An important element of The London Produce Show and Conference is our University Interchange Program through which we allow universities a portal to influence the course of the trade by presenting the results of their research, while we also allow students the opportunity for exposure to the industry so they can evaluate opportunities to focus their career aspirations so that they become the next generation of talent to engage with the trade.
In London this year we have already profiled two of the upcoming academic presentations:
At The London Produce Show And Conference: ‘Room at the Top? — What U.K. Retailers Can Learn From U.S. Natural/Gourmet Retailing’ Cornell University’s Rod Hawkes Points Out That ‘Upscale’ Has Changed And That The American Experience Points To The Possibility Of Big Changes Ahead For UK Retailing
For our third we reach out to a unique Italian University which has often presented at the London Show’s sister event, The New York Produce Show and Conference with pieces such as these:
Our friends at Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche (The University of Gastronomic Science) are bringing students to London and have asked a most fascinating speaker to deliver a rousing wake-up call to the industry. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Q: How will your talk shed light on ways to increase produce consumption? What insight can retailers, food service providers, suppliers/growers, educators and industry consultants gain by attending your presentation? In what ways do you seek to transform food culture, and why do you believe such actions can change people’s lives?
A: In terms of an outline for people to check in with before the Show, how can I persuade people to come and listen to my talk; that it’s worth bothering to stop by, when there are so many other things going on. I’d like to feel my presentation could provoke questions around how do we get people to buy more fresh produce and how do we really engage in that challenge, I hope to describe ways in which that can be done.
Q: Ironically, does the phenomenon you describe at the London Produce Show — a whirlwind of activity and myriad choices pulling people in different directions, and competing for their time, parallel an issue you raise, where cooking from scratch is a lost art?
Yet, surely this is not an issue for a large majority of London Produce Show attendees — a sophisticated international gathering of industry experts and fresh produce connoisseurs… Is lack of time just a catalyst for problems that go much deeper?
A: During my presentation, I will demonstrate how to use produce in cooking, and the vital connection between the soil, plant growth, cooking and eating. It is this connection that has been lost in today’s food culture for the wider community.
One of the things I would say, is if you go to Italy and you eat in any ordinary restaurant, you’ll find people of all walks of life eating there, whether you’re a lorry driver, a company trainee or you’re Silvio Berlusconi, you’re going to eat the same pasta dish and that’s what I think is a rich, healthy and diverse food culture. That’s what food culture needs to be, and it isn’t with us. The food culture we talk about is the domain of upper middle class, educated people, financially and culturally better off people.
Q: There are plenty of wealthy, well educated people that eat unhealthy food as well…
A: So I suppose there are two sides to my work. One is to work with and teach people that have got money and time and want to know more about cooking, who are already aware and sophisticated, but also to teach those that have nothing, that don’t have skills and money and all the other deprivations that people who eat bad food would be subject to and vulnerable to.
There are all sorts of aspects to it. But the key is there’s a sense of building a bridge and it’s hard to describe that, but it’s something that I talk about a lot because I think the bridge between the food culture we love and the thing that creates passion and joy in people is one that belongs in the wider community. It isn’t here, so we need to create a kind of bridge between the two elements of food culture. It works both ways and that’s why I talk about my food education work in the community with people that come to my classes to learn about all kinds of food, Italian or French or Spanish food, for instance.
Q: Are there generational gaps as well?
A: Something else with this bridge is the gap between the lost generations. So I am teaching grandmothers how to make pastry, to distinguish between a turnip and parsnip because they don’t know. I’m also teaching children to take home what they know to their parents, who know even less than they know. So it’s a very strange reversal of roles in all this.
Q: That is quite unexpected. One would think more traditional forms of cooking would be passed down from the older generations, who had more experience cooking from scratch…
A: That was the biggest surprise to me and I’m sure it is to many people; to realize that the gap is not a couple of generations but rather four generations. People who were becoming mothers in the early 60s were already beginning to lose the connection with cooking from scratch. Those are people, who are now grandmothers and sometimes even great grandmothers. In rural Ireland, it’s a very different picture of course; they can make pastry and cook vegetables. When people are older, in their 60s and 70s, it’s quite a big thing to admit you don’t know how to cook, so you’re dealing with the pride and shame of that as well.
Q: Was there a pinnacle moment in your childhood or early on in your career where you knew this is the path you wanted to pursue?
