ARTICLE

Food conference: Out of the Frying Pan

The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival held its first 'Out of the Frying Pan' talkfest last year and has repeated the event in 2008. It's goal is to bring together industry and media to talk about issues (which can be interpreted in many ways). This sort of thing can be a mixed bag when there are so many not-quite-overlapping points of interest and last year's was an odd mix of industry discussion and wannabe cookbook writers. This year there seemed to be more media representatives but less industry (chefs, producers, PR people) and though the focus was better, perhaps, the format rather undid it.

'Global Food Trends' was the opening session, moderated by prominent food media personage Joanna Savill, with panellists Bénédict Beaugé (www.miam-miam.com), William Sitwell (Editor, Waitrose Food Illustrated magazine), Gabrielle Hamilton (www.prunerestaurant.com), and Oriol Balaguer (stunning Spanish pastry chef, www.oriolbalaguer.com).

After a very long opening by Tourism Minister, Jacinta Allen (welcome to our Fantastic state where everything is Fantastic and especially in Fantastic Melbourne which is Fantastic just like the Fantastic Food and Fantastic producers and oh-my-god-shut-up-already), the panel was asked to start talking about the trends they could see. William Sitwell promptly established that his strongest card seems to be strong, pompous generalisations about anything he doesn't like, taking cynical sneering to a level beyond Hugh-Grant-character-knobbishness. It started okay (ubiquity of food experiences, London as gastronomic capital of the world (ho, ho), exhausting rise in ethical issues facing consumers), but once he got onto hire-in home chefs, molecular gastronomy, seasonality, dégustation menus, and — watch out — the utter stupidity of bloggers… Tiresome.

Gabrielle Hamilton was a refreshingly grounded voice, honest and clear, but not afraid of stating her (often enjoyable) opinions. It was interesting to hear her concerns about the extreme casualisation of the dining experience in New York, with stemless glassware, placemats and a multitude of small dishes ('the tasting menu is the chef's most timid foot forward') replacing the traditional dining format. And we mustn't forget the 'servers who you can't tell from the customers' as the staff become ever more casual too. Refreshingly honest about her own cooking too, she freely admitted that the idea of buying high-quality, prepped basic ingredients at a store is attractive to her as a tired working mother.

Bénédict Beaugé talked about the French perspective, where choice is also becoming a problem and people are seeking more comfortable dining options — the drawcard of the traditional.

Finally, one of my food idols, Oriol Balaguer, was asked about the concept of 'tecnoemoción', coined or implied by a Spanish journalist Pau Arenós to refer to the artistry-formerly-known-as molecular gastronomy. I'm sure Balaguer gets asked this stuff very frequently, especially as he spent time at El Bulli earlier in his career. Putting the concept to one side for the moment, he mentioned (in Spanish, with interpreter) that there is a growing interest in Spain in traditional products and cuisine, perhaps with an emphasis on higher quality. But there is also an increased incorporation of quality or artisanal produce into processed foods. He also described an increase in ambition in the types and styles of tapas, with new ingredients and techniques. He didn't seem to have much time for the term tecnoemoción, but it was unclear to me whether this was terminological or conceptual. (The idea is, in essence, that technology can be a vehicle for creating food which evokes emotion/excitement.)

Other snippets from this session: wine can often spoil a dégustation because it interferes with tasting dishes and matching wines to every dish overburdens the senses and disturbs the meal (Beaugé, Balaguer). Farmers around New York are forming supplier consortia to make sourcing a range of ingredients easier for chefs. Chefs aren't necessarily exploiting this resource (Hamilton). The enduring intellectual animosity towards molecular gastronomy (Sitwell, audience members) is sad. I feel the chefs in this movement lost control of the message so long ago and it's a pity. (Note: no rants against mol-gastro/tecnoemoción in the comments please unless you've actually tried some and thought about it.)

The second session I attended was called 'Future Food, Future Food Media', focusing on how industry professionals (chefs, publishers) use the internet to promote themselves or provide a service. Panellists were Luc Dubanchet (www.ominvore.fr), Bénédict Beaugé again, Gilles Choukroun (www.gilleschoukroun.com), and the Spanish-speaking Balaguer. A very mixed range of issues, including monetising content, creating an image, using a site as an interface with visitors, online and offline publishing and more. What was becoming clear, however, was that chefs are not strongly in touch with the internet as a concept or tool, relying on others to act as their agents, protectors, promoters online.

