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.

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.

The Italian Job: Gennaro Contaldo

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

IMG_2213Gennaro Contaldo is one of the most recognisable faces in the food world. A respected chef in his own right, he’s appeared in multiple TV series, written award winning food books and run successful restaurants but is still best known as mentor to TV’s reigning culinary giant Jamie Oliver.

In Dublin for a routine staff meeting at Jamie’s Italian in Dundrum, he’s taking the chefs through their paces, working on specials and making sure things are as they should be – this is his role in the chain and with more than 30 restaurants to look over, he spends a lot of time on the road.

On the morning I visit to interview him, it’s clear it’s a hands-on position – Trevor Oliver, Jamie’s Dad, and Contaldo address the floor staff together and work in the kitchen while Irish business partner Gerry Fitzpatrick looks on. The morning takes an immediate turn for the surreal when instead of a sit-down interview, he insists we need to get into the kitchen first.

He soon has me ricing potatoes to prepare potato gnocchi while he whips up two different sauces to go with our lunch. In five minutes flat, he’s prepared fresh gnocchi with smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, chilli, garlic and basil and a separate gnocchi dish with butternut squash, rosemary and garlic.

And just because the restaurant received an order of great looking giant Amalfi lemons that morning, he finishes with a linguine dish dressed with lemons and pecorino cheese.

“I started work in the kitchen at the age of about 10. My father was a linen dealer and I ended up in the kitchen by mistake. He had a good friend, Alfonzo, who had a restaurant in the next town to where we lived and one day he was called away and dropped me off there to be looked after,” he says.

“I was only meant to stay for the afternoon, but three years later I was still rushing there after school and on the holidays to learn as much as I could. I wanted to learn it all and the first thing I learned was to shut up and listen.”

Contaldo comes across as a really genuine guy, and is exactly the same in person as he is on TV. He’s been living in the UK for over 40 years, yet he retains a charmingly dense Italian accent. However life wasn’t simple for the young chef when he arrived in the UK in the late 1960s.

With many years of professional cooking under his belt, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of regional Italian cuisine, he expected to hit the ground running, cooking the dishes he knew and loved from home. But there were problems when he got his first job as a chef in London.

“There were dishes on the menu that didn’t exist in Italy and there were also dishes that were completely different even though they had the same names,” he says.

“I worked in a restaurant bang in the middle of Mayfair and on my first day I was asked to make a spaghetti carbonara – ‘easy’ I thought, ‘I know this’. By then I’d been all over Italy and I knew my job upside down and inside out. But the head chef said ‘can I show you how we make it?’ I said ‘of course’ and I couldn’t believe my eyes when he started to make a béchamel sauce and then started adding cheese.”

Béchamel sauce is made with butter, flour and milk but proper spaghetti carbonara uses none of these – it’s made with raw beaten egg, using the residual heat in cooked pasta to cook the egg into a creamy silky sauce – no Italian worth their salt adds cream or uses a béchamel type of sauce in a proper carbonara.

“It was awful, just disgusting. But it got worse – after he’d made this gloopy thick sauce, he added it to spaghetti which was pre-boiled. They used to cook all the pasta for the restaurant in advance and then reheat it when the orders came in. I couldn’t believe it.”

“It was so far from authentic Italian cuisine I didn’t know what to say. I tried to argue with the guy but all he’d say was ‘this is how the customers want it’ but I couldn’t bring myself to cook such rubbish. They fired me on the spot.”

IMG_2263Contaldo says this approach to Italian cooking was common in the 1970s and the food served in many restaurants of the day bore little resemblance to that found in Italy.

“That was very common at the time. Many of the Italian people who turned up in the UK and decided to open restaurants weren’t necessarily great cooks. They improvised and made-up what they didn’t know,” says Contaldo.

Things have moved on enormously in Ireland and the UK, he believes, but even now it can be hard to find truly authentic Italian food.

“What’s changed since the 1970s is that now people travel a lot more. More and more Irish and English people have visited Italy and realise that what was being served at home isn’t the same as what was being served in Italy. Their tastes have changed.”

“It also started to become a lot easier to get quality ingredients. I remember when you could only buy olive oil in a pharmacy– it was used for cleaning out your ears,” he says. “Now you can get extra virgin olive oil everywhere.”

Recovering from his disastrous start, Contaldo went on to have a successful career in London, working with respected Italian chef Antonio Carluccio and later, co-owning his own influential restaurant Passione.

“I worked with Antonio for a long time – he’s a fantastic chef. We offered London customers much more authentic traditional dishes and pretty soon, we started to see these versions of our dishes appearing on other Italian restaurant menus. But for a long time, it was hard work,” he says.

In Ireland Contaldo is best known for his TV work with Carluccio and with his protégé Jamie Oliver. He’s been involved in the Jamie’s Italian chain since it launched in 2008. Oliver turned up on Contaldo’s doorstep as a teenager looking for work, having asked around and being told that Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant was the best in London.

Contaldo is philosophical about the meeting – it wasn’t unusual for young chefs to appear at the back door looking for work but he would send them away to apply at the restaurant’s office. Something about the teenager’s sincerity impressed him however, and Contaldo took him on. Oliver did a stint as a pastry chef before moving on to the River Café as a sous chef.

“Jamie comes from a humble family. His dad Trevor was a chef with his own pub, and Jamie grew up in the kitchen with his dad. But when he was 14 or 15, he decided to go down to London, to improve his skills and to bring them back to the family pub. He went to catering college but at the time cooking training emphasised French food much more than Italian.”

