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Interview - Issue 6

Grown, Cooked and Served

Conor Spacey is the culinary director of FoodSpace Ireland - a catering company with a focus on social responsibility and sustainability that operates throughout Ireland, producing over 2m meals a year.
He has been a chef for over 30 years and is a member of the Chef’s Manifesto - a global network of chefs advocating for a better food future. He talks to Where the Leaves Fall’s editors, Luciane Pisani and David Reeve, about sustainability in relation to the food system and how it is one of the focal points of this year’s UN Food Systems Summit.

Conor Spacey plating up at a supper club in Dublin’s Ink cafe, Ireland.

Luciane: Thanks very much for talking to us. We’d like to start by asking who or what led you to thinking about sustainability in relation to the food system?

Conor: My parents. I grew up in a regular two-story semi-detached house and we grew our vegetables in the back. If it wasn’t in season then it wasn’t growing. That was just embedded in me, I didn’t know any different. So when I started working in restaurants and seeing waste, and seeing chefs ordering food from halfway around the world, because they like the idea of a dish they wanted to produce - rather than actually thinking about how sustainable that plate of food is - I wasn’t comfortable with it.

What I’ve learned with the Chef’s Manifesto is that you have to look at the global food system. Imagine me working here and thinking: “I can make Ireland sustainable.” That’s not going to make much of a difference globally. And if I look at FoodSpace, 85% of all the food we use is Irish. And what’s not Irish are things that we can’t get like tea, coffee, chocolate, spices, and exotic fruits. Food has to travel, but I think it was back then that I really noticed the implications of buying food out of season. You’re telling the customers that it’s okay to have strawberries in January and all these non-seasonal ingredients that have come halfway around the world.

Fermented, roasted and pickled carrots with homemade burrata.

Luciane: And not everyone has this kind of connection. I grew up in Brazil, in a big city where people don’t have gardens. It’s crazy because there’s amazing nature in Brazil, but growing up in a city as millions do means we don’t connect with it. We don’t have the connection with seeing things growing.

Conor: That’s the thing. I think it’s fun having conversations outside Ireland, with people around the world. I also understand that I was in a privileged area where we could have access to growing our own food, and not everybody has that. And then depending on where people are globally, and whether they’re in rural or urban areas, there’s also different climates and so on. I remember talking to a chef in Canada, years ago. We were talking about sustainable food, local food. And he was saying: “Well, I’m under snow and ice six months a year, we don’t grow food.”

David: So, before we talk about possible solutions, how broken do you think the food system is?

Conor: I think it’s very broken. A question I get asked is: “What do you mean by a broken food system? What is that?” I explain it in numbers: the amount of food we waste, the number of people that are starving or malnourished. And the biggest problem globally is food accessibility. People don’t have access to food. There’s enough food on this planet to feed everybody. We know that. We throw away a third of all the food that’s produced. So we don’t need to produce more food. Food we have - we have all the food we need on this planet. But unfortunately, almost a billion people do not have access to it. One in seven.

And, here in Ireland, one in 11 people are in food poverty. Irish people don’t know about that. Because Ireland is seen as this developed country on the side of Europe. It’s doing okay for itself. People have nice lifestyles and so on. But yet one in 11 people in Ireland go hungry while we throw away one million tonnes of food a year here. People think that food poverty is for underdeveloped countries. They think it’s something that happens on the other side of the planet, and we don’t have to worry about it. A lot of what I do is opening your eyes to what’s going on here, as well as globally. It’s like taking the global problems and making them Irish and going: “This is what’s going on in your doorstep.”

A selection of fermented foods from FoodSpace’s Galway kitchen, where the fermentation program is used to prevent food waste.

David: So the UN Food Systems Summit this year is an opportunity for change. There are a series of five action tracks that the summit will be focusing on, so I was hoping we could look at action track two - shift to sustainable consumption patterns - and talk a little around that.

Luciane: It is focused on building consumer demand for sustainably produced food, strengthening local value chains, improving nutrition, and promoting the reuse and recycling of food resources, especially among the most vulnerable.