A: You ask me what switched me on to cooking. It was a very early childhood experience but it took me a long time to discover that’s what I wanted to do. I was an English teacher before I pursued anything to do with cooking. I think everybody has a food story, and that’s a key way of identifying connections.
How do you wake people up with food and cooking? How do you bring to people that longing for learning? For me, it’s through enabling them to look to their own story.
Q: What was the experience that sparked your interest? And how do you translate that to others?
A: I was one of large family for one thing, so food and meal times were quite significant. My mother was a very good cook. She made bread and all the rest of it, Food was very much part of our life; central to it. Hospitality and guests sitting around the table was something we took for granted. What woke me up to my own love of cooking was when I was in France at age eight or nine. I went to a market and it was sort of a transforming moment. I knew that, and it’s the same for many people. There’s something that triggers and it could happen at any time. It doesn’t have to happen in childhood, but often does.
Given the context of the Show — the production and retail of produce, and strategies of increasing consumption, one of the things that interests me is that people really don’t eat vegetables. It’s a challenge, and one that crosses many cultures. Addressing that challenge is an absolute mission in the work that I do.
Q: Could you elaborate on the scope of that work?
A: I plan to illustrate my talk with produce I’ll bring from Ballymalou in Ireland, where I’m staying prior to the Show. Ballymalou Cookery School is a brilliant place. No place of learning how to cook has put greater value and significance on the connection between the soil, the growing, the cooking and the eating. Hugely inspirational, and of course, they have the most beautiful produce.
How do you get people to want to cook and want to buy this kind of food, rather than something that’s ready-made? Most people, even the middle class don’t eat the right amount of vegetables and don’t really get the potential joy and excitement that certainly for me is part of cooking with vegetables.
Q: That’s a good question you pose. Aren’t eating habits and behaviors difficult to change, especially when people get older and more set in their ways?
A: It’s kind of an awakening process. It’s not just about health. It’s about satisfying the palate. People don’t realize how wonderful vegetables are and what you can do with them; incredibly simple things that can taste so good.
My mission is to make real food culture more inclusive and the only way to do that is showing people how to cook food from scratch and sharing with them the passion and joy that it gives me; and so it is with all the teachers at Square Food Foundation as well.
Q: Are you considering the health and nutrition components?
A: It is also about health. We live in a society that’s got massive health issues and they all come back to food — diabetes around obesity. We know all this. That is a big problem, but there are all sorts of others as well. I work with some elderly care homes, where there is no good food being cooked for its residents. We know that between 400 and 500 people in care homes die of malnutrition every year in this country. This figure comes from one of the care home trusts I work with that owns 50 care homes. And are on a mission with me to improve quality of care in care homes. It comes primarily from introducing simple food, not the awful food — I wouldn’t even call it food, canned spaghetti, for instance, that gets served in many of these care homes.
One other thing I thought of recently is that we would attribute people’s lack of eating well, to not having time to cook, not having the knowledge and maybe not having the money to cook. Those are the three things that people often site for their reasons for using convenience food and so on. But actually there’s another one, which is that they don’t have to. There is no critical reason for them to change. If people are facing cancer, then they might consider changing their diet. What I’m trying to do is find less dramatic ways to affect that change in Bristol, where I do my work — this is about Bristol, I’m not trying to change the world.
Q: That would be a lofty goal! You mention the reasons people site for not cooking and it’s interesting because a lot of people in our industry are working on healthy grab and go items, and convenience packaging to accommodate increased demand…
A: This is the food culture that we have created. It’s based on this delusion that we don’t have the time, which is the big one. But I totally disagree with that and I would hope to show that. One of the demonstrations I do is preparing eight different dishes simultaneously without any help to show it can be done. It is not because I’m a skillful, brilliant chef, but because I’m focusing on what I’m doing. I’ve organized myself, I’ve got a plan and that’s it.
Q: That could be quite an entertaining draw at the Show…
A: Maybe I’ll do seven, for the seven fruit and vegetable servings we’re supposed to be eating each day. At the same time, I don’t want to be prescriptive. We need to be balanced and not stress out about it. I wouldn’t want to say the grab and go thing, or even convenience foods don’t have their place, but with some small adjustments to how we see our week, and so on, it is possible; and also such a wonderful thing. We don’t have to banish that space of eating the food we’ve prepared simply from scratch. We could have more of that, and there’s something lovely about that.
Q: What role can produce executives have in this scenario?
