Two weeks ago many of us gathered in Paris for the 50 best talks. The main speakers were Mauro Colagreco, Manu Buffara and Dan Barber,. Besides them were invited to the stage also Alain Passard, Bernard Grebault, Romain Meder and Yannick Alleno to discuss the future of French cuisine.
The first speaker was Mauro Colagreco of 3 Michelin starred Mirazur in Menton, which was this year also named as the best restaurant at the Worlds 50 best list. As an Argentinian chef of Italian ancestry, living and cooking in France, he talked about borderless cuisine: “I am Argentinian, Italian and French,” he started his talk. “But above all, a chef anchored in the terroir of the Mediterranean. My roots are planted between two borders – France and Italy – between the sea and the mountains,” he said. “It is a huge opportunity for me to be here, to work with small producers and such a rich culture and biodiversity. For me, a producer is someone who shares a heritage linked to their terroir. It is much more than simply using a supplier – I have a taste of the earth and a love for the terroir.” Mauro is proud also for having his own garden where he grows some of the vegetables for Mirazur. The garden is surrounding the house where he lives with his family and is not far from his restaurant. “My garden is a place of hopefulness, where everything is settled. Each component is important in maintaining the ecosystem of the soil. The gardens allow us to reconnect with forgotten or endangered produce. I prepare the ingredients in a way that I believe displays their unique characteristics best, from the techniques I have learnt on my travels. I allow myself total creative freedom to use influences from across the world. … There is an emotion at the heart of cooking and a desire to integrate oneself. It is these desires that have shaped my life. I come from a family of immigrants who crossed the ocean with hope. I have built my identity through contact and exchange with others. I come from the American continent that illustrates perfectly the cultural encounters with native people. The immigrants come from around the world; they are never static.”
Mauro was followed by the Brazilian cheffe Manu Buffara who talked about her efforts to engage the community around her restaurant with food. She started with bees by putting beehives around the city. Besides helping to pollinate the plants, to improve insect life and produce honey, the cheffe and restauranteur was also helping to reintegrate a species that was all but extinct. “When the Portuguese came to Brazil, we forgot about our stingless bees, the beautiful native bee. The Portuguese brought their own bees which produce more wax that was used in the Catholic Church. Our bees might be really small, but their honey is amazing.” She also managed to provoke people to start asking questions about food and nature. Next step for her was starting collaborations with the farmers: “We began with just two gardeners; today we have 89 across the city who produce food for our restaurants. Most recently, we connected them to organic seeds. We don’t just want them to grow things like carrots, broccoli and lettuce – we want rare vegetables and herbs. The new seeds will provide new flavours and inspire the next generation. My relationship with vegetables is so deep. They are my inspiration and I believe that we can change the diet of a nation by taking small actions which begin in our own houses. I fight for the quality of food, for the diversity and for the work of our local farms. My food is a way of telling this story.”
The third speaker was Dan Barber of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He talked about the need for greater diversity in agriculture. He gave us an example, the Salinas Valley in California, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the US. “Nine of every 10 bowls of salad in the US come from this place,” said the chef. “But the tens of thousands of plants around me had this mystifying, almost military, uniformity. You get the sense that these lettuces are not a product of soil and water – they looked engineered, pre-programmed. Nearly all the produce we eat now is engineered to fit in a box. Industrialised agriculture, which prioritises vegetables that are uniform and easy to transport, has become the norm for many US producers. The seeds from which these plants are sown every year are in the hands of only four companies worldwide, which own patents for 75% of the planet’s seeds. A seed corporation can’t own onions or carrots, but they can own genes for bitterness in tomato or sweetness in carrots [through patents],” said Barber. “There is even a gene ownership on what is called a ‘pleasant-tasting’ melon. So these corporations don’t only own taste, but they define it too.” By selecting seeds based on yield, shelf life and uniformity, many other characteristics of the plant – such as nutritional value and flavour – have slowly disappeared from industrially-grown vegetables such as those grown in Salinas Valley. The most common varieties of lettuce – iceberg and romaine, which according to Barber are the most eaten vegetables in the US – contain virtually no vitamins or micronutrients. As a result, many chefs went back to heirloom seeds, but Dan Barber doesn’t see this as the best solution. “We advance flavours by manipulating old ones with new recipes. Now we have to do the same with seeds,” he said. So he contacted the farmer Michael Mazourek and asked him to breed a variety that would be best for flavour and nutrition. Soon after, Barber and Mazourek joined forces with seedsman Matthew Goldfarb to found Row 7 Seed, a company that engineers and sells seeds selected for higher nutrition and better flavour. “We need to reject the idea that seed companies can dictate from on high. Over the past year, I have been introduced to more varieties of lettuce, tomatoes and potatoes than I can name, coming from farmers all over the world. Seed companies don’t want them. But we do,” said Barber. “I took a look at the gathering of chefs in this room, I thought about the organising principle of 50 Best and all that it provides, and I thought: who better to lead this movement than chefs?
