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.