Pamela Yung is head chef at Flor, a restaurant and wine bar in south London.
Starting out in cooking, most chefs don’t get taught much about the importance of food beyond what it looks and tastes like on the plate. But sparked by a new generation of chefs, things might finally be changing.
Take the Oxford Real Farming Conference – hardly an exciting title, and not many people usually turn up. After all, land reform, regenerative farming, local grain economies and food sovereignty aren’t everyone’s idea of fun. But this time around it was the best-attended conference (virtually, of course) that I’ve ever seen. There were chefs from multiple continents and time zones trying to work out how we can all make the food system better.
When I lived in New York, things like food sovereignty – understanding who the producers of our food are and supporting our farmers, grocers and their workers; in contrast to the present corporate food regime – were a much bigger topic than they are here in London.
I started getting really interested in these topics after starting a book club with friends in the food community back in 2014. The idea was simply to read more – chefs aren’t always great at making time for themselves and looking after their mental health. Soon, we were wrapped up in learning everything we could about Indigenous food cultures, who has access to what food, and other important aspects of food history. The first book we read was The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, written by Masanobu Fukuoka in the seventies. It opened my eyes to what a fairer food system might possibly look like one day.
For too long, it’s been easy to be defeatist. It’s hard to continually put in the effort to source ingredients responsibly, especially if they only form a small part of the finished dish. It takes a lot of work, as well as a lot of learning and leading. You have to constantly remind yourself that you are one small part of something much bigger.
But chefs are increasingly rising to the challenge, realising they have a platform and that they must make better use of it. There’s an acknowledgement that while providing pleasure and comfort and delicious food, a chef’s voice is just as important as any other part of their toolkit. Sure, it’s an overdue shift in mindset and behaviour, but it’s still a very welcome one. So, the next time you’re considering what food to order or where to go out and eat, spare a thought for not only what you see on the plate, but what comes out of the chef’s mouth.