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Diversity,the spice of life

Miele presents 50 Best's thought-leadership series 50BestTalks in San Francisco, speaking on a more diverse future.

For a session titled “Voices for Change: Championing a Diverse Future”, the 50BestTalks held on 12 September in San Francisco, indeed heard many different opinions.

Proudly presented by Miele – which has long been a champion of diversity following its corporate philosophy and code of ethics – the two-hour long session saw Gaggan Anand, Virgilio Martinez, Enrique Olvera, Daniela Soto-Innes and Lara Gilmore take to the stage to speak about topics close to their hearts.

Breaking through barriers

In his presentation titled “Burning Bridges Across Asia”, Gaggan Anand – touted Asia’s best and most influential chef – shares his modus operandi of destroying boundaries to create new identities for Asian cuisine. And he certainly has broken fine dining conventions with his Bangkok restaurant Gaggan: “We (in Asia) are loud and might not have the social skills for a fine dining environment, we have our own domestic approach to food. So, we changed the ways: out of the 25 courses on our three-hour long tasting meal, 22 to be eaten by hand. Well, I am creating dishes that are supposed to be Indian… and in India we don’t have edible flowers on food! We eat with hands, all 1.3 million of us.” The Kolkata-born Punjabi chef created a progressive new style of Indian cuisine in Bangkok, Thailand, and next, he will be moving to Japan in 2020 for the opening of a new fine dining concept GohGan. It might be him who is physically crossing geographical boundaries, but his food – served to people from all around the world – is what is trying breaking barriers for Asian cuisines. “Whenever I win an award I would call my mum and she would say, ‘Again? You won it again? How do you do it? But remember, you have to leave what you have behind – so that you can go further.” This advice Gaggan applies to his own career – and it is a philosophy that can be adopted by chefs around the world to cross boundaries.

Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, known not just for her culinary ingenuity but also her staunch believe in equality, spoke about leading an ethical kitchen where everybody is respected and treated equally. “Everybody (in our team) must be seen and heard – nobody is a number. We must encourage everyone to be their own voice, free from fear of being judged. And we don’t just listen, we place value on every voice.” Crenn admits that fostering and maintaining such a culture is not without difficulties, but while it is easier to shut down differing opinion or voices of dissent, the right thing to do is to not run away from these problems that are being articulated, but to step up and work on it. “Gone are the days of militaristic mono-culture – let us move past ranks and hierarchies and change things – you own your own power.”

In a laughter-punctuated presentation on delivering a truly Mexican experience in their restaurants, Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes of Pujol and Cosme highlighted points that resonated with Crenn’s speech. “We like the idea of collaboration and horizontal structures,” proclaims Olvera in the joint presentation with Soto-innes. “We realise that a lot of us in the fine dining environment are really stressed… So, we decided to be Mexican – because we are people who know how to have fun – and have fun in the kitchen.” In doing so, they have managed to inject a distinctly Mexican spirit into their restaurant – one that is felt not just by diners, but also appreciated by the staff.  Despite admitting to be “closet perfectionists”, Olvera and Soto-Ines created a uniquely light-hearted work environment quite unlike that of a traditional kitchen brigade. “Cosme started with four cooks because nobody wanted to work in a Mexican restaurant – but now people are proud to be cooking in a Mexican restaurant… because we have created something authentic.”

Building a strong community within the kitchen is one thing, but it is another to engage the community outside of the restaurant, and Lara Gilmore from Osteria Francescana shares how this has proven to be inspirational. Together with her husband, Massimo Bottura, she started non-profit association Tortellante, a facility that came about because a friend asked if it might be possible to teach special needs youths how to make the traditional Modenese pasta. As a mother to a special needs son, the proposition inspired her. With her husband, they started rounding up Modenese grandmothers to impart their skills to the youths. “The boys took home a handful of tortellini after the class, and that changed everything. That they were making something became an identity for them. And that they are bringing food back to the family table made the families see them as people with an identity, a skill, a future.” Three years later, today, Tortellante is launching a fresh pasta lab and workshop where young adults with autism can learn to make and sell traditional Modenese tortellini. Under the organisation Food for Soul, Gilmore also sets up soup kitchens around the world, and beyond food, she is giving dignity to the underprivileged by serving them meals in welcoming, beautifully designed dining halls. This project was also one that engaged the international chef community – the likes of Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi and Daniel Humm all put their heads together to create recipes using food scraps. “These recipes are put together into a book Bread is Gold, and the great thing is that they can be cooked by anyone at home,” enthuses Gilmore. “It is a recipe book, but it is also an idea book full of solutions for leftover meat, eggs left sitting in the fridge…”

“When we connect with our community, with those most in need, we learn that anyone can be a voice for change. And just by sharing, caring, and doing something, by taking action, we can perhaps make the world better – or at least a more delicious one.”

Virgilio Martinez also connects with the local community – but for the different purpose of protecting and promoting biodiversity. In his speech, he puts out an open challenge to all: try something that you have not eaten before, be it piranha heads, alpaca hearts, barnacles, or purple-streaked potatoes cooked in ashes of quinoa stems. “I often witness people begin their love for a new ingredient from the moment they try it for the first time. It doesn’t matter if you have absolutely no point of reference when you are trying something new – that is the basis of learning.” The importance of showcasing these unfamiliar ingredients to his global diners goes beyond wowing them: it is about creating demand and value for the ingredient, and in turn impacts the people who care for it – the local Andean community who grow the ingredients and who Martinez works directly with. “Surrender to the possibility of not knowing – and the notion that you have yet to try your favourite food. It is a pretty amazing thing.”

One for all, all for one

While the discussion topics spanned from social equality to biodiversity, there was one over-arching ethos behind the chefs’ ideas: that change begins with the individual. “I am who I am because my parents taught me about life and people and diversity. You have to first develop yourself as a good human and then you develop good ideas,” says Crenn. Such “one for all, all for one” thinking applies not just to social topics of promoting diversity and equality in the work place, but to environmental issues such as sourcing sustainable ingredients and tackling climate change, opines Crenn. “Everybody can do something today, but it is not about today – it is about the future. And it is not just about chefs doing the work, but everyone playing their part.”

Chiming in with her observation on an initiative in small Italian commune Riccione, which abolished the use of plastic straws to great impact, Gilmore shares that it is often the small actions that count, and that we can all help to build a better future, staring with ourselves. “Ask question, be curious. Get your children to ask questions. With that then you can know what you should be supporting, what bigger problems we could be contributing to, and how we can help.”

At Miele, every individual plays a part in fostering the company’s culture of equal opportunity and respect regardless of nationality, skin colour, gender, religion, sexual orientation or physical disabilities. We believe that diversity enriches the lives of all – after all, our products cross all manner of boundaries to reach homes all around the world, and from them, a deliciously diverse repertoire of meals are created to nourish people who are all uniquely different.