coming back to where it ought to be and it's coming back not because we're compelled to because of our economic situation but because of a sense of responsibility, accountability and proper use of resources." Thompson believes meat won't disappear from Western menus altogether but we will see it used in a more thoughtful, "considered" way. Currently, 60 per cent of Thompson's own cooking involves vegetables, which are traditionally favoured by Thai cuisine.
Luc Dubanchet, founder of Omnivore
The idea: extreme localism
A decade ago French food critic Luc Dubanchet founded Omnivore, a series of cooking masterclasses with top chefs from around the world held in Paris. This month, Omnivore comes to Australia with events held as part of Fairfax Good Food Month. Over the past 20 years Dubanchet has noticed the homogenisation of food in France. Advances in technology and freight have led to dishes such as lobster, for example, ending up on plates no where near they were caught. In the past five years, however, Dubanchet has noticed young chefs returning to their roots and opting to cook with ingredients sourced locally. He imagines one day they will be sourcing ingredients from within a 20-kilometre radius. "Of course, this changes a lot of things because now they have to cook with something that is really unique and not shared by thousands of chefs in the country. This is new."
Mike Eggert, chef at Pin Bone in Sydney
The idea: Pay farmers a wage to protect local food security and diversity
Mike Eggert has worked with Billy Kwong and runs Sydney restaurant Pin Bone with Jemma Whiteman but before that he trained as an environmental ecologist. He's worried that the pursuit by Australian farmers of lucrative, large-scale export crops will lead to the decline of small to mid-size farms. Consequently, he fears there will be fewer and less-diverse locally grown ingredients available to chefs. "There's already a shortage of farmers in this next generation so I think our biggest concern is to maintain the quality of produce that we've been so lucky to have in Australia and support our farmers and give them money." One idea, says Eggert, could be to treat farmers like "bus drivers" operating state-owned farms. These farmers would draw a wage, freeing them from environmental and climate risks and ensuring certain crops remain available for local consumption. "People who wanted to move out to the country and have a treechange could grow for a living and not have the threat of drought or flood or fire because their income is covered by the government."
Ben Shewry, chef at Attica in Melbourne
The idea: cut out the middlemen
Ben Shewry's Attica is Australia's highest-ranking restaurant in the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best. On a recent trip to a mainstream market he and his sous chef were amazed at the proliferation of imported goods. He's concerned the supermarket duopoly in Australia is jeopardising the future of Australian farmers. "I'd like to see a lot more of chefs and cooks dealing with suppliers direct … I don't particularly want to give any of my money to the middleman. I don't mind about paying the same price that I pay but I'd be happier to see that go to the farmer." Shewry's family were farmers, so he knows firsthand the pressures they are under on the land. "If you go to San Francisco I think you'll find that chefs are dealing much closer and more direct with producers than we are, generally, as a cooking community here in Melbourne."
Mad for change
Rene Redzepi's annual MAD symposium the United Nations of the food world. It's where big food ideas are born and left to flourish.
I headed over to Copenhagen for MAD in August. "What is Cooking" was the official theme of the symposium, now in it's fourth year. Not a look back at early-nineties Channel 9 show What's Cooking? with Gabriel Gate (although that would have been awesome) but a call for chefs to remind themselves what cooking is. In an age where the industry receives global media attention, MAD 4 was a call to "re-evaluate the fundamental techniques and responsibilities of the profession."
There were two days of talks from chefs, scientists, philosophers, writers, farmers, and a mixed martial arts bloke who had the chutzpah to tell a room full of cooks they shouldn't squeeze lemon on fish because it's bad for your health. Or something.
"No waste" was a key theme. People were talking about it both at lunch (Noma had just installed a Closed Loop zero-waste compost machine) and on the stage. Portugal's Isabel Soares spoke about the Fruta Feia cooperative which fights food waste by selling fruit too 'ugly' to meet the European Union's food distribution standards. Soares was followed by urban farmer Ron Finley who talked about his success in planting vegetables in neglected, wasted dirts strips around Los Angeles.
'No waste' compliments the other big idea I took away from the MAD 4. Chefs are the new activists. After two days listening to passionate words from Alex Atala (who co-curated MAD 4 and has social enterprise projects in his home city of Brazil), and Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi (who announced they were taking on McDonald's with their Loco'l burger project) it's hard not to swallow the Kool-Aid and believe that chefs can facilitate environmental and social change on a global scale.
As Ron Finley put it "some of you f--kers are even like superheros."