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No doubting Thomasina

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, April 20th, 2014.

Former Masterchef UK winner Thomasina Miers is very far from typical of her peers.

tommiNine years after her 2005 win she’s one of a very small number of people to actually win the competition and then turn that into a successful food career.

The owner of four Mexican-themed restaurants under the Wahaca brand, she’s published books, fronted TV series for Channel Four and is currently organising a chilli festival to be held in the east end of London called Chilli Chilli Bang Bang.

To say the day job fell by the wayside would be an understatement, but Miers is very clear about what Masterchef brings and what it doesn’t.

“Masterchef really helps if you are already on your mission and know what you want,” she says. “But a win doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

By the time Miers was on the show, she says she knew exactly what she wanted out of it and wasn’t starting from scratch.

“I had already spent a year living in Mexico researching Mexican food and was writing my first book, Soup Kitchen. I knew that I wanted to work in food and I was fully on that path.”

“Gregg Wallace and John Torode saw that this was not just a TV show for me. I had food pulsing through my blood. So I think if you are already at that stage then Masterchef can really push you and give you confidence,” she says.

But she says, winning is no guarantee of anything, and the reality is that anyone hoping to turn a win into a career in food still has all their work ahead of them when the show ends.

“The food world is really tough, it is long hours for not much money. It’s physically very demanding,” she says.

Before her stint on Masterchef, Miers had already graduated from the Ballymaloe Cookery School and she credits the experience of studying with the Allens for a large part of her philosophy on food.

“My real start in food came from meeting Clarissa Dickson Wright when I was 26 and was really kind of struggling to know what to do. She found out that I was totally passionate about food and said ‘well that is what you should be working in then if that is where your passion lies’,” says Miers.

“And she said ‘the first place you need to go is Ballymaloe’.”

Dickson Wright was a friend of Darina Allen’s and made the necessary introductions for Miers. She attended for a three month stint and describes the experience as an epiphany.

“I have cooked since I was six but there I learned more than just recipes. They teach a total philosophy about food, about the importance of food ingredients, about the footprint food has on the Earth, about how things are grown and sourced and how food can be eaten in ways that are completely sustainable and holistic,” she says.

“At Ballymaloe all their food waste goes to their chickens, they compost and there is a complete cycle and really that has informed my whole philosophy and that has stayed with me to today.”

According to Miers, all of her Wahaca restaurants recycle their food waste and have done since the first outlet opened in August 2007. She feels so strongly about this approach to handling food waste that late last year she was involved in organising a one-off food event in London – The Pig Idea – to draw attention to a ban on feeding food waste to pigs, a practice as old as porcine domestication.

“We raised eight pigs on Stepney City Farm over last summer and then last November we served five thousand portions of pulled pork, cassoulet and other porky treats in Trafalgar Square with the proceeds from the pigs,” she says.

Behind the event was the urge to do something to help small pig farmers in the UK, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet because of legal restrictions in place since the foot and mouth crisis.

Restrictions on the kinds of waste food that can be feed to pigs is leaving farmers having to rely on soy and other vegetable feeds that are more expensive and mostly have to be imported.

The Pig Idea was to let restaurants and supermarkets sell their food waste to processing plants to be heat-treated in large volumes. This could then be safely, cheaply and sustainably fed to pigs.

“Ballymaloe were one of the backers of that initiative, so I’ve stayed in touch with them all the way through,” she says.

Miers’ extracurricular energies are currently focused on her upcoming Chilli Chilli Bang Bang festival, scheduled for May 9th and 10th in Dalston.

Celebrating all things fiery hot, this event involves chef demos, chilli-based street food from around the world, a spice market, a hot sauce deli and chilli tequila cocktails.

“We’re expecting around 5,000 people and we’ll have food from around the world with chilli in it as well as demos from chefs like Giorgio Locatelli, Sam Clark from Moro, Gizzi Erskine, Atul Kochhar – lots of people actually,” she says.

“I also have a new book due out– Chilli Notes – which focuses on chilli recipe from around the world.”

Chilli is an unusual food in that it’s hard to think of another ingredient, with the possible exception of truffles, that gets so fetishised. People can and do spend years developing the perfect chilli recipe and chilli competitions are common in the US.

