March 16, 2015

Chef Talks: sustainable consumption

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Tonight I attended a talk at the Fringe Club organized by Slow Food Hong Kong.  It's part of a whole series of talks featuring prominent chefs in town, and tonight there were two featured speakers - my good friend David Lai from Neighborhood (and formerly of On Lot 10), and Nurdin Topham from NUR.  The two of them took turns talking about their experiences in Hong Kong, focusing on their use of sustainable produce.

Nurdin Topham is a relative newcomer to Hong Kong.  He talked about how the 10 years he spent with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons have shaped him, especially the philosophy of using high quality, organic, sustainable produce.  In the short period that he has been here, he spent a good deal of effort trying to make sure his ingredients are seasonal and come from local sources - as much as possible, anyway.  This was something I pondered while dining at NUR for the first time just a few days ago.  While proteins - especially meats - are hard to source locally, fruits and vegetables are a little easier... but even those can be challenging given the quality of sustainable and organic local produce.

David Lai got up and talked about visiting the local seafood markets and building relationships with vendors.  The small space that was On Lot 10 essentially precluded the kitchen from offering a wider selection of seafood items on the menu on a steady basis, so David decided to change the format to essentially "catch of the day".  They would offer whatever he was able to find on his frequent visits to the markets.

David said his original motivation for visiting the markets was to get to know the amazing array of different species, and to gain an understanding of the "seasonality" of these species.  He also felt that as Hong Kong began as a fishing village, it is important to cling on to that heritage and maintain ties to the seas surrounding us.

Over time he has managed to build good relationships with the vendors, as they see him as someone who really cares about his produce.  This has enabled him to be shown certain catches that "normal" buyers don't see, or offered first dibs on some premium items that otherwise would be shipped off to the highest bidder in China.  As long-time customers of On Lot 10, my friends and I have enjoyed the benefits of David's relationships on countless occasions.

The latter half of the session was devoted to addressing the topic of sustainability, and how our current consumption behavior is leading us down a disastrous path.  A lot of the issues that we are objecting to now is the direct result of our over-consumption, and we have to accept the reality that unless we change our behavior, certain things are here to stay.

Industrial farming is certainly something that comes to mind.  When I was young, my family and I certainly did not eat as much meat as we are doing now.  For my parents' generation, they grew up during a time when meat was something that showed up on the table on special occasions.  It wasn't that they were particularly poor, but the supply of meat was very limited and nobody was eating much.  My mom told me that when you go to the butcher in those days, you didn't have the luxury of choice in terms of which cut of meat you got.  A piece of meat was cut into different portions, and which cut you got depended on luck and your place in the line - as customer #3 got a specific part and customer #9 got something else.

So we are completely spoiled for choice today, thanks to our incessant demand - and the rise of industrial farming is a direct result of trying to meet that demand.  Today we have no choice but to have battery farms for chicken, and raise cattle the way it is done... because to do so in the "more natural" way as the old days would leave a large gap between demand and supply.  If we insist on consuming "organic", "natural" meat, I think we would need to cut our consumption, because there is simply no way to organically, humanely raise this much livestock and poultry.

David also talked about overfishing, which has led to ever-dwindling stocks of certain specifies of seafood.  The inevitable outcome is the rise of aquaculture, as we will no longer be able to catch in the wild everything we wish to consume.  For those of us concerned with what we put into our bodies, it is imperative that we look for sustainable sources.  Since certain types of marine life will eat anything - including garbage - shouldn't it make sense that we care about who is farming them and what they're feeding the fish?

Each seat at the talk was provided with a pocket copy of World Wildlife Fund's Seafood Guide, which shows various type of fish - both wild caught and farmed - and whether they should be consumed.  Of course, I've been looking at this over the last few years - and even have it on my smartphone - although, admittedly, I haven't always followed it to the T.

Someone from the audience asked about alternative proteins - like insects, for example.  Of course there was a report published by the United Nations in 2013 on this topic...  Since Nurdin had been tasked with looking for ways to deliver delicious insects to the table during his time at the Nordic Food Lab, he seemed to be in the perfect position to answer this question...  And guess what?  They failed.  They just couldn't make insects taste delicious.  So I guess that idea's out the window!

Instead of drastic solutions like eating insects, the chefs on stage actually had a very simple message.  Consume less.  We don't need to cut meat and fish completely from our diets, but if we each consumed just a little less of it on a daily basis, that would already have a significant impact.

I think that's a fantastic idea, and certainly something that each of us can do pretty easily.

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