Good food. Good farming: The role of a chef in influencing change.
The world’s approach to producing food and addressing the global hunger crisis is to produce more and, above all, cheaper food. This, in turn, has had far-reaching individual and societal consequences. “Cheap” food is produced with very high external costs: environmental degradation, malnutrition due to calories without sufficient nutrients, and the destruction of social structures in rural regions. The evolution of agriculture was thought to serve, rather than destroy, human life and the critical biodiversity upon which our survival depends.
“During the last 200 years, industrial production methods became the mainstay of agriculture. Machines such as tractors began to undertake tasks that were previously performed by muscle power, or not performed at all. Fields and animals became vastly more productive thanks to artificial fertilizers, industrial insecticides, and an entire arsenal of hormones and medications.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Over time, we have split our food system into the disjointed parts of production, distribution, consumption and waste management. When we locate these parts within the context of food service and hospitality, what most consumers experience is the end point of a long value chain, with little knowledge of the processes leading up to it. This makes the role of chefs, culinary artists and the likes, increasingly important in efforts to support local, sustainable, farming systems and food sovereignty.
In the last two decades, we have witnessed our food systems deteriorate due to climate change, commercial agriculture, and the homogenising of consumer needs and habits. According to Jumia’s 2020 Food Index, Nairobi is the leading city across Africa in online food delivery. The majority of these purchases are fast food. To sustain a fast food culture as active as Nairobi’s requires mass production at every level of the food supply chain. How then, do we establish regenerative, resilient and thriving food systems? Whose eye do we allow ourselves to see through for the fine strokes of a broad perspective?
I have considered the place of restaurant owners, cooks, chefs, culinarians and even the modest kibanda in the food web – the disposition their vantage point affords them and the responsibility placed upon them for it. For the chef that is aware of this, and seeks to contribute consciously, what opportunities and challenges define their reality? It is quite a responsibility – the ability to influence another’s experience of food. Of basic sustenance.
Cultiva is a farm and restaurant in Nairobi that follows a permaculture philosophy. Permaculture tackles how to grow food, build houses, create communities and minimise environmental impact at the same time. Its principles are being constantly developed and refined by people throughout the world in very different climates and cultural circumstances. I had stumbled upon Cultiva’s Instagram page and was entranced by all the culinary creations. Each plate was a work of art. However, it was the philosophy underpinning these pieces of art that struck me: farm to fork!
Running parallel to commercial agriculture and agro-industry, are movements seeking to establish resilient food systems. Most, if not all, have at their centre one simple idea: The shorter the distance from farm to fork, the higher the quality of nourishment.
Ariel Moscardi, the chef and one of two entrepreneurs behind Cultiva’s existence, is a man well aware of this truth. I ask him what he credits his successes to and “restlessness” is his response. As a chef he knows the colours, flavours, aromas and textures of a meal before it exists. To maintain integrity between vision and presentation he had to take several steps back and consider the factors that contribute to the profile he envisions for his meals – this is where culinary scientist meets curious artist. This line of questioning and observation has led him, over and over, back to the land and soil that gives life to our food. The Cultiva team pride themselves in presenting a menu whose ingredients are either grown on their urban farm next to the restaurant or sourced locally. The ingredients that are used are only what is in season as this ensures that produce is not traveling great distances to be part of the menu. It is central to Cultiva’s culture that the food served there is, in this regard, an expression of the context within which it exists.
Ariel is quick to remind me that our experience with food begins long before we taste it. A colourful plate not only means a wider variety of nutrients, it also sets one up to connect with and enjoy their meal. As we take a walk through the garden, I begin to see how this works. It is a garden bustling with colour. There is a wide variety of kales, lettuces, carrots, tomatoes and herbs, to mention a few. Most of these varieties are heirloom and are grown organically. The organic waste from the restaurant makes its way back into the garden as compost. A closed food system. Care is taken to ensure the most flavourful version of any of these plants is what makes it to the plate.
The reality of sourcing food locally and creating a 360-degree food experience is somewhat new in Kenya and I was curious to hear his take on the opportunities and challenges this presents Kenyan producers and consumers. His response? Minga. A Quechua word meaning ‘collective work’. An expression of this idea he would like to see more of is organic markets. They create the environment for trade and conversation between farmer and consumer on process, quality and pricing. They also are a place where farmers and consumers can meet to experiment with value addition. As the number of organic farmers increases, it becomes necessary to map and catalogue their work and produce. Making this information easily accessible to the consumer begins to close the gap between the two ends of the food system. A sentiment chef Nic Odhiambo later reiterates as he emphasises the necessity of such access in establishing a thriving food culture, and one that I seem to be coming across more often, lately, amongst Kenyan foodies.
During conversations with customers, any question about the menu is an opportunity to educate the diner on some aspect of the closed loop of a sustainable food system they are contributing to. Consumer education is another place where great opportunity lies as we take steps towards establishing resilient food systems.
COVID-19 has highlighted the extent to which our food systems are broken. The State of Food and Nutrition Security 2021 Report showed that a quarter of humanity lacks secure access to food, with one in ten people affected by severe food insecurity, and up to 811 million people hungry. Another quarter of the world’s population suffers from various forms of malnutrition, including obesity, with huge negative effects on health.
The crisis is real. It is incumbent upon those who are producing food to those who are preparing and serving food, to rise to the challenge of using local supplies, supporting local businesses, and sourcing ingredients that are sustainably produced whilst using spaces of influence to share knowledge and information. Chefs, and their restaurants, have a unique opportunity to contribute to solving the wider problem of broken food systems and the food insecurity dilemma.
By Kainyu Njeri, inspired by interviews with Ariel Moscardi and Nic Odhiambo