The third session for me was 'Web 2.0. How to blog and how not to blog'. I was there out of curiosity really, to see who would turn up and to be part of the Melbourne blogging contingent. The panel was Jackie Middleton (eatingwithjack.blogspot.com), Ed Charles (tomatom.com), Simon Johanson (The Age online), and Stephanie Wood (elegantsufficiency.typepad.com). It was a bit unfocused and I don't think it addressed either part of the title well. The choice of 'Web 2.0' was almost guaranteed to scare the uninitiated off. The audience was very thin and included people who weren't clear about what a blog was, let alone how to do it. Comments by Stephanie Wood riled some members of the audience, in particular the presumption that bloggers (in toto) don't write well, are ignorant, can spread falsehoods and so much more. Indeed, as a follow-up, she has already posted on her own site, restating even more strongly her position. I'll let it speak for itself. There are too many points to be teased apart for an intelligent discussion here.

It's a great pity that so many sessions of strong interest were scheduled in parallel. Almost everyone seemed to agree that they were having to miss two or even three other interesting discussions. I would much rather not have wasted time in the Web 2.0 session (no reflection on the panel really), but it's that toss up between hope, solidarity and guesswork. I hope others will write about other sessions.

The final session of the day, curiously without any parallel sessions, was 'The Future of Drinking'. Clearly, many people weren't so thrilled and left before it began. It was a relaxed and surprisingly interesting affair, looking at products, markets, importation vs local production, drinking habits and licensing issues. I'm glad I stayed for half of it.

Money well spent? No, not really. Although last year felt less diverse, this year's schedule made it much harder to extract value from what was on offer. A real pity.

UPDATE: Other bloggers are commenting on Tomato, Confessions of a Food Nazi and Deep Dish Dreams.

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COMMENTS

17 responses to “Food conference: Out of the Frying Pan”

  1. DC

    Fabulous! I mean… fantastic ;)

    I wonder if Stephanie Wood counts herself among those bad food bloggers???

  2. Ed

    HA, I picked him as Hugh Grant too! It was my first real exposure to their loathing of bloggers but I don't really care because they are the ones who have to learn to live with it. I agree with you on the bloggers segment and I was quite surprised by the number who turned out although that was boosted by bloggers. I think that blogging should have been combined with the future Media session, which personaly I found weak. The problem was language and nobody really offered much insight into anythingSome of the so-called cutting edge websites are mostly annoying Flash animation which is very yesterday. In general, I also think the sessions were unfocused. I'm glad I didn't pay. I can sort of see where Stephanie is coming from and it's just a shame she couldn't find a concrete example to prove her point. Full marks to Vida and a special mention to Gabrielle for swatting that fly.

  3. Duncan

    @DC: I don't think she counts herself among common bloggers, that's for sure.

    @Ed: Yep, if people are to talk about future media then they need to actually understand media… something which probably 2.5 people did on that panel. And I was a little surprised at the praise for some websites, just as you were. I am not happy at the $135 I did pay to attend.

    I think many of us understand what Stephanie says about 'cream rising to the top', etc, but this seemed more of a minor concession to the repeated sweeping dismissal of what blogs are or could be… and of course the lack of concrete knowledge was rather hypocritical.

  4. Vida

    Duncan, I went through your link to read what "SHE" wrote and I am afraid (albeit more calmly this time) I engaged again in the debate with "HER", as she called me the enemy and something about being loud "WELL I NEVER"!!!!! none of which sat well with me and so on it goes… I did expect a scathing reply this morning but none was to be had… perhaps she realised that I was not to quote her words "the enemy" and maybe her irrational fear of being beaten with a rolling pin was dispelled my myself or perhaps she thought better of it in the morning!?!?!? I would not like to be anybody's enemy and this is just healthy debate… Maybe we will get a bigger crowd next year when word gets out that there will be women rolling around on the ground beating each other with rolling pins… Surely some journalist could right up that factual story and draw a massive crowd!!!!!!

    I dare say she will, in future, be doing a little more research and a lot more editing before she makes such statements and perhaps, just perhaps she will be a little less scared and a little more tolerant of bloggers… as Ed says we are here to stay…
    P.S. Thanks Ed for the full marks and the ticket, much appreciated on both counts! Vida x

    P.S.S. Duncan you are "THE" gentleman for the coffee stakes… Vida x

  5. grocer

    Hi Duncan.
    I have read this post several times and points for telling it how you see it…

    I have commented on Stephanie's blog (which differs in content and perspective to yours) already so I won't enter that debate here.

    What I find remarkable is the "us" and "them" attitude where so many involved have a foot on each side of the fence – Stephanie included, and I do not rate her blog as one of my favourites, but keep an eye on it as so many other bloggers praise her success (I must be missing something).

    As in everything, there will be a "bell curve" of skill. It doesn't mean it should be despised. Such derision indicates one thing – a perceived threat. It's time big name "chefs" stopped reading their own publicity and understood what joe bloe punter (the one actually spending his hard earned dollar) had to think about things no matter how articulate they are.

