For somebody known for his fierce devotion to scientific research, Heston Blumenthal – mad scientist of the culinary world and one of the pioneers of molecular cuisine – is sounding more like a spiritual guru at our interview. He talks about soul searching, emotions, the pursuit of happiness; he even quotes the Dalai Lama.
Blumenthal has just come out of the Milken Institute’s 22nd Global Conference where he shared the stage with corporate movers and shakers such as Pepsi-Co CEO Simon Lowden, food tech venture capital company Bits and Bits managing director Matilda Ho and waste-recycling outfit Treasure8 founder Timothy Childs. They expounded on the responsibilities of the private sector, touched on the role of the government, and explored new market opportunities. Off -stage, Blumenthal – through his restaurants – is known for his efforts to minimise food wastage and support sustainable food sources. Putting money where his mouth is, he even bought into Australian company Aquna Sustainable Murray Cod earlier in 2019.
Yet now, all Blumenthal wants to talk about are feelings.
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“What are we talking about ultimately when we talk about sustainability?” he questions, his eyes behind the oversized glasses peering at you in a searching manner. “Are we talking sustainability of ourselves, our food or our industry? Or all of it?”
“We have a very personal connection to what we eat. So while the subject of sustainability is a very big one that needs to be approached from different angles, from malnutrition and scarcity of drinking water to new methods of agriculture and aquaculture, what I want to emphasise is what we have lost: our appreciation of what we consume.”
The chef isn’t talking about identifying flavours and textures or recognising finesse in a chef’s technique. “Only the parched appreciate a drink of water. And as a species we have become so successful at working en masse to feed ourselves that we take food for granted. It is so easy to get that we forget the true value of it.”
For this issue, the chef proposes a solution: Mindful eating. This means disconnecting from the many distractions of messages, emails and social media, and just sitting down to a meal to appreciate how it makes you feel from inside-out. “These days, people put food in their mouth like they are putting petrol in the car. But if we can sometimes think of the texture, the smell, how we feel after consuming something – be it a sip of water or just a raisin – that same food will have a different effect. Sustainability is an awareness issue, and this is awareness.
Discovering the cracks
Blumenthal proposes that only with such an awareness of what we are eating, can we truly become interested in the deeper issues surrounding sustainability – beyond Green Peace protests and discourses on the morality of our chosen diets.
“Here we are, exploring further territories in space. Yet we should also be looking inward, at what is beneath our feet – underground sources of water, underground gases for energy, the soil from which the animals and plants we eat grow off .”
“As an organisation we are working with scientists – cosmologists, physicists, biologists, agriculturists – to look at microbes in the soil and the effect they have on us,” Blumenthal elaborates. These microorganisms that colonise the human body outnumber our own cells. “There have been millions of pounds put into microbial research, and if you look at diseases such as dementia, Parkinsons and diabetes, they are all linked to microbes,” he shares.
So when he talks about mindful eating, he isn’t asking people to get all emotional over their food and compose thousand-word Instagram posts about every bite they take. Instead he wants people to start noticing how the food makes them feel – a bit heavier, a bit lighter, a bit happier, a bit more frazzled – and start to think about why it makes them feel this way, from the chemical reaction it creates in their body, to the way it was produced and processed.
“Question everything,” he stresses, and not just to diners. “Chefs should also get involved in educating people about what they eat. Beyond the walls of the restaurants, there are seminars, social media and mass media to spread knowledge.”