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Food for thought: The Politics and Pleasures of Food

Culinary legend Yottam Ottolenghi. Photo: thisislondon.co.uk

As a keen reader of the Observer Food Monthly, I was excited to be attending this event – especially to see restaurant critic Jay Rayner and chef Yottam Ottolenghi, two culinary legends, on stage.
Rayner was the host of the panel discussion, entitled “The Politics and Pleasures of Food”, and Ottolenghi was part of the panel, along with Masterchef winner Tomasina Meyers, editor of OFM Allan Jenkins and food writer Fuchsia Dunlop.
It should have been an evening of lively discussion and foodie talk but instead it was… well, a teensy bit dull. Rayner was extremely engaging as chairman, making the audience laugh, keeping the discussion moving and even poking fun at his own sizeable paunch (what do you expect if you literally eat for a living?), but the discussion itself was quite repetitive and not particularly riveting.
The panel did cover some interesting topics, including the virtues of organic food, an issue which was properly explored and on which the panel disagreed, with Ottolenghi dismissing the concept altogether as somewhat of a scam, and Tomasina Meyers arguing for the need for greater sustainability. Some very interesting statistics were mentioned, including the fact that 30% of our food in the UK goes to waste. From this perspective, the discussion was thought-provoking in that it made me consider the ethics of food in a way I never really had before.
However, for a talk promising “pleasures and politics”, it was definitely lacking in the pleasures department. I’d expect five serious food professionals to want to talk about their favourite recipes, food trends and new ideas but everyone seemed keen to assert how serious they were about the ethical issues (apart from Fuchsia Dunlop, who made little contribution other than to plug her own book).
There was also a prevailing sense of middle-class guilt hanging over the whole event, with all the panellists repeating the vague sentiment that even people with very little money can cook healthy, exciting food, whilst ignoring the fact that in reality, heavily processed food products are so much cheaper and convenient for the everyday family.
The discussion culminated in questions from the audience, none of which were particularly insightful, although the very last one was from a woman who just wanted to add something positive to the proceedings by telling us all about her local food co-operative group – she received loud applause and a big smile from us all.
Despite this somewhat ambivalent review, I did enjoy myself, especially afterwards when, my appetite whetted by all the food talk, I went across the road to the Japanese restaurant Pompoko and enjoyed an excellent chicken curry. Who knows? Perhaps I’m Jay Rayner in the making.

Katie O’Shea

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