Following the launch of the new one-day sustainability course at the River Cottage Chefs’ School, we spoke to one of the chef’s working to deliver a new standard in edible education. Stefani Smith tells us what inspired her to work at River Cottage, and her experience of teaching the course.
When did you first become interested in food and food issues?
I have always been interested in food, but cooking and working in the food industry made me more aware of the issues surrounding it. I wanted to know everything I possibly could about the provenance and procurement of the food I cooked. I read a lot of books and particularly learnt a lot from Michael Pollan and his book, ‘In Defence of Food’. It really opened my eyes, and made me incredibly passionate about understanding food production, getting involved, and making a difference through education.
What attracted you to work at River Cottage?
I’m a huge fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the work he has done. River Cottage encapsulates everything that I am passionate about in food, whilst also addressing food system issues. Working with a group of people that have the same ethos and interests as you, is a joy. I am surrounded by the River Cottage team who share my interest in sustainability, but understand ten times more than me. That’s why River Cottage is such a great place to work; a day doesn’t go by when I don’t learn something new.
How would you define sustainability and what does it mean to you?
For me, sustainability means having respect for the environment and our planet. It should play an important role in every person’s day-to-day life. You only have to look at climate change, and the issue of global warming, to see that changes need to be made to the way we live.
Sustainability within food is about knowing what you’re eating, and putting ethical procurement, wastage and preservation systems into practice. Sustainability means working with local farms and growers, understanding how animals are reared and vegetables grown; reducing, reusing and recycling; and finally bringing old habits, like smoking, curing and preserving, back into fashion.
Do you think it’s important that individual consumers become more aware of food sustainability issues?
I think that consumers have become very blinkered when it comes to the purchasing of their food. It is often really unclear to them what really goes on behind the scenes when food is produced. Food is essential for every human being to survive, and we should all have the information, education and awareness we need to make the right choices.
What advice would you give to people who want to live a more sustainable lifestyle?
Come on our sustainability course for a start and see where it takes you! You will learn about food sourcing, identification of products, understanding labelling, menu development, and also wastage. The course doesn’t only give you a better understanding of sustainability at River Cottage, you will also gain the skills and knowledge to return home and put your new skills into practice, either within your household or your business.
What do you enjoy most about teaching this course?
I love the diverse range of people that take part. We cover a wide variety of skills, such as butchery, curing and smoking, tasting sessions, live demonstration and debates. The amount of knowledge that I’ve gained from covering all the topics makes it very rewarding to teach. I also really enjoy how interactive it is, I never fail to learn an awful lot from the students that take part.
From an education perspective, what do you think is necessary to cause a substantial shift in the food culture of this country, in the way that we buy and cook food, to become more in line with the River Cottage way?
Education is the answer. We set up the Chefs’ School to educate chefs about ethical procurement, seasonality and sustainability. Culinary education at present is limited to the tutoring of ethical procurement in relation to sustainability and this knowledge is crucial for chefs to make an informed decision.
Having sustainability embedded in education from the beginning of a chef’s training is also very important for the knowledge to be passed on in various directions, creating a slow and steady shift in food culture. This in turn will affect the way we as consumers buy and cook food for the better.
How do you feel is the best way to engage people?
Getting people involved with what you’re doing is the best way of engaging them. Encouraging them to be enthusiastic about the topic you are teaching, without bombarding them with information. It’s a fine balance, and tricky to get right the whole time. I love learning from the people in my class, so I try and get them really involved and make the session interactive.
What other food projects or people are you impressed by?
I have been impressed by a lot of different projects and people while I have been cooking, but at present I find Hugh’s Fish Fight very inspirational. The changes that have been brought about within the fishing industry have been so important and it’s also helped to raise awareness amongst consumers of the problems of discards and overfishing. Also, Hugh’s Chicken Out! campaign, which aims to put an end to the intensive factory farming of chickens. Organisations such as Slow Food, Landshare, Food for Life, and all the work that the Soil Association does is incredibly inspirational.
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