Miers isn’t surprised by this, insisting that the humble chilli is in a class of its own as an ingredient.

“Well, they are pretty magical fruit. They are an analgesic and anti-diuretic and anti-carcinogenic and of course a good chilli hit releases lots of endorphins so they make you feel good. You get a kind of mini-high,” she says.

“But not only do they make you feel good they are good for you in other ways. If you eat a lot of chillies your metabolism speeds up and generally will work faster and I know some people who advocate them for helping to lose weight,” she says.

“There are over 200 varieties of chillies and they all have different kind of flavours and you can use them either dried or fresh. They are incredibly versatile and in my cooking I like to use them to season food. A bit like black pepper, you can just put a touch of chilli in lots of dishes and it just heightens all the flavours.”

Miers says she would like to open a Wahaca branch in Ireland, but it’s still only a theoretical plan. In the meantime, she will be attending the Ballymaloe Literary Festival in May and intends to make the most of the opportunity to visit a country she says is genuinely amongst her favourite.

“When I lived in Ireland I got pretty stuck in and really loved it. I am absolutely passionate about it and the food culture there, so I try to go back as often as I can, at least once a year.”

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Kevin Thornton’s Consuming Passions

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, June 2nd, 2013.

When restaurateur and chef Kevin Thornton first opened his doors in Dublin along with his wife Muriel in 1989, he had no money, no equipment and not much in the way of expectations.

thorntonHis first kitchen had a cooker with two rings and a single oven but almost a quarter of a century later, the husband and wife team are still at the forefront of Irish gastronomy. Thornton’s eponymous restaurant celebrates its 25 anniversary next year, and despite having a reputation for being occasionally prickly with journalists, when the Sunday Business Post sat down over coffee with him recently, he was in in expansive form.

“25 years is a long time for any business to be around, but doubly so for a restaurant. We started in a funny way, in 1989 when someone asked us one Saturday if we wanted to open a restaurant and we opened the Wine Epergne in Rathmines the following Wednesday,” he says.

With interest rates running at 20 per cent and more at the time, trying to get any kind of business off the ground was a challenging proposition.

“We didn’t have a penny and it was a horrendous time to be trying to start up. We couldn’t get an overdraft from the bank so we did it entirely on our own. I knew suppliers from various jobs over the years and thankfully we had a good reputation for honesty so they gave us credit.”

“The restaurant had a tiny kitchen and we couldn’t afford a fan so we knocked a hole in the wall and I wired up a fan I found somewhere. I’d worked in some excellent restaurants and was used to fancy kitchens with great equipment but none of that mattered because this time, this kitchen was mine.”

“When we started out we had a computer but obviously there was no internet. Paper slips for credit cards had to be sent off and would take three days to come back and American Express card payments had to be sent to London and took two weeks. Even though Dublin had always had good restaurants, at that time the economy was in a terrible state.”

Thornton says he knows exactly why his business did well while others fell by the wayside – he fostered a healthy disregard for what everyone else was doing and instead suited himself.

“We didn’t really care what people wanted, we just decided to open and do the kind of restaurant that we wanted to do. That was more important to us than whether there was an opening in the market or anything like that– because really we didn’t start a business. We opened in order to be able to do the kind of restaurant and food that we loved. I’m very lucky that my wife had faith in me and was able to make things work.”

“Looking back, we were also ignorant because we presumed that the restaurant business was all about the food when really it’s not – it’s about the entire experience.”

If he didn’t know much about business, Thornton did know food. A Cashel-native, an early placement in a catering course at the Galway Regional Technical College led to work in Waltons, a Michelin starred restaurant in London’s South Kensington, before the chef spent time travelling in Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, learning about gastronomy and viticulture.

However it was a stint in the legendary Paul Boccuse’s l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges in Lyon that set him on the path he’s still on today.

“Back then it wasn’t cool to be a chef at all. It was a last resort for a lot of people. I liked working in kitchens though. In London I worked with a load of Scottish guys who were good to me but it was hard graft, often from 8am to 11:30pm each night. But I wanted to learn and that’s the standard life of a chef,” he says.

