Culinary ideas for sustainable gastronomy

Hello, Roots Radicals community!

As we slowly transition to summer from -what it seemed to me- an endless winter, I wish to start this blog-conversation by thinking about the influence of weather in our daily lives. On this side of the emisphere, most of us have experienced the heavy rainy days of the last two weeks and the immediate reflex is to complain, but let’s stop for a moment and think who else is benefiting from the rain? Plants and trees grow stronger -we all know that- but let’s look a little beyond the obvious: heavy rain helps the rivers increase its flow and pushes more water into the ground, which enriches the soil bacteria; this benefits many local farmers, who can also collect rainwater to irrigate the season’s crops, like asparagus. In summary, next time you’re eating your delicious spargel, thank the May rain.

This brief exercise of connecting our food to the natural phenomena of the places we live in is what sustainable gastronomie is all about. To talk about this, and to celebrate the 10th episode of our IG-TV Rooted Lives, I invited the one and only Monica Kisic. Her interdisciplinary path has explored different scales of sustainable relationships, from microbes and bacterias, to food-waste communities and art collectives. And through all she has kept on adding up to the manifold of conscious acts, most of this around food and gastronomie. No wonder that she reunited all this knowledge into the circular kitchen of Roots Radicals, where there is no such a thing as food waste, just by-products. “I think Sustainability has to do a lot with our human values, and now with the current [global warming] context has become an inevitable subject that we should all care about.” -shared Monica.

Come Conciencia, a multi-sensorial tasting menu, a book, an art show. Photo: Monica Kisic, 2013

“Since the beginning of my path as a scientist I have had a special care for the study of life. Which actually comes from having been borned and raised in Perú, a country with such a huge natural  biodiversity, but at the same time in cities like Lima where you are surrounded by chaos and pollution. This is why I had an activist group in university. I saw that our urban consumption and trash was heavily harming the coastal ecosystems, like the beaches in the Costa Verde.

With cooking, the concept of sustainability comes together with respect -for the environment and ourselves. Because we can’t separate ourselves from nature, we are part of it! But respect specially for produce, which is something I started to value more as I went from the lab to the kitchen. Ancestral processes like fermentation, show that human existence can live in respect of nature. Then the artist part is an expression of these paths, of my work in a much more creative sense and renovated meaning. As an artist I’ve explored individual and multi-collaboratively performances, together with a collective called Elephants and Volcanoes. We created artistic experiences that transmitted a meaning about life and respect for nature.”

Indeed, sustainability is respect. And this value is the base for any nurturing more-than-human relationships: with the soil we eat from, the trees that give us oxygen, the bees that pollinate the flowers, the water that flows and nurtures riverbench, etc. Like any other relationship, we need time to get to know each other, and be grateful for the exchange of energy and what it brings to us. But also we need to acknowledge our effect on others’ lives, and prevent any toxic input or harmful disturbance. Living sustainably is a well balanced relationship with our surrounding, all living beings included -it’s challenging, but joyful!

Come Conciencia, developed together with Elephants&Volcanoes in NYC. Up: the book, Bottom: planting and dinner experience. Photo: Monica Kisic, 2013

It is helpful to recognize that sustainability and circularity work together as conscious concepts, but are not the same. Sustainability is the big umbrella for different development models that relate people, natural resources and economies. It’s often understood as actions that help a specific group of humans meet their needs, without compromising the resources for other groups or for future generations to satisfy their first necessities. Circularity can be one of these actions, but it’s focus is in creating a system in which all resources are either consumed or transformed into new materials that meet other needs. “Circularity and sustainability stand in a long tradition of related visions, models and theories”, these include (just to name a few) Regenerative Design, the Donut-Economy, and the Sustainable Development Goals -which we talk about in our last post.

So how do these concepts work together in the kitchen? Departing from a fast-paced and unsustainable restaurant culture, the FAO defines Sustainable Gastronomie as “cuisine that takes into account where the ingredients are from, how the food is grown and how it gets to our markets and eventually to our plates.” Or as Monica puts it “a sustainable cuisine is one that cooks with respect and awareness.”