A: Food and chef demonstrations are a really strong feature of New York festivals and a main part of food shows and conferences these days. The reason they are an attraction is because they are creating that link between the producers and the retailers. It’s the business of cooking and eating and it’s a very immediate visceral link.
I encourage demos in a few stores in Bristol, especially on a Saturday morning, which is a busy day for most fruit and veg stores. I’ve done them myself and organized them with other chefs. It encourages people and then they can buy all the ingredients right there. It gives them confidence. Often, they don’t know what to do with ingredients or what to buy. And that’s why those veg boxes that producers put together, nearly always come with recipes these days. This is what you can do with your box.
Q: Do you have any stories of where you really made a difference with a person’s life?
A: There are countless small stories, I don’t always like to use the word transformation, because it’s a strong statement, but you could say it was that in many cases. They’re coming for a course on say, Northern Italian cooking and leave discovering something not just about the dish itself or an ingredient they never knew you could use that way, but something about themselves. They find out they can do something they didn’t know they could do. Particularly with children, that’s where you really see it, because it’s unencumbered by self-consciousness, and their experience is more open. It’s a more obvious indication of a change. For instance, one of the courses we do is Simple Suppers. It’s a Saturday pub, and we teach them to cook and they have to be able to duplicate it at home with little supervision.
Q: Do you follow up to see if they were able to pull it off?
A: The idea is they take a photo of what they did at home, and bring it to the next class and talk about it. And it’s easy for them because they all have their smart phones with them now. It could be Charlie making an omelet in his own kitchen, sometimes quite sophisticated stuff, it’s a matter of great pride, and parents love it. The parents are bowled over by the whole thing, and they are learning too. They’re finding out things that they didn’t know about as well. That program has made a real impact.
I see no point in teaching people to cook if it’s not something they can do at home. That underlines the methodology of our teaching. One thing about a lot of these television programs and magazines to a lesser extent, that it’s restaurant food, not really what people do in their own homes.
Q: Are you conscientious of the fat content and other elements like sugar?
A: I’m very conscious of that, but one could say I take a very radical or opposing view to what you would expect. The approach to food is often determined by fear rather than love, focusing on the toxicity of food itself, and the fat and sugar, and so on cut very much into that fear. So what my argument is, I’m going to show you how to cook and you won’t have to worry about any of those things. I’ll use butter, oil, and pig fat, and a little sugar, as I do think sugar is more of a problem. You have to look at these things in the right context.
There’s a whole world of anxiety around food and health. It brings up many emotions and dominant among them are quite negative emotions. So when you talk about fat, particularly fat, it is not something people are going to normally feel good or relaxed about. They’re going to be very alert about it. I want to unpack where that comes from and look at ways of seeing food in a different way, cooked in the right way and using the right ingredients. All these things have their place.
Q: Could you talk more about the people that you are trying the hardest to reach?
A: It’s worth saying that the people that are the focus of most of the community work we do are financially and educationally deprived and it goes back a long way. When I first started where the cookery school is now, I remember asking myself, what gives me the right to impose my middle class food values on these people. But then you see what they’re eating and the impact it’s having on their health.
Another important point, if we want a strong sustainable food culture in the UK or in any country, which is about food production systems, about growing, about the use of land, and balance of meat and animal food production and fruit and vegetable production, then we want people to eat the kind of food I’m teaching people to cook. We want more people to eat produce because it enriches the food culture itself from the soil right through.
It’s all connected, absolutely. I should have talked about sustainability right from the beginning because food culture is not just about magazines and what’s on plates. It goes right back to the soil. In fact, one of the first recipes that the students in Ballymaloe get shown on their 12-week course, and something I’ll present at the Show, is how to make compost and what goes into soil. That is something we all need to be thinking about now. It’s such an easy thing to forget.
Why should food culture extend beyond middle class elite in society? Why should food be a democratic thing? You could argue that in being so, it better supports biodiversity. It challenges soil degradation. In the end, when produce is grown properly and if it is looking after human health it shouldn’t have all the pesticides and chemicals, which goes beyond my purview in many ways.
What are the aspects of relationship between everybody cooking well and eating well and sustainable food systems? It’s to do with waste, transport systems, seasons. I can’t think of anything in the structures of society that wouldn’t be benefited by everybody eating better food — just think of national health, and hospital bills.
Q: One aspect of sustainability is cost/benefit analysis and economic viability, when companies prioritize where to invest their resources… Further, can’t it be more expensive to eat well, buying fresh fruits and vegetables versus a can of peas, or all the ingredients to cook from scratch versus a value meal at McDonald’s…?
