Footprint: the monthly update from the foodservice sustainability champion

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th April 2014
This is part of a series of monthly updates from Footprint, a publication promoting sustainable responsible business in the foodservice industry. 
 
Cooking with a conscience “We’re not called ‘MasterEvangelist’ or ‘MasterAwareness’, we’re called ‘MasterChef’. We are just there to find the best amateur cook in the country. I’m not going to make any judgment on what people eat, what people don’t eat and how they spend their lives.” F29 Cover‘MasterChef’ presenter John Torode has helped inspire a nation to embrace good food but he is reluctant to use the show to champion sustainability. By Anthony Pearce. After his departure from “This Morning” as its resident chef in 2000, John Torode swore he was packing TV in for good. “I made a decision that I would never cook on television again. I didn’t want to be ‘the celebrity chef’.” But he was back by 2005 – this time presenting – as the BBC relaunched “MasterChef”. “It was something that just opened up for me,” he says. “I never tried to get into TV, but someone approached me, asked if I wanted to be interviewed for the show and the next minute, there I was working as a judge. That was the best part of a decade ago and now I’m going to be involved in the 10th anniversary series,” he adds. In those 10 years, “MasterChef” has helped revolutionise and revitalise British food and its image. It also spawned dozens of other cookery shows. Nowadays, the TV guide now looks like a day’s training at Cordon Bleu. “From the barren culinary oasis it was in the early 1990s, it’s now a thriving scene,” says Torode. There are good shows and bad ones but “MasterChef” remains a constant: always entertaining and always educational. And Torode can take much of the credit. The effect has been inspiring for a country’s wider appreciation of cuisine. But how influential can cookery shows be when promoting sustainability? And do they shirk the responsibility? Unusually for Torode, he sits on the fence. “I can’t really comment on political standpoints like food, environment, obesity and various things – I don’t think that’s for me. It’s not because I don’t care about those things – I do, passionately – but I am a cook at the end of the day, I am not a spokesperson for the health service or the government. And I only stand to one side because it’s dangerous to become too embroiled in the debate. You can very quickly find yourself on trial.” What he will say is that he believes people should be aware of what they are doing. “Knowledge is so important with sustainability, and if we’re educating people with information that is honest and straight and not sensationalist, then we are offering the best possible opportunity for making considered decisions,” he adds. Perhaps he does have more to say on this after all? Given the high-profile nature of celebrity chefs, doesn’t there exist a real opportunity to educate a sizeable audience on an understanding of what it is they eat? P12 “I think provenance and sustainability is important, and more and more now it’s something people care about. But the issue we have is that the debate becomes mixed in with others. If you ask the average consumer what matters most, right now, they will probably say health. Past that, they’ll say price. The sustainability argument remains third on the list. And that’s the challenge – how do we move it up the list?” Torode admits the health argument is interesting. It has been one of the few constants in cuisine since he arrived in this country, and although eating habits and attitudes have improved in some areas, they remain misinformed or poorly informed in others. “With this conversation, you need to get to the point – very quickly – where we say that human beings know what makes them fat – they know the whole equation behind food and exercise. If people don’t eat healthily it’s not the fault of the chefs or the marketers or even the supermarkets. And that’s very different to provenance and sustainability ... there is a point where others have to help the process there. “But with health, I think there is probably something to be said about clarity – what is in things and the honesty about what is in things. But besides that, no, I think people should find a way of being informed and making their own decisions.” Again, I press for more. “MasterChef” is one of the most watched shows on television: does it not have some responsibility to its audience beyond being an enjoyable hour every week? “No. At the end of the day, we’re not called ‘MasterEvangelist’. We’re not called ‘MasterProtagonist’, we’re not called ‘MasterProtester’ and we’re not called ‘MasterAwareness’. We’re called ‘MasterChef’. We are just there to find the best amateur cook in the country; we’re there to find somebody who wants to change their life. And I’m not going to make any judgment at all on what people eat, what people don’t eat and how they spend their lives. I’m also not the Pope,” he laughs. For all his taking of the middle ground, outside “MasterChef” Torode has been involved in campaigns to reduce waste, calling for a change in European law to allow for a return to the traditional practice of feeding pigs with waste food. He works closely with the British Heart Foundation and cycled from London to Brighton as part of a fundraiser last year. When Torode was still running his celebrated Smiths of Smithfield restaurant in Farringdon, London, he delivered a lecture entitled Why Chefs Care About Farmers, in which he explained that animal welfare and food miles come top of the ethical worry list. He added that he believes there is a growing wish to eat more healthily and more simply. And much of his cooking is based on this philosophy: Torode’s dishes use day-to-day ingredients. As he famously put it: “I cook good food that is accessible – I have since the age of 16.” Torode occasionally writes columns on cooking and healthy eating. He’s a long- time defender of red meat (although once went vegetarian for a week and struggled). “Beef is not to blame,” he wrote in his book 'Beef: And Other Bovine Matters', “we are. Why? Because we eat too much, full stop. Too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt, too much everything.” But now he defends our love of meat. “Look at beef – it has so much in it ... vitamins, protein, monounsaturated fats. We need to protect its sustainability because it is so good for you. Our bodies need these nutrients to keep us healthy, build strong muscles, give us energy and help us fight disease. It’s about finding the balance,” he says. Next up for the chef is a new series called 'John Torode’s Australia', which gives viewers a real idea of the lifestyle and culinary scene down under. “We discuss sustainability in that, too,” he quips. “It’s a global issue – it’s not just us who want to find a solution.”

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 17th April 2014

Footprint: the monthly update from the foodservice sustainability champion