“Of course it was really difficult. Incredibly difficult. I worked with some crazy people. It was a military set up and that’s how you had to look at it. It was so intense that you had to get out of it after a while because if you didn’t, it would screw up your mind. I was a bit of a hippy at the time but I was lucky because my interest in photography gave me a safety valve that I could use to get away in my head.”

The young chef travelled as a way to broaden his skill base and to indulge a joint love of travel and photography.

“Being a chef allowed me to travel – it’s a skill that you can pretty much take anywhere in the world and that appealed to me.”

Back in Dublin, the Wine Epergne was a success but in 1995, the chef and his wife closed it in order to open their first eponymous restaurant – Thornton’s in Portobello, Dublin. Awarded its first Michelin star within a year of opening, the tiny 30-seater restaurant quickly made Thornton known as one of the country’s premier chefs.

A second Michelin star followed in 2001 – the first time two stars had been awarded in Ireland. In 2002 the restaurant moved again to its current location in the Fitzwilliam Hotel on St Stephen’s Green, this time keeping its name.

“The major value that Michelin has to us is that it validates what we do internationally. If we were to rely solely on Irish customers we wouldn’t be in business – that’s the reality. The guide is valuable because a lot of people use it when they travel to decide where to eat. That’s what it was invented for, to help people travelling outside of their usual areas to know where was worth visiting,” he says.

Thornton thinks the guide’s famous one, two and three star awards are mostly misunderstood.

“It’s not accidental that people don’t understand them. It is deliberately a bit mysterious because Michelin doesn’t say in black and white exactly what each award means or how to get it. A star just means ‘good food in its category’, so in theory a chipper could have a star. There have always been Michelin star restaurants in Ireland – when I was growing up there was one in Cashel, two in Cork and so on. But there were only ever two two-stars awarded in Ireland.”

Thornton’s restaurant lost its second star in 2005, but it has retained the remaining star since then. The chef himself is philosophical about the loss of the accolade.

“When you lose a star, it’s a weight off your shoulders. What it did for us was allow us to re-evaluate what we were doing in the first place. Was it the type of restaurant we wanted? We didn’t want to run a place where the staff thought they were better than the customer, where it was so stuffy that people were afraid of being judged? A lot of people have that perception of multi starred restaurants and it can scare some people away.”

“When we had two stars we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to live up to that. You want to push on and continually improve and that’s hard. Losing one allowed us to make some changes. I actually think that what we’re doing now is better than what we were doing then, and the difference is that once again, we’re doing it for us and not to conform to an idea of what we should be doing. I cook for myself and secondly for the customers,” he says.

In recent years, there has been a couple of instances where Michelin-starred chefs have apparently given back their stars, most notably Marco Pierre White, the youngest chef to have been awarded the top accolade of three stars. However Thornton is sceptical of such claims. For a start, he says, it’s not possible to return stars. That’s not how the system works.

“You can’t give a Michelin star back. You’re anonymously assessed and then you go in their book so the only way to do it would be to consciously cook badly. Michelin comes along after the fact – they award stars based on the standard you set for yourself and a star is really just on loan for the year that you hold it.”

“Anyone who says they’re giving a star back is doing so for the publicity, that’s all.”

The recession in recent years hasn’t been kind to the restaurant trade, but Thornton says his business is doing well and that prudent business decisions in the boom years have served them well.

“Things are going well for us. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not going to be buying a helicopter or private jet anytime soon but we can pay our bills and make our way. Muriel is really good at what she does. We’re a partnership and without her I would have been out of business long ago.”

“In the boom years, people got caught up in the bullshit but we made a conscious decision not to,” he says.

“When the boom came along we benefitted from it, of course, like everyone else. But when we bought our house and built our business, we based our finances on where we would be if there was a crash.”

In retrospect, he says, that looks very clever but at the time there were people in Dublin opening five or six restaurants.

“We had people knocking on our door every week wanting to back us and I’m so glad we didn’t do it. At one point we considered expanding and looked at a building with a price tag of €27 million. It was lunacy looking back on it, but the financing was there to support it. The business was and is extremely important to us and for many years we took it a little too personally. We’d always said we wanted to be masters of our own destiny so we didn’t expand when people were throwing money at us.”

Today, Thornton’s is one of the only high end restaurants fully owned by a chef-patron.