“But Jamie decided he wanted to focus on Italy. It’s the simplicity that got him – it’s not so sauce based and there’s nowhere to hide if you make a mistake. It’s quick and it’s based around quality produce,” he says.

“So one morning at 7am he knocked on my door. I looked at him and to be honest I was pretty annoyed. I’d been in work until late the night before and was back in at the crack of dawn, so I was tired and a bit irritable. He had a mop of curly blonde hair and looked a quarter of his age.”

“He had a spark, something about him. I wanted to teach him because I thought he had something. He asked lots of questions, people liked him and he clicked. After two or three weeks, he was doing everything. He was the first in and last out every day and he worked hard.”

Twenty years later the pair are working together again. Contaldo works full time with the Jamie’s Italian chain  and the pair have perhaps the most unlikely friendship and partnership in the food industry. Contaldo says at 64 he’s twice Oliver’s age yet the two have never had a significant disagreement and that their business relationship hasn’t damaged their friendship — he works “with Jamie for us.”

Meanwhile, the Jamie’s Italian juggernaut shows no signs of slowing. There are already more than 30 restaurants in the chain with one in Ireland in Dundrum, and plans to open more in Perth in Australia, St Petersburg and VivoCity in Singapore, as well as more in the UK in 2013 alone.

“I have the freedom to do whatever I want. I travel to all the restaurants constantly, looking at the specials and helping each of the restaurants solve the problems that they need help and advice for. I cook a lot – I get behind the stove as often as possible,” he says.

“I get tired obviously – after two or three hours hard graft I’m done but the younger guys and girls, the 25 year olds, can go and go just like I did when I was their age.”

“We do sourcing all the time. It’s a matter of love and passion, searching for the best local produce for each restaurant. Here in Ireland, you have the most amazing meat, great beef and lamb. Sure, you don’t have lemons or olive oil, but as much as possible we used local ingredients and in Ireland you genuinely have some of the best produce in the world. The fish here is great, you have the best fish.”

“There are some things – prosciutto, mozzarella, olive oil, lemons – that have to come from Italy, but as much as possible we work locally.”

iOS 7: first impressions

So I’ve been using iOS7 on my phone for the last two days and thought I’d post something about it.photo

Firstly though, some people will want to know how I have it now when it was barely announced this week and isn’t available to the public until the autumn.

I don’t actually actually have ‘it’ because nobody does, outside Apple itself. What I have is a pre-release beta version. Apple released this build to developers this week so that they can get working on apps that will complement the operating system well in advance.

And actually, anyone can have it now. You just have to register with Apple as an app developer. It costs around €80 and then you can download and install it. Doing so entails a certain risk because by definition beta software isn’t fully finished.

However in this case, the ios7 beta seems pretty stable to me. There are one or two niggling little things that are obviously not quite right, but to all intents and purposes, it works properly and all the functions seem ready to go.

Because it’s beta software, it’s not really fair to write a review of it. Any review published now doesn’t reflect the experience that customers will have when they download the finished version later this year.photo 2

But I do think I can give an opinion, with the caveat that I won’t mention something about it which I feel is likely to be fixed by the time it appears. First impressions? It’s fantastic. A really great operating system that is substantially different in look and feel from iOS6.

Some things will take some getting used to. For instance, the colour scheme is challenging at first. I think it’s no coincidence that Apple has used a white phone in all its promo videos as the colours it’s using now for its flagship app icons look better with that body colour.

Undoubtedly lots of people will be turned off by the bold use of colour and typography, but please remember that Apple was faced with an impossible task here. This operating system is used by so many millions of people that it’s not unfair to say that almost everyone is familiar with it. How do you make a product that makes everyone happy?

photo 1You can’t really. If you’re clever you try to make a product that makes you happy and you hope that this is acceptable to enough people that it’s a success. I think that with iOS 7 Apple has decided not to be all things to all people, and that’s to be lauded. Some people will be put off by the look of it, but you know what, it grows on you.

I looked at my wife’s iPhone 4 next to my iPhone 5 last night to compare the two, and when you see them together, iOS6 looks old fashioned, heavy and clumsy. iOS 7 looks light and vibrant and modern.

Will it age well? We’ll have to see but for now I can’t see myself uninstalling this for iOS 6.

The SBP, onwards and upwards.

As I’m sure most media-watchers in Ireland are aware, the Sunday Business Post newspaper recently exited an examinership process. The court appointed examiner from Grant Thornton managed to find a new owner for the company and has secured its future in the short to medium term.

Today, the creditor’s meeting was held at which people owed money by the paper would find out how much they would actually get. As is normal with such things, the Revenue Commissioners and Dublin City Council got all their money, while lesser creditors of various classes got proportionally less.

As a freelance journalist who works with the Sunday Business Post a lot, it looks like I will get 15 per cent of what I’m actually owed. (For a variety of reasons, I actually hadn’t written that much for the paper in the period concerned, so I wasn’t owed that much. It was still a sizable sum of money but less than some are owed and more than others.)

One part of me can’t help but feel an injustice at not getting fairly paid for work that was done and delivered to a high level of professionalism . . . but another part is just extremely glad that the paper is surviving.

If my contribution to its survival is a couple of hundred euro, then I think that’s a price that’s well worth paying and I’m happy to pay it.

The Sunday Business Post is staffed by a great group of people and has broken some fantastic stories over the years. I’ve worked for it for approximately 19 years and think it’s a genuinely important fixture in the Irish media world.

We would be poorer off as a society without it.

Onwards and upwards.