What will you eat?
It is a rather complex question. First of all because I am a cook by profession and I understand that what we will eat doesn’t only depend on who prepares the product. Very often, it is social behaviour that determines the evolutions of the sector, something no artisan has control on, since various dynamics dictate them. Communication is much more responsible for what we put on our tables, here’s a banal example: in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the launch on the market of the big distribution of prepared food determined rather objectively and invasively the process of choice of some of the products. We all know that our country’s added value was to have discovered organic farming in the 20th century: we already grew our own vegetables, tomatoes didn’t undergo chemical treatments and we kept eating healthy till the ‘70s. In that decade though, the food industry clearly prevailed by offering us a way to find any type of product quickly and easily, causing us to lose – without realising it – the attachment to our land, our traditions and our historical heritage. All this led to eating habits that are quite wrong, supermarkets’ offer includes surrogates of natural products industrially processed without taking into consideration how harmful they are to our organism.
I’d rather not name names not to single any company out, but as an Italian I feel that the years since have not been years worthy of pride or particular attention. Work rhythms, the economic boom of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the wealth that has basically reached all our households led to this. Everybody was working, there was no time left to cook at home. Instead of storing good things, fridges started being full of plastic containers, frozen food with questionable traceability. From this point of view you can see how difficult it is to surmise how we will behave at the table in a few years, it’s simply not only down to who cooks.
I personally think that small businesses like ours have the opportunity to rely on small productive activities that can afford authenticity, identity and the unicity of a few micro-territorialities. This is because our clientele is very limited, we are a small restaurant with 40 covers, we don’t need to serve 200 meals a day. So I can go to the greengrocer’s, if he has 5 aubergines I buy 5 aubergines, some tomatoes and I concoct a recipe with those vegetables. The positive part is the unicity of the product, the difficulty lies in the fact that you end up anchored to your business more than necessary because you lose the delegation principle.
I find communication to be a fundamental aspect to understand how we will eat in a few years, because who talks about a product has the responsibility to provide suitable information. The factors that will affect our table behaviour are many. For example, artisans will have to be more responsible in finding truly authentic Italian products. In this regard, I think that the post-Covid-19 has made people understand that including products coming from the other side of the world in their menus is not convenient because it generates a consumption of energy with a rather strong impact on nature. The artisans’ responsibility will be to try more and more to make readily available products with reduced impact on the human being. The need to remain anchored to history is an aspect I also deem essential. Let’s not forget that the Mediterranean basin has had the extraordinary advantage of having favourable geographical location and micro-climate, which have given us excellences acknowledged the world over. The need to remain anchored to history is also due to the fact that some Roman food habits – mentioned by Marco Gavio Apicio and Archestrato di Gela – are still existent.
Responsibly listening to our customers is, in my opinion, another fundamental aspect. Having a dining guest doesn’t simply mean looking after them through our offer, because that wouldn’t take into consideration our public’s real needs (which are more and more researched and specific, since in the last few years more and more detailed information has been communicated). At the same time, we are experiencing some disadvantages deriving from an excess of communication, which creates a sort of bulimia constantly requiring innovative and unexpected culinary proposals.
We often talk about taste memory: what’s left in time is determined by a true and objective balance of flavours that can be recalled in a specific period.
Some aspects are conditioned by many factors: artisans, communication and responsible listening, academic investigation and need to remain anchored to history. By contrast, we have the aspect of “taste”, a phenomenon determined by society: we get used to defining what’s good as a collective behaviour. For example, if in the ‘70s they said it was fashionable to eat salmon, it wasn’t because everybody liked it, sometimes it is communication that determines it. This aspect is definitely in contrast with what I said before, because taste is subjective. This subjectivity is among the most difficult things to change in time: what somebody likes today is unlikely to be what others will like in 50 years.
A thought must be spared for the younger consumers: when I see children eat I wonder why they have that negative attitude that leads them to crave over-flavoured food, but in a rather unsuitable manner. This element makes me doubtful about the fact that communication and artisans are doing the right thing, because children are our future diners.
We should give importance to time spent at the table, as it was in the ‘70s, when meals were the opportunity for families to gather and talk. Something not to be taken for granted: in many countries people eat in front of the TV or standing or in a hurry, because the ritual of sitting together at the table is not part of their culture. In addition, I now often see children that, as well as eating disorderly, use technological devices while sitting at the table, disrupting the ritual and the communication among the diners. I understand that providing children with technological entertainment is a way for parents with hectic schedules to relax, but that can’t be the solution.
An over-communication about food is certainly felt nowadays. Chefs have paradoxically become so interesting from a visibility point of view that this can sometimes be a disturbing element, inasmuch as it distracts attention away from what they should actually be doing, i.e. trying to administer healthy and home-cooked food. The Italian identity greatly benefits from a microterritoriality deriving from the fragmentation that has characterized the nation since the institution of the first republic. I see this microterritoriality and the shift in taste that can be perceived in the span of 10 kms as strong points. This is due to Italy having always been very fragmented as a nation.
In terms of a chef’s responsibilities, I reckon we have to try to understand why we’ve been cooking certain things in the same way for many years, and why some flavours are strictly connected with the territory. On that basis, we have to try to give our food habits a healthy twist, i.e. using less fat, less invasive cooking methods, raw products not artificially ripen to be ready for the market faster.
Over-communication has also spectacularized this job. Unfortunately, I often read that vanity has overcome flavour, and the professional chef is more talked about then their excellent courgettes, peppers or aubergines. I try to keep out of self-referential showbiz, but television has certainly drawn attention to an occupation previously looked at with much less interest. In the last few years there’s been a lot of cooking and food programmes, so, bizarrely, chefs have almost reached the status of TV stars; I think that this aspect will settle into a more natural balance. It’s not a side of things I’m interested in since I don’t watch much television and I don’t follow social media, as I don’t believe they provide reliable information as channels of communication.
It’s important to quote the great French food politician Brillat-Savarin, who – in his book Physiology of Taste – wrote “tell me how you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”. This sentence from a 300-year-old book is all-encompassing: the culture of a people, the historic connection I’ve talked about, social culture. And I think that it’s also at the table that the culture of a people is defined.
I personally try to responsibly use raw products of which I know the provenance: the flavour must come from producers who have worked with a strong sense of responsibility. A small business can strive towards the “good and well-made”, whereas brands can be dangerous, because standardising a flavour means having the same raw product spread over many servings, dissipating the authenticity of very few products.
The determining factors are therefore many: communication, the artisan’s and the guest’s responsibility and ability to listen. I find that moderation is essential at the table. I tend to end a meal with a bit of appetite left. This means that I can enjoy my food more attentively: I carefully listen to what I’m eating without satisfying my taste buds immoderately, but rather respecting my organism, allowing it to absorb calories in a certain way.
I think that the responsibility falls on all of us and on all the aspects I’ve mentioned: a bit more silence, listening, moderation; the attempt to understand what and where we come from brings us back to the principle I’ve quoted above: tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.