“If you look at Dublin, there are only four or five of us in the city who are purely on our own – the rest have other people backing them. So it’s very hard to really do your own thing and not have to compromise or work around what someone else wants you to do.  Any person who opens their doors needs to be given credit – it’s a tough job. But at the same time, it’s their choice so just shut up about it and get on with it.”

“It’s like people who give out about the country – we choose to live here so shut up and get on with it, or leave.”

A challenge for anyone operating at the higher end of the market is the knock on effects of austerity, according to Thornton.

“The problem is that even people with money are afraid to be seen spending it. They’re painfully aware of the appearances of things. We opened in a recession so that’s the kind of ethic we have. The cost of running a restaurant at this level is so expensive, you need the support of your customers. You need volume — a community of customers to keep it going.”

“I saw a survey a few years ago that said that there were only around 100,000 people in the entire country who ate out – they supported the entire industry. That’s not enough although things have improved slightly in the last year. The recession has closed a lot of restaurants but things are starting to move again and people are starting to go out.”

The problem for people like me is that most of that business is being done with food priced between €5 and €12, and most of the restaurants that have opened have done so at that price point. My problem is that I’m so interested in the product and in doing things properly that this is a trend that’s not touching me.”

At that price point, Thornton points out, corners have to be cut. He’d like to see more transparency from restaurateurs selling cut price produce.

“If you’re paying €5 for a chicken dish, where did the chicken come from? We produce 10,000 chickens in Ireland a day but we consume 30,000 – so that’s money going overseas. Likewise sea bass – it comes from the Mediterranean and from Greece and jumbo prawns come from Thailand and so on.”

“Is it sustainable? We’ll find out, but tell the diner where their meal comes from. Be transparent. If they want cheap, then give them cheap but there’s a price to pay for that. Why is New Zealand lamb cheaper than Irish? It’s because the cost of producing lamb here is so expensive that it’s actually cheaper to fly it from the other side of the world.”

In his younger days, the chef says he wasn’t particularly good at managing his time – with the restaurant and his family life leaving little time left over for extracurricular activities. However, a meeting with publisher Trevor White and the founders of aid body Connect Ethiopia, has led to the chef spending time in the northern Ethiopian town of Lalibela.

“I work from a food-centric point of view, everything from teaching them to grow vegetables to improving food hygiene. It’s basics stuff but it’s important. It’s common in poor countries that receive charity to find that the thinking changes – the idea is get people thinking again in self-sufficient way, about the value of working and not just being handed something. We try to get them to be proud of their own food and to steer then clear of westernised foods that can’t be made there.”

Part of Connect Ethiopia’s ethos is that rather than raising money for Africa, it sends business people from Ireland to Ethopia to teach business skills.

“There is no money involved, it’s all about knowledge and I love that idea. I feel really privileged to be involved and lalibela is an amazing place. It’s known as the Jerusalem of Africa and a lot of people go on pilgrimage to see the churches there that are hewn out of the rock.”

“The idea behind my involvement is to help improve standards and create a centre of excellence that would teach people to be self-sufficient and help them get themselves off the ground. They have a Mediterranean climate – warm but not super hot but the lack of water is a major issue.”

In Ethiopia, Thornton has been able to learn about the local foods and cooking techniques, while passing on the benefit of his knowledge and expertise.

“Ethopia is vast, a massive place. The most magical thing is that you can go back in time there and see how our ancestors were living thousands of years ago. I visited some of the nomadic tribes there to see how they live. Because I thought that this could help me understand some of the problems in Lalibella better.”

“For example, they make a fermented crepe-like bread called injera with teff flour. The teff plant has been cultivated since 8,000 BC so it’s literally the food of our ancestors. It’s a kind of grass that produces only seven grains per head but it grows in only four months. The problem is that it only rains once a year so it’s hard to get enough.”

“Injera is served with most meals, along with stews. It’s an acquired taste let’s just say – it looks a little like carpet underlay. They normally ferment it for three or four days, but we tried fermenting it for only for a day and when it’s cooked it’s fresher.”

Thornton says that to him, a key part of his work is that it’s not his place to get them to change their ways, but rather to help them adapt their cuisine to cooking methods that are more efficient or which preserve more nutrients.

