Years ago, while still living in Italy, I helped an American friend to pour wine at an event in Piedmonte, Italy. The event was organised by the Italian non-for-profit organization Slow Food and symbolised the revival of a traditional Piemontese festival called cante y’euv. People from all over the world gathered on the hills of Piedmonte to celebrate the harvest, touring by foot through vineyards, eating, drinking and singing the night away in the patios of the region’s wineries. The festival is inspired byan ancient tradition created by local musicians who would barter songs wishing farmers a good agricultural year over a hazelnut tart, a bit of cheese or a basket of eggs; the name cante y’euv comes from Piemontese dialect and means sing for eggs or sing to the egg. I had a blast, and so did the attendees.
As we talked ate and danced well into the evening, a genuine sense of conviviality and humanity could be felt. For a moment, food, drink and relationships seemed to be intrinsically connected by each person and their participation.
Fast forward almost ten years and I once again encounter Slow Food, this time in South Korea for the Asio Gusto, a group gathering organised bi-annually to promote heritage and heirloom food products, craftsman and food artisans from around the globe. One cannot deny, as a chef, the good that the organization has done to protect dying traditions, ingredients and food preparations. A great number of Slow Food members are formidable producers of cheese, wine, kimchi and olive oil. They are fruit farmers, chicken farmers, pig farmers. They share a view of the world that is not dictated by competition or profit, but by love of craft, of people and human relations. Saying that the food offered there was good would be an understatement.
Slow Food champions a collaborative of chefs around the world called Chef’s Alliance whose purpose is to explore the very real issues regarding growing, cooking and serving food. Contrary to most chef gatherings around the globe, the Alliance spends less time discussing technique, marketing or restaurant concepts, as more time is devoted to real issues of sustainability or the promotion and documentation of heirloom ingredients, and traditional artisanal products.
Relevant as it may be, the discussion I was a part of failed to see, in my view, the real potential for innovation and transformation carried by chefs today. For all its worth, the tone of the discussion forwarded by Slow Food, reduces the role of a chef to one of a middle man, standing between producer and consumer and I feel until this is re-looked at, alliances like the one promoted during Asio Gusto will be more about a collective of like minded people then generating meaningful change on a larger scale. More then anyone, chefs have the power to translate and communicate the importance of these issues to a larger demographic in a way that is both delicious, but also creative and up to date.
This short week has reminded me that no matter how hard we work to forget some of these things, a chef cannot escape the reality of being connected to the incredible process which is to grow, transport, cook, serve and eat food.
I am reminded that as it is inescapable, I rather live this connection aware of its existence and accountable for my participation in its links, as this chain is, at its most most basic level, what makes life as a human so tasty!