iZindaba Zokudla and Slow Food introducing: The Chefs’ Lab

A report on a conversation about: Good, Clean and Fair Food for the Next Generation

Hosted online on Zoom and at the Swiss Hotel School, Johannesburg 3 September 9:00 – 12:00.

The indefatigable Caroline McCann and Naudé Malan are developing a series of webinars to celebrate Slow Food’s “Terra Madre Mother Earth” festival. Due to COVID we cannot gather in Torrino or Turin (or anywhere) this year – as Slow Food does most years – and we are developing our on-line skills in disseminating the message of a “Good, Clean and Fair food system.

Caroline McCann led the conference and emphasised the biological diversity that sits behind Slow Food as a movement. Slow Food is a foundation that protects biodiversity, but it does so by enabling the people to participate meaningfully in this endeavour. We introduced the human systems that give Slow Food its meaning, and these include the Ark of Taste – a repository and register of all heritage, indigenous and speciality foods. The conference also introduced the 10 000 Gardens programme, which aims at recruiting at the grassroots and enabling livelihoods through local food production. We also used the opportunity to make known amongst emerging chefs the “Chefs’ Alliance” which is an alliance amongst chefs that strives to bring the values and principles of Slow Food to the catering industry. This was followed by presentations by Slow Food Youth and this allowed us much food for thought!

These ‘human systems’ in the Slow Food movement will be important in the lifetime and career of any chef. Good food needs good produce and chefs can secure the future of their industry by becoming involved in larger social movements that aim at a better food system. T o be a good chef needs more than food preparation skills, and the Slow Food network represents an additional avenue for chef’s to exert their influence. We need to be mindful of the benefits of broad and wide-ranging networks, and this will permeate all aspects of the food system in the future. It is here where chefs can make a difference by influencing decisions made so they point to a sustainable and ecologically sound future! We would like to see all South and southern Africa’s local and indigenous foods treasures to be represented here. We can protect them by valuing them! Once they are here, we can start creating new recipes!

We started the conference by listening to Siphiwe Sithole – a tax lawyer turned farmer – as a representative of the Ark of Taste. Siphiwe farms near Johannesburg and is cultivating African Rainbow Maize and a large variety of indigenous crops, and these are sold commercially. There is a market for these and the Slow Food Ark of Taste is certainly part of the “product design” of these foods. The Ark of Taste brings respectability and value to these products, and we need to be mindful that this could significantly increase the value of local and indigenous cooking!

The Ark of Taste is a resource we can draw on to enable high-culture products to be developed from our heritage. It will also allow us to develop the informal sector and the foods that are being sold there as these can be further developed as high-culture and decent cuisine. The Ark of Taste can bring dignity and respectability to these features of our food system and we look forward to making this very popular amongst all the people of southern Africa!

To take the Ark of Taste to the people, an organisations like the Chefs’ Alliance is necessary. Arnold Tanzer and Miles Khubeka spoke about the centrality of cooking and thus chefs in our cultures and cuisines. Chefs are cultural innovators, and cooking is their medium. Once a dish has become a famous recipe, a whole lot of cultural machinery has done its job. The Chefs’ Alliance is a way to elevate this responsibility of chefs and to make it public. Chefs are afforded a key resource in how they figure in the wider world, and this alliance will prove to be important in the future when chefs realise the power they have in buying, developing dishes, and in managing kitchens.

Complementary to the Ark of Taste and the Chefs’ Alliance, lies the 10 000 Gardens Programme. Themba Chauke is a leading light in the Giyani area in Slow Food’s 10 000 Gardens programme. Slow Food wants to link food gardens to each other and through that introduce to them better agro-ecological production systems. It is important to note that agro-ecology contributes to livelihoods because the expensive synthetic inputs we often use for food production can be substituted with self-manufactured resources that are deeply biological and easily accessible. This enables profitability, as external inputs integrate farmers with expensive chemical systems which undermines their own decision making abilities. Organic inputs can be made by farmers themselves and in doing so they often integrate communities as household, kitchen and garden waste is transformed into compost, liquid fertiliser and feed. This secures the viability of the garden as an enterprise by valuing its biological base and builds a community-base for retail development. It is when we start using and valuing the earth that we will start using it sustainably.

We had to draw upon new and younger members of Slow Food to introduce the organisation and its values to the new generation. Slow Food Youth was represented by Spa’mandla Mabaso and Calvin Makgaila from Slow Food Youth. Spa is active in Mphophomeni in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and has organised many in his area under the Slow Food banner. He is constructing a restaurant that will draw from the many food gardens and livestock farmers in the area and this can innovate considerably in cuisine.

Spa gave us an important message. He has succeeded in mobilising gardeners and livestock herders into the Slow Food network. By doing so, new agro-ecological techniques have been developed, livelihoods have improved, and people are seeing how to generate an income through food production. It is necessary that the world sees it is possible to live well by producing food in an agro-ecological way. This is the base of a new food system. The Ark of Taste, the Chefs’ Alliance, 10 000 Gardens and Slow food Youth are depend upon this. We need to find the ways for farmers to make a living with agro-ecology, and once this is done, we can build a sustainable food system upon that.

Calvin Makgaila pioneered slow Food Youth in Soweto before he received a bursary from Slow Food to study in Italy. Calvin Makgaila is a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Torrino. The “Disco Soup” events and others he organised created a constituency of young farmers and caterers and this reflects how a sustainable food system emerges in a township or urban area. Farmers in urban areas have much less land than rural farmers, but have the advantage of being able to build systems of bio-waste harvesting and retail closely with their customers. To build these, urban farmers would have to organise social events to change behaviour. It is best to do this in a relaxed festival atmosphere. The experience gained by Slow Food Youth shows us that building a sustainable food system is pretty complicated, but also very social. Social events enable people to change themselves amongst others. It builds networks and relationships, and with that the trust that farmers would need to venture into the unknown and attempt building food gardens that are tightly integrated with the community. This tight integration is the means to profitability, and Slow Food Youth showed us that this is possible, and where and how chefs can get involved in bringing about this change.

This conference will allow us to build new relationships between the new generation of chefs and food producers. Chefs have a unique role to play, as they not only control large budgets and make large food buying choices, but they also are key cultural influencers of the cuisines of our societies. Chefs taking a stand can lead to a cascade of additional changes in people’s own eating habits and in the wider industry. Chefs need to take responsibility for their role in creating a new food system. The Slow Food network showed that the initial steps that chefs can take can be supported by a larger social movement. Slow Food is ready to support them! We look forward to new chefs becoming involved, and just imagine the new foods we are going to see in the near future!

Naudé Malan

Convener: iZindaba Zokudla

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