Chefs to champion diversity. To illuminate and mobilise our communities. To take control of our neighbourhoods. To reject the idea that seed companies have the right to dictate from up high, to build these ridiculous monoculture highways through our rich ecologies. To refuse their claim that they own taste. To reject the notion that seed is software fit for a box. To protest and protect the seed for what it is: dynamic, living, delicious.” An amazing talk!
But the temperature really rose when an Italian journalist, during the discussion about the French cuisine that consisted of five male chefs, challenged the organisers with a question, “Where are the women?”. Mauro Colagreco explained that the table in front of the audience might be composed of men, but that the head chef of his restaurant is actually a woman, Florencia Montes. Yannick Alleno wanted to go into the core of the problem. “Of course, women have a place in the kitchen, it’s just that businesses need to adapt the structure to allow for them to be also mothers. It’s easy for us, we don’t have to bear children, men and women aren’t made the same way. At my new restaurant at Pavillon Ledoyen, 98% of the lunch service brigade is female because they told me they prefer to work during the day because it’s easier for them in terms of family organisation. It’s a woman’s DNA to bear children […] our society needs to adapt. Some young women live on the opposite side of Paris and spend one hour and a half in public transport; do you think it is reasonable to ask them to work till past midnight? I don’t think so.” Words of genuine honesty, concern and care were by some women in the audience who took the “It’s a woman’s DNA to bear children” out of context, labelled as a male chauvinistic view instead of seeing it as honest and sensible effort to give to members of the team who want to balance their family life with their career a chance to do so. This sentence, without context in whch it was told, started spreading in social media, without giving the readers a chance to read the entire wording in which the sentence made completely another sense.
Women and men have a different DNA – this is not an insult but a biological fact. We can bear children if we want and I think this is our privilege. The difference between the sexes was for me always just a difference, not an inequality. When you, as a woman, feel fulfilled and happy in your own skin, you don’t need to compete with men because you find ways to perfectly complement each other, learn from each other and you do feel powerful enough as a woman – alone or beside a man. The limits are not within our sex but within our personality. In the case of clear goals, will/determination and persistence, the sex doesn’t play any role in our abilities.
But the fact remains that many women (myself included) want to balance their lives between family life and career when having smaller children. I’ve been there and done that – having had to balance for many years my life as a single mother (being as good mother as possible to my daughter) and my career. I was always looking for jobs close to my daughter’s school, so I could pick her up quickly and she could join me at work when I stayed longer. Having an employer who is considerate towards parents is a bonus and I applaud Yannick Alleno for arranging the jobs for people (women or men) who have small children, around the hours that suit them best.
I was often asking myself why do some women react so strongly on some words interpreting them in the way they were not meant at all? Is it based on some negative experience from their childhood? I don’t want to judge but understand. Maybe I was lucky to have been raised within a family who never saw women as incapable and the female sex as limiting? In a family where men worked hand in hand with women professionally as well as within the family? But I am not the only one. Remember the speeches of Ana Ros, Leonor Espinosa and Claire Smyth when they received the best female chef award? Those ladies reached the top in the world’s food scene without ever feeling victims or underprivileged by being women.
“A large part of why there are so few female chefs is down to ourselves,” sais Leonor Espinosa. “As women, we put other things first, such as having kids, getting married… but this is a hard job. [The award] is an example to show that we really can make it as women in the kitchen.” According to Leonor Espinosa, machismo in the kitchen has never been a problem for her – in fact, she says she doesn’t believe it really exists. “I have asked my [male] colleagues ‘Why don’t you have any women in your kitchen’ and they will reply: ‘I want to have them, but in the end, they always leave.’” I suppose said by a woman it’s fine, said by a man it’s a scandal.
If we, women, want to be seen as equal, we need to feel equal and confident within ourselves without seeing competition and complaining of not being valued enough or not being treated as equal. To be treated as equal, do clear some things with yourself first. As long as some women will feel offended because somebody mentions female DNA, and will as consequence attack the author, don’t be surprised if some chefs (Marco Pierre White not so long ago) will continue saying that women act too emotionally. Life is beautiful if we finish this war of the sexes and see instead how can we make each other’s lives more pleasant and valuable. And Yannick Alleno wanted to do exactly that, but sadly he has been misunderstood.