“I’ve also helped them to make cheese. They have cows but strangely not much cheese making culture, although there is a kind of rancid cottage cheese. Cows are an important source of food in Ethiopia, and they use them in ways we don’t. For example, the tribes drink cow’s blood as a valuable source of protein and minerals. They don’t kill the cow to do this – the animal is worth far more alive than dead — they pierce the neck and drain a pint in the morning and a pint in the evening, closing up the wound in the meantime.”

“These are foods from the beginning of time,” he says.

2013 represents the third year Thornton has worked with the project, and he’s visited Lalibela seven times so far.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to see progress being made between trips. I have brought down seeds and then come back to see vegetable gardens in full bloom, it’s amazing. They’re growing tomatoes and aubergines, celeriac and celery – things which are good for them. I’ve gotten them then to swop the vegetables with each other – we’ve also set up cooking schools to encourage tourists to stay a little longer, spend a little more.”

“They do Ethiopian food, teaching people how to make local dishes. We’re coming to the end of things, but it’s not finished yet. They’re becoming more self-sufficient and that’s very gratifying, even though there more work to do. It’s not finished yet, so I can’t move on from it yet,” he says.

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Lullaby 1989

Someone sent me a link to this earlier today and watching it again for the first time in 24 years sent shivers down my spine.

I remember this being broadcast back in 1989 – I couldn’t tell you why but I was absolutely captivated. Robert Smith so perfectly captured the sense of alienation and difference that people like me felt. Amazing and spine tingling. It’s still amazing to me that they entered into the mainstream so successfully despite being really really odd. Hard to imagine that happening now.

Later in the year that this was broadcast, I managed to nag my sister Ruth into bringing me to my first concert when the Cure played the RDS. I think I still have the ticket stub somewhere.

It’s common to hear musicians like Robert Smith talk about how significant a moment it was when they first saw Bowie on Top of The Pops as Ziggy in 1972. For me, this was just as significant a moment.

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Your name sir?

[RANT ON] Why is it tech companies insist on calling themselves names that start with lower case letters and then go on to include symbols that don’t mean anything? Okay, for a while in the 90s that was kind of fashionable, but why would you include a symbol in your name that isn’t actually phonetically pronounceable?

Bizarre. [/RANT OFF]

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HFW asks ‘where does your food come from and do you care?’

By Alex Meehan. First published in The Sunday Business Post, February 17th, 2013.

“We don’t question the provenance of our food enough and how meat, chicken and fish find their way into the food chain has become no more controversial than how, say, a tin of beans or a loaf of sliced bread is made and that’s not right.”

026Sitting down to chat with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is never boring. A fervent believer in the role of good food in the lives of healthy people, he’s just at home talking about lightweight projects like his Three Good Things book as he is talking about complex food politics.

With over 21 cookbooks, multiple TV series, two restaurants and a cookery school to his name, the predominantly self-taught cook has pulled off one of the most difficult transitions in television – from light entertainment to current affairs.

His campaigning efforts to engage the public in the politics of food have forced supermarket chains to sit up and take notice and in the process, he’s become the poster boy for food with a social conscience. His efforts have focussed the public’s awareness on the importance of traceability, ethics and sustainability in the food chain.

With the horse meat scandal fresh in the memories of Irish consumers, it seems his ideas are as timely as ever.

“The big problem with our relationship with our food is that it’s changed so much. The industrialisation of meat production and the commodification of meat has turned it from something that is precious into processed product that we take for granted when really we shouldn’t,” he says.

The uneasy relationships that exist where big business and consumer interests collide has been a rich source of inspiration for Fearnley-Whittingstall. His campaigns have seen him take on the poultry industry in his Chicken Out TV series, while his Fish Fight series looked at the EU-driven directive that obliged fishermen to discard huge amounts of fish.

These efforts have brought the TV cook to a new kind of audience. But at the same time, it’s opened him up to a barrage of criticism.

HFW“There are some questions that just asking can make you very unpopular,” he says. “But there’s a huge ethical dimension to eating meat, and that’s something I’ve tried to confront head on.

The Chicken Out programme focussed on the plight of intensively farmed chickens and ultimately resulted in modest but significant changes in the percentage of free range chickens offered for sale in Ireland and the UK.