A: You need to look at true or the hidden costs, and that’s difficult. One reason we don’t eat well is because we see that we don’t have to. Yes, it is more expensive, let’s not pretend it’s not. That would be wrong. I’ve spent far more on food then most people but I chose to do that. It means I can’t spend as much on other things that other people would spend money on. We used to spend 35 percent of our income on food in 1958 in the UK, after paying rent or mortgage. We only spend 4.5 to 6 percent of our disposable income on food these days, depending on which demographic group we’re in. It is more for the middle classes, actually.
Having said that, I did live on 21 pounds, 50 a week. I did it deliberately to prove a point, because that was what our government health section was expecting for low-income people getting support to live on. I managed fine because I spend time in the kitchen. I know about food. I ate almost no meat. I lost weight, which is a good thing, because generally we eat too much. That’s a big issue.
Q: On one hand, we have an obesity problem, and then on the other we have a global malnutrition problem, where people are starving. It’s quite a dichotomy…
A: I know. It’s bewildering that we have those two polar opposites of human health. In the end, it is a global issue, just as food trade is global. it’s important that we’re connected with what people are eating in other countries. When I work with different ethnic groups, it’s about making a connection right back to their roots and the traditions going back generations.
Q: Do you also look to expand people’s horizons, and expose them to new types of cooking?
A: I think its two things. One is acknowledging where people are in their food culture and what won’t be threatening, find out what food people are used to and then you can take them back their own story. Of what they eat, and going back generations you’ll see it wasn’t always that way. But also it’s about making connections to other cultures whether it’s in Africa or indeed Bristol cooking.
Q: What is the Bristol food culture?
A: I’m learning about the area I’m in. There are very distinctive areas around Bristol. You could say the food culture is partly determined by the west country production, the main areas of production, beef and cheese, which are strong players in the farming scene. Wild rabbit is a distinctive part of their inheritance, being famous for rabbit pie and that style of cooking, but they don’t actually eat it now.
In thinking about the Show, all these producers, retailers and marketers from around the world, it’s good to have a sense of the global market. In the local market in Bristol, where you’ve got 30 different stalls with people selling different things and maybe some of the same, it’s good to feel a part of the whole thing, which is the consumer’s experience. . We live in a global culture and have access to food around the world, It’s good to have an understanding of that.
I also believe cooking and food education should be fundamental in schools, along with math and history and language. It’s marginalized and if coming in, it’s just a gesture. If children from the earliest ages were learning to cook properly, I think we’d see a very different food culture in 20 years time.
Q: Are you familiar with the Food Dudes Programme?
A: I do know it. It’s brilliant. And those kinds of approaches are the ways we need to proceed. It’s a big challenge to change eating behaviors. There was never a truer word spoken then when that Jesuit said, give me a child age seven and he’s mine for life. You have to start young, and I love the idea of teaching pregnant moms.
We’re not a massive organization, but we happen to run a program that covers a lot of age brackets, incomes and demographics. In the end, comes right back to very beginning, what we’re talking about is rediscovering or maybe creating for the first time in the UK a food culture that is truly democratic and for all the benefits it would bring.
We read Professor Haughton’s words and we think of Hemingway and his classic The Sun also Rises and its haunting final phrase: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
That Professor Haughton lays out a vision of a rich life deeply connected to the earth and to tradition, that one can see it as a route not just to health or more produce consumption but to a richer, fuller life is really incontestable.
Yet it is also true that people who have actually lived in that close engagement to the earth, always leap to leave that state and join the western middle class as soon as they can do so. Indeed this is the story playing out right now in India and China.
Yes, among the wildly affluent, there is a bit of this “back to the earth” celebration, but it is almost entirely among people whose prosperity gives them the luxury of great expanses of discretionary time. For even the middle class, much less the poor, the time struggles of balancing two jobs, taking the kids to play sports and other activities, helping ageing parents and painting the house on the side, leaves this vision of scratch cooking, gardening, a kitchen centered home life all seeming a bit misty, as ina dream.
A pretty one though. Can Professor Haughton make the case that not only is this ideal beautiful it is practical? He is bringing recipes and produce. We can’t wait to see what he cooks up as part of his talk.
Come and hear and watch the professor in action by joining us at The London Produce Show and Conference.
You can learn more about the show on the Official Website right here.
Register for the event on this page.
And don’t forget to bring your spouse or companion as we explain here.