Food on the Edge, an annual symposium for chefs to discuss the future of food, addressed the burden of gruelling working hours and daily pressure in the kitchen. Lisa Jenkins reports from Galway
The ethos of Food on the Edge, now in its third year, is to create a forum for debate around the future of food, and this year that was extended to stories from chefs talking about how they have changed their businesses, lives and relationships with food, as well as their relationships with their teams and co- workers.
Ana Roš, chef-patron of Hiša Franko in Slovenia, spoke about her commitment to running a restaurant with ingredients gathered from within walking distance of her restaurant – her ‘zero-kilometre approach’.
Ashley Palmer-Watts, executive chef at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in London, shared details of a recent journey to Africa and the impact it had on him as a chef, while three-Michelin-starred chef Esben Holmboe Bang of Maaemo in Norway spoke passionately on the future of food with his presentation: ‘How we changed the way we work.’ Maaemo opened in 2010, and Bang, along with his Irish head chef Halaigh Whelan-McManus, explained about starting out wanting to serve good food, just like everyone else: “But it’s quite difficult to do that in Norway because Norway is very cold and there are not a lot of things growing most of the year,” he said.
“We started off with eight tables, and four staff in the kitchen and three in the dining room, and we worked really hard. Eventually we got busy and we made it happen.
“As chefs, we get up and we kill ourselves every day – this daily grind of delivering food to people 16 hours a day. Then you go home, you fall asleep, and you wake up and you fucking do it all over again! It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. But we love it, and it’s our life, so we never questioned this.
“At past Food on the Edge events, chefs have always talked about sustainability in terms of food – but we rarely talk about creating a sustainable environment for ourselves as chefs. But then, in Norway we were forced to look at our legal obligation to log all our hours that we worked. Some people got creative with logging the hours worked, but we decided not to lie about it.
“So when the authorities came knocking, they looked at ours and they weren’t happy. We had to change. We were also being accused of exploiting our staff, in the media.
“We created a benchmark for maximum hours to be worked, which was 40-50 hours dictated by the authorities. We went from five to four days a week initially, with our main concern being that the chefs would lose their connection with their work. But what happened was a change in mentality. The team was happier, energised and exited. Then we went to three days a week and everyone thought we were mad! But if we thought that people working four days a week were energised, once we went to three days a week, it was like working with Duracell rabbits. They were coming in full of energy wanting to crush it for those three days – the staff worked less but we still demanded perfection, and it was game day every day.
“On their days off, we started organising supplier trips, and the staff wanted to do it. The staff started pursuing old interests and hobbies again and spending more time with their families.
“It’s a crazy notion that, as cooks, we focus so much on sustainability, but we forget ourselves in that.”
With World Mental Health Day falling on the second day of the symposium, it was apt that many of the chefs and presenters addressed this issue and its very real existence in the hospitality industry.
Journalist Kat Kinsman, founder of the website Chefs with Issues and who suffers from anxiety and depression, broached the subject with the 300-strong audience and told The Caterer how during her interviews with chefs in the US, they started to confide in her about their struggles in the kitchen and front of house. “Then we had a series of high-profile chef deaths,” said Kinsman. She believes women in the kitchen are especially affected “For a woman to be in the kitchen, you need to be extra tough, and when you are up against that macho attitude, it’s hard to admit to any illness. Front of house is hard for women too, as they are afraid to take on that stereotypical feminine weakness.”
Kinsman suggested businesses show staff the same care as chefs do to their ingredients, provide a healthy, sit-down meal for their team and encourage them to live more healthy lives. Chef Anna Haugh presented the argument that we all need to talk more openly about mental health and to challenge bullying in the kitchen. Daniel Clifford joined the debate by describing honestly his behaviour as a chef after winning his first Michelin star and how it made him “not a very nice person”.
Other chefs at the event included Angela Hartnett, chef-patron of Murano, London; Robin Gill, chef-patron of the Dairy and the Manor (soon to be Sorella); Bo Bech, chef-patron of Geist in Denmark; and Magnus Nilsson, chef-patron of Fäviken in Sweden.
What is Food on the Edge?
Food on the Edge is a two-day symposium created by Irish chef, author and restaurateur JP McMahon. It is a not-for-profit conference for top international chefs that takes place in Galway every year in October. Over the two days, about 50 chefs speak for 15 minutes each on the cultural, social, environmental and educational aspects of food, their vision for the future of food and how we can make things better on both a local and a global level, in personal and political ways.
• Food on the Edge 2018 takes place in Galway on 22-23 October https://foodontheedge.ie