“The experience that introduced me to my path in sustainable gastronomy was working with chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill’s kitchen in Stone Barns Center. He was a big mentor and a really smart person that has a vision to go further from the idea that a chef’s goal is just having a restaurant and feeding people. Dan taught me about flavors in relation to seasonality, learning from the complexity of the soil to understand what we can put on the plate. For example, to serve a corn based dish, i would have to think that for the corn to grow i need to plant leguminose next to it, so i couldn’t forget to include the beans in this dish. Although it is a very high cuisine kitchen, he is very aware of farming processes and wishes to teach people about it, either through farming workshops or through the menu display.

Then coming back from Blue Hills to my home country [Perú], I applied this knowledge as head-chef of IK, in Lima. It was beautiful because it was thinking about ancestral cooking techniques in relation to altitude level and geography. So eating depends on what surrounds you and what your culture can give you. In IK we tried to narrate our culture through each plate, and give a sense of the ecologies in peruvian cuisine to our guests.”

Sustainable actions in and out of the kitchen. Left: Zero Waste Menu, Right: Moni at the farm.

Monica’s experiences shed a light on how fascinating and crucial is the labor of a chef, in local and global efforts towards a Green Transition. The kitchen becomes a bridge between the guests’ commensals and the ecological and cultural context the food served. “Dan Barber used to say that chefs have a huge influence in what people appreciate as good food” shares Monica, “we can either import the high-end (frozen) salmon or we can either choose to serve and promote the local fishery species”.  Chefs become mediators, who can provide a sustainable statement with each plate and creative composition by not only caring about the product origin, but also about your cuisine waste. In fact, this reflection anyone who cooks can -and should- care about this, and that is the motivation to start a zero-waste kitchen.

“I think a zero-waste kitchen is the next (obvious) step for any sustainable approach to gastronomie. Blue Hill’s kitchen was a great example of this. They were always making the most out of each produce and what couldn’t be used went directly to the compost for the farm. But also, zero-waste actions are something that can be practiced in any kitchen, and in fact it is nothing new. On Friday we were in our stand at Markthalle Neun, explaining the circular processes of our kitchen, like food preserves and fermentation, and one senior lady said ‘I’ve been doing this all my life.’ Absolutely! Food preservation is part of the ancestral knowledge of so many cultures, in a time when we used to have respect for our planet and appreciate the crops of each season. This lady probably faced many harsh winters in which food security was ensured by pickling methods … it’s unbelievable how much you can find in old cooking books on how to make the most of food and surpluses, that for me is hard to understand why we stop doing this?

Thankfully the time that we’re living right now asks us to come back to this food knowledge, for which we have the best tools and technology to support this sustainable lifestyle. Even many restaurants have committed to explore more on food preservation and zero-waste methods. But we can all take part of this kitchen eco-activism in our communities by, for example, sharing recipes with vegetable peels broth or by learning together how to ferment apple vinegar from the peels and cores that are left over. The key to be circular is to get creative”

No waste, just raw materials and circular culinary ideas. Up: Onion peels about to go into the dryer, Bottom: Upcycled garlic, tomato and onion peels salts and seasonings.

Roots-radicals zero waste kitchen is always open to share this knowledge with anyone who asks, local or global friends. For this we opened our online community and started the group Circular Cooking at Home. We know it’s challenging and that most of us have very little time to cook because of work and studies, but hey! That is what communities are for. Let’s support our zero-waste transition by exchanging not only recipes but sustainable tasks. Maybe one week you can gather all the peels and on the weekend your roommate can make the miso-soup, or even share those red-onion peels with another friend that is trying out new dying techniques. A zero-waste kitchen can be a place for all types of experimentation, and the materials that we recover from there can serve a bigger creative network. We just need to jump into this circularity with bold ideas!

This conversation with Monica was so nurturing. When talking about food, we are definitely interconnected, through culture and ecology. As our dear co-founder shared with us: “You can choose to be on the sustainable side of gastronomy, either as a professional or amateur cook. To prepare a meal with enough consciousness, where food narrates its own culture and that highlights the ecological richness of the place that you’re at -either is in Perú or Germany.”

Let us know your sustainable culinary ideas, by leaving a comment here or in the Circular Cooking group. It can be a take on a traditional dish from your country or a simple home-cooking hack. What if we start with one zero-waste recipe a month? then a week… and suddenly our kitchens are taking delicious steps towards sustainable gastronomy! 

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