Conor: Alongside accessibility, food waste is the key [to sustainable consumption]. When it came to profit and loss I could never understand the wastage elements. Here’s what we bought, this is what we spent. This is what we took in. And here’s a waste margin. That waste margin could be 5% or 10% of your purchases. So if you spend 200,000 euros on food, you’re basically allowed to throw away 10,000 euros worth of that food in a year. You’re actually on balance sheets allowed to do that. And I never understood that years ago, looking at balance sheets and going: “So an accountant is telling me from a monetary point of view, I can throw away food?” And go: “Yeah, we’ve allowed that.” Well, why don’t you just not throw it away? In FoodSpace we don’t have a margin to be allowed to throw away food. We’ve proven that by producing 2m meals a year without wasting anything it can be done on that scale.

We introduced food waste systems programmes into our kitchens and we train our chefs on how to use every single thing, every part of every vegetable or bit of meat or fish, whatever it is we have coming in, so that we don’t waste any of it. And we try to avoid it going to compost - that’s a quick fix as well. That is not stopping food waste, because you could have had other things done with that. The solution to food waste, what I have found, can be found in the past. So when we go back thousands of years and look at the food cultures in terms of fermentation, in terms of air drying food and pickling and so on, this is how people preserved their food and avoided waste. It was taking those old practices, and modernising them for our kitchens, training our chefs on what to use and how to use everything: from vegetable peels, to fish bones, to literally everything that they had previously been taught to throw away.

‘Even if you can do it for a day, take your bins out of the kitchen so you have to look and address the waste you produce. What are you going to do with it?’

David: What can we do, for instance, with those tough bits like the outer leaf sheaths of a leek? These are the first parts that are usually discarded when we wash them.

Conor: We do it at home and we do it as chefs. So for me, a lot of the tough things like that, that are chewy, you can do a lot of things with them. You can braise them and also dehydrate them. We take out all the moisture and we grind them into powders. And what we do then in our kitchens is we reduce our sodium levels in our salt by having 50/50. So we have, say, 50% leek powder, 50% salt, and we mix it so we have a leek salt. These salts can be used to season the same ingredient it came from which adds this umami - a savoury taste - and almost increases the flavour of the vegetable you’re cooking by using itself to season itself. You really notice the difference in flavour.

David: In the professional kitchen you have the machines, but what about at home?

Conor: Turning your oven to the lowest setting like 50 degrees or less will dehydrate any vegetable without cooking it and such. You’re just removing the moisture. And then depending on the vegetable, we will have very fine grinders where we can grind this to powder. I would normally say if they have a pestle and mortar, start it in that and then finish it in a food blender. And potatoes are such a huge part of our diet. If we need to peel the potato, we ferment the skins and use that to make soda bread and brown bread - the flavour is intense. It’s really about thinking outside the box. So a lot of kitchens that I go into work with, I say: “Even if you can do it for a day, take your bins out of the kitchen so you have to look and address the waste you produce. What are you going to do with it?” Chefs are very creative by nature, so once they’re given a task like that, they start to think. It’s about treating food, or food waste, just as importantly as the actual piece of food that it came from - be it a vegetable or a piece of meat, or whatever.

When it comes to food waste, the numbers say it all. It happens on farms, it happens in our homes. I know in Ireland, 70% of all food waste occurs in people’s homes, not in industries. And 50% of all supermarket food waste goes to landfill. This is surplus food - it’s not food that is out of date or dangerous - it’s edible. Then a further 35% goes to animal feed and only 15% then goes to food banks. There’s a reason behind that. I spoke to people in supermarkets, who obviously didn’t want to be named, but it’s about the whole procurement system. From a supermarket’s point of view, the cheapest option is to fill skips at the back with perfectly good food. That system is broken. And legislation needs to change the system. Consumers can change what’s on the shelf to a certain degree, but as long as these systems are there where food waste exists and so on in supermarkets, consumers can’t change that.

Conor Spacey presenting a food waste demonstration during a Chefs’ Manifesto action hub meeting at OmVed Gardens, London, UK.

Chaff is the leftover skin from the coffee bean roasting process. This is used for fermenting coffee and pickling beef.