“That campaign certainly annoyed some people and they’ve had a fairly easy comeback — ‘who’s he to tell us what to eat? He’s a posh boy who’s made lots of money from his TV shows and books — he can afford to eat what he likes.’.”

“There are a couple of ways to answer that argument. The first is that I don’t think I’ve ever told people what to eat. All I’ve really tried to do is tell people how their food is being produced and then they can make the decision about whether they want to eat it or not,” he says.

“People will also sometimes say that factory farming is here to stay because we need cheap meat. Well, I’m afraid we patently don’t — vegetarianism is an option.”

Critics of the cook say that arguing that meat production should be exclusively free range is an elitist point of view. Not everyone can afford to pay for a free range chicken, and with many families on seriously reduced budgets, intensively farmed meat is an unavoidable consequence of recessionary times.

1344951110-hffw_tourBut Fearnley-Whittingstall feels this is a kind of straw man argument because eating ethically produced meat isn’t necessarily a matter of cost.

“You can’t duck the ethical question by defaulting to the economic argument,” he says.

“Of course, you can be accused of elitism if you can afford good meat, but meat is something I think we should only really be eating occasionally. It’s perfectly possible to eat a healthy and interesting diet that features meat occasionally rather than every day at every meal.”

“Also, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t make it okay to cause animals pain and suffering that their meat is then very cheap.”

Extrapolating out the line of thinking, he says that there may be a demand for lots of cheap meat and people willing to fulfil that demand might be able to run profitable businesses on a large scale but that doesn’t make it okay.

“In the end I guess what bothers me is that the poultry business has been a fairly secret industry. If it’s an open industry and consumers make their decisions in the full knowledge of the facts, then I’m not going to argue with them. “

“The poultry industry in particular has traditionally been very closed to scrutiny. There was barbed wire around the farms that was meant to keep people out rather than chickens in. It was very hard to get access to film – next to impossible. Luckily we were able to find some more enlightened people in the industry who were willing to let us in.”

The resulting TV show had a concrete effect on consumption patterns, proving that it’s not when it comes to food politics, things aren’t as set in stone as they might seem.

“The statistics are different now. Before the campaign less than 5 per cent of poultry purchased in supermarkets in the UK was in any meaningful sense higher welfare. Now that’s pushing 15 per cent. Not all of that is free range but there has been a particularly big jump in the amount of indoor-produced RSPCA freedom foods poultry. Also, the whole industry has been looking more at breed selection in an effort to reduce mortality.”

“What happened with that campaign is that we made a significant number of life-long converts to either free range or higher welfare forms of chicken, and maybe a few fair weather converts as well. I’m pleased with that. I’d like it to have gone a lot further – we’re still looking at 85 per cent of poultry production being intensive in nature, but we made a difference.”

Fearnley-Whittingstall’s current TV project is a follow up to his 2011 Fish Fight series, entitled Fish Fight: Save Our Seas. That series succeeded in having the wasteful discard system banned by MEPs but this time he is attempting to tackle the issue of over fishing, the lofty ambition behind the campaign is to have new areas of marine protection declared around the world in order to protect fish stocks.

At a local level, he believes Irish consumers can do their bit to help manage our seas, starting with supporting local fishermen.

“One thing we can all do is this: we’ve got to stop hammering the same old species of fish over and over again. We need to diversify our tastes and spread our consumption over a range of sustainable fish, and not keep going for cod, farmed salmon, tinned tuna and prawns,” he says.

“Those four species make up over 80 per cent of all the fish we eat and you just know that’s not right when you hear that statistic. There is no easy answer here but if you live near the coast please support your local fishermen. Buy direct whenever you can and try to buy fish that’s landed near you and try to know where your fish comes from.”

Three Good Things – on a plate is published by Bloomsbury and is in the shops now, priced €36.50, while Fish Fight: Save Our Seas started February 14th and is broadcast on Channel 4 each Thursday evening at 9pm.

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Eckhart Tolle at Google.

An interesting discussion with Eckhart Tolle at Google. In particular, I like his thoughts on the difference between information and wisdom in a digital age.

Tolle is an interesting man. Some of his ideas lean towards the pseudo-scientific, but the main thrust of his teachings on mindful living are extremely useful, and far outweigh any of the negatives. At least for me — your mileage may, as they say, vary.