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At the eatery: Learnings from Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Big Food Workshop

Chefs can play a huge role in creative a circular, more sustainable food system.

Interior of cozy restaurant

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has brought together cities, chefs, food industry executives and other thought leaders to discuss how to redesign our food system in order to make it an active contributor to the economic recovery and the regeneration of the natural world, during Big Food Workshop, a three-day online workshop June 15-17. This blog sums up the solutions and ideas put forward during the workshop, as well as our reflections and conclusions. To read the recap from day one, click here.

Our session Tuesday — "Second Course: The Eatery" — was one of the most anticipated because of the star-studded lineup of speakers, which included four leading chefs and two food service executives. I’d been awaiting this session for months, since first speaking with Dan Barber’s team in February about the prospect of having him join us for what we thought would be an in-person workshop in London. I went into the session knowing that it would be amazing; I came out feeling humbled and hopeful. 

Chefs have this tremendous appeal; people listen to them, people love them. That kind of power can go to people’s heads, but that couldn’t be further from the truth for our speakers. Plain-spoken and down to Earth, they told stories about the importance of love, of flavor, of protecting the planet, of not taking things for granted and of listening to our grandmas. Taken together, these attitudes and values can help fix our broken food system.

I loved hearing Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants, recount a story I had read about in his book "The Third Plate," about a visit to a local farm in Massachusetts. The farm supplies the wheat for one of his highly popular breads but standing in the middle of the field in which it grows, Barber realized that was not all. The farmer’s field was filled with a great variety of soil supporting grains that, together, contributed to the soil fertility needed for rich-tasting wheat. Whereas until that point he had only bought wheat from that farmer, he began purchasing every grain type he produced thereafter. This story has three important takeaways for me. Firstly, that biodiversity is crucial not only for the environment but also for the flavor of our food. There is so much flavor just waiting to be discovered if we tap into the thousands of edible plant varieties that we’ve let go forgotten. Second, that we need to develop authentic relationships with the people we work with in order to fully understand their stories and how they do things, so we can identify opportunities for improvement. And finally, that this is a perfect illustration of thinking and acting with the system in mind, beginning with something as simple as taking the time to truly understand others.  

Alex Atala, Brazilian chef and restauranteur behind D.O.M., noted that diversity breeds flavor, as well as a host of health and environmental benefits. Based in São Paulo, this award-winning chef promotes knowledge as the necessary first step in the journey towards a healthier, more regenerative food system. He himself has been deriving his inspiration and knowledge from trips to the Amazon forest and the indigenous tribes living there. In order to get urbanites to care about biodiversity, which may be an abstract concept for some, Atala believes that "you have to make them taste it. Show them how good biodiversity tastes."

Biodiversity is crucial not only for the environment but also for the flavor of our food.

For Mokagdi Itsweng, self-taught chef and creative director at Johannesburg-based Lotsha Home Foods, the key to transforming our food system and curing ourselves of the diet-related diseases plaguing modern society is going back to the indigenous ingredients that our ancestors used. How to figure out what’s indigenous to your area? "Talk to your grandma," she said. 

A nodding Barber added that there has been a tremendous shift in haute cuisine and consumer demand in the last 20 years, noting the changes in diners’ palates to demand local, seasonal ingredients. Whereas haute cuisine was unimaginable without foie gras and caviar a few decades ago, those dishes would make menus look obsolete and unimaginative nowadays. 

New Zealander Kim Wejendorp joined the session from the kitchen of the Copenhagen-based Amass Restaurant, where he serves as head of R&D. Wejendorp and his team are on a quest to turn what others see as food waste into delicious new dishes, an experimental process that, he admits, entails tasting a lot of terrible things and occasionally happening upon something delicious. Wejendorp shared a number of mouth-watering examples with our audience, but also mused about his travels around the world as a chef. Referring to his experience in Sudan, he observed that "food waste is not a problem of the hungry. People find ways to eat everything and [develop] these fantastic techniques to make food taste good."

Creativity is at the heart of the culinary art and the chefs have embraced this during the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, Blue Hill partnered up with the Stone Barns Center of Food and Agriculture to continue supporting local farmers during the pandemic by selling food boxes instead of restaurant meals. The initiative highlighted to Barber just how important food processing is, as he and his team are doing more processing than cooking.

In the second part of our session, we were joined by two leading executives in the food service industry: Amy Keister of Compass Group and Thomas McQuillan of Baldor Specialty Foods. What really stood out to me from this segment was how their companies came together to reimagine menus and food experiences. They’ve found innovative new ways to work together to save food waste and re-educate their suppliers, chefs and consumers to view food as a valuable resource through their "Imperfectly Delicious" initiative. Going further upstream to tackle the problem, Compass Group and Baldor Specialty Foods also partnered with Barber’s Row 7 to source regeneratively grown biodiverse ingredients for Compass’ menus. 

Once again, I feel uplifted by hearing these wonderful stories from our speakers today. Change is possible and it’s already happening all over the world; we just have to work harder to make these innovative ways of doing things the default. If you missed our session, I encourage you to visit the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website, where the recordings are hyperlinked. I’ll be back with an update from day three of the Big Food Workshop on Thursday.

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