Luciane: What can consumers do about food waste and supermarket choices?

Conor: Supermarkets sell products for a profit, but will only sell what’s selling, so we can change that as consumers. If we vote with what we’re buying, and how we buy, then change will come about. But talking to people, I don’t think consumers are aware of the choices they’re making and the effects those choices have. We want access to food all year round to consume - people have forgotten when food is at its best. So I think education is so important for consumers to understand the choices they make, and the better choices they can make, which in turn would change supermarkets. And supermarkets don’t help in the way that when you go into supermarkets, you see everything, so you automatically presume it’s okay to have it. The consumers buy with their eyes.

Being such a competitive, price-driven industry, means that we sell food for less than its true value, and people are then disconnected from the actual value of food. So as a consumer I buy a bag of carrots for 1 euro, or whatever it might be, it costs probably three times that to produce it. But as a consumer, I think this is a cheap, accessible vegetable. And then in turn, I don’t feel bad about throwing out two carrots or something at the end of the week, because it’s worth pence. They don’t connect to the value of it, they don’t connect to the energy, the water, the labour, the power, the electricity, whatever’s going into producing this food. So, consumers need to be educated and reconnected to actual food, and what it means to buy this over that.

Here in Ireland, it means buying barley over rice. It’s here, it’s accessible. Not many people probably know what to do with it. So they’ll go and buy a bag of rice instead and it’s these kinds of choices that people need to be aware of and then get educated on what they can do with the food that is local or nationwide to them, and how to give that preference. Obviously, we want our tea or coffee or chocolate or exotic fruits. Of course we do. It’s not about only having Irish food. It’s about understanding a global food system and the consumer understanding that and having that healthy balance, I think that’s the key to it.

A lot of people, especially the younger generation, don’t know how to cook. They really don’t know how to cook, so processed foods and ready-to-eat or food-on-the-go is very accessible to them. It’s what they want. People should be taught basic skills to cook fresh, nutritious food. Because if they don’t learn, they will always be attracted to food that is highly processed, cheap, and has no nutritional value, that they can just put in an oven, microwave, or heat it in a pot, and have no skills behind it.

On a global level, food education is not on the curriculum. It’s not in our schools and it should be. How to prepare food, how to cook food, but also sustainability. And then that would change their mindset on when they do go to buy food and look at food, because they have the knowledge then to look for the right food. People have so many food allergies now and it’s down to the processed foods. There is no nutrition and their system can’t break it down or identify it. And that’s why we introduced our people to fermented foods and so on to build back up their immune systems and build back up their good bacteria.

‘So, consumers need to be educated and reconnected to actual food, and what it means to buy this over that.’

David: And what should the supermarkets’ role be in this?

Conor: They have a huge part to play in this. Supermarkets need to be accountable for what is on their shelves and how it’s marketed. At FoodSpace, every decision we make in terms of ingredients, in terms of food and plastics, and everything we’ve done over the years, we share all that with our customers. Both why we’re doing this, and the effects of doing it - and how they can then change as well in their homes. When it comes to restaurants, hotels, contract caterers, everything, we really show what we do, then push them to do it. And really go: “Well, we’re doing this. Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t we all doing it?”

I suppose it’s easy for me to say “a total overhaul of supermarkets is what needs to happen”, because people will respond, “well, that would never happen”. But if governments put these things into legislation then they would have to comply.

A lot of problems are pushed back down to us and we need to push them back up. I am hopeful that the Food Systems Summit is an opportunity for governments, for the first time, rather than sitting around the table and talking, to actually take on board all of our discussions. I do believe in people pressure. I am hopeful that our voices will be heard. Now is the time and I’m hoping that the outcome is that people are targeted with timelines on changes.

I get frustrated when I see corporations claiming to be moving to carbon neutral by 2030, 2040 or 2050. I think while we hear a lot of companies talk about doing things, we’ve never really seen action. A lot of it is just clever marketing and lip service. We can’t be sitting here next year, or the year after, still talking about it. Time is not on our side. But my glass is always half full, and we’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing, and don’t feel that we’ve been defeated by it, because I think that they will listen. They have to listen.

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