  6. Duncan

    It is unfortunate that the us/them thing is such a big issue. Because the blogosphere is more diverse, there will always be a cacophony of styles, perspectives and abilities, yet the focus of too many commentators is on the failures of the blogosphere — perhaps because of the perceived professional/commercial threat (simultaneously dismissed), or simply because these aggressive commentators actually don't do their homework. No surprises on either count.

    @grocer: I think the chefs are a separate issue. Certainly there are challenges for them because they haven't been used to such uncontrolled public exposure and they are understandably apprehensive. There's also the question of whether a bad review of one meal is fairer than a careful multi-meal review… issues which are often discussed in the blogosphere. Unlike journalists, chefs are often less aware of how alternative media work, so more fearful or confused.

  7. grocer

    what joe bloe writes and thinks not the chef!

  8. The Gobbler

    G'day Duncan, thanks for your detailed explanation of the days events. I wish i could have attended as I do love a passionate debate!
    I think trad media will ignore the growing influence at their peril. Stephanie seemed to wave it off as a trifling distraction to amuse friends & family, not a matter to be taken seriously. How conceited. Also who made her or anyone else for that matter the arbiter of what makes a good read?
    Finally, there are many trad media 'lurkers' who trawl the very blogs they deride, sniffing a lead that they otherwise might not be able to glean. This raises an ethical question & I wonder if their high moral ground would stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

  9. grocer

    on that last point, has anyone noticed the increasing interest in eggs over the past week?

  10. another outspoken female

    I posted my thoughts yesterday, with an update today, about how I experienced Out of the Frying Pan. It wasn't just bloggers but 'celebrities' from the food world who got a lashing. In less than an hour there were personal blows against Elizabeth David, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith (she got multiple slurs) – it was all incredibly bitchy. There were so many egos on the stage vying for attention that for me it was the humble ones who I listened to more closely. As I mentioned, I especially enjoyed Lucy Malouf but then again, she is more a backroom kind of person in the food world – she edits other people's cookbooks (with not a hint of kiss and tell), takes second billing after her ex-husband and does all the cleaning up once the chef tornado has tested the recipes. I wont even go into my reaction to the self-important couple of the Fairfax employees that Jamie (breakfast blog) was up against!

    As for what I caught of the blogging session, I unfortunately walked in on Stephanie mid-tirade and am still trying to make sense of why she seems so personally (professionally) threatened by what she considers bad writing – and have left my thoughts on her blog.

    I am very grateful to have not invested the bucks in the day as I think it would have been poor value for money. I wish I had got to meet a few more bloggers but I had had enough by afternoon tea and just wanted to get out of there. All in all a most interesting experience for all the wrong reasons.

  11. Duncan

    @gobbler: Good comment. As a freelance editor I can see why the reaction is so strong in some people, but the hypocrisy stinks — there are heaps of 'professional writers' out there whose copy is crap and needs a hell of a lot of cleaning up. And I'm mightily tired of the ignorance which increasingly masquerades as journalism in once-great publications like Epicure. Yes, editors provide (or are meant to provide) that filter. But to assert that bloggers are inadequate professionally overlooks the fact that many are producing copy which just lacked the final touches. Sure, that's not universally true, but the global put-down is just ignorant.

    @anotheroutspokenfemale: welcome! Pity we didn't get a chance to meet. I'd like to know more about the blows against Elizabeth David, Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith, as I missed the relevant sessions… Feel free to elaborate here or please drop me a private note via the contact page re this and the other session you refer to.

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  13. Ed

    All these years and i forgot to mention how bitchy and full of factions the media is and the food media is no different. it is therefore no surprise that they bag bloggers.

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  16. Jon (Melbourne foodie)

    Great write up Duncan. I was going to do a bit of a summary of the day but think you have said just about everything here.

    I found the sessions interesting if nothing else but not as insightful as one may have hoped for. Glad that I got the ticket for free, as I struggle to see value for the $135 ticket cost, especially with the way the sessions were divided, meaning many interesting topics had to be missed.

    The Web 2.0 session was unfocussed, but the debate was rather interesting from your bringing up of media integrity, in relation to publishing apologies for errors and falsehoods to Vida's debate in regards to bloggers' comments. It was interesting that Stephanie Wood spoke so strongly on media research and integrity, when it was obvious she had not researched the posts and comments of the blogs she so happily criticised. I think ignorance is the best way of describing much of what was said in the session.

    Cheers to Jackie & Ed though for brining in a (real) bloggers' perspective and to Vida for envoking the necessary debate. It unfair to see bloggers as ignorant and foolish when we are just as entitled to an opinion as anyone else, even though it may only be seen by a tiny audience.

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