Eating the Other – Angela Hirst
Ash here, Ange has passed over the reigns FINALLY so I can harp on only for a smidge how cool she is so (now in a David Attenborough voice) let us trek into the wild mind of Angela Hirst, owner of Wandering Cooks as she gives us the skinny on her talk she presented at the ‘New Food as an Urban Agent’ conference at Harvard University earlier this year. Backed by her experience as a business owner of a company that is in the world’s top 2% of incubator kitchens and her mind blowing PhD on food ethics she wrote way back when, here is why what Ange, her Charter kitchen customers and team do is so important to changing our current food culture.
Eating the Other
What does it mean to be an ethical eater?
And how can we provoke ethical encounters between the city and its food makers, between our mouths and the animals, plants, soil, humans that have transformed their lives in order that I might eat? These are the questions that have driven my work for the last 20 years. First, as an architecture student obsessed with permaculture, then as a phd student obsessed with eating, then as a chef and now, finally, as a business owner. This final category is the most challenging because I must also be obsessed, unfortunately, with staying afloat. And that’s what this presentation grapples with.
What I’ve learnt? Ethics is a disasterously messy beast – and to let it in means both the most beauty and most anxiety you could want in your life. Running a business adds an extra dimension to the equation – both in its possibilities and its dangers, but this is a dimension that is crucial to the transformation of our cities into places where ethical encounters can thrive.
What do I mean by ethics? My meaning is as specific as it is contextual, and you’re going to have to bear with me because the only way I can take you there is to take you down with me so here I go.
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If you are anything like me, you’ll notice that more often than not we are surrounded by the symbols of ethical life devoid of the face.
For me, ethics is what Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian philosopher from the 20th Century describes as: a face to face encounter. Faces are key. The face of another has a way of interrupting your reality, particularly if it is showing you it’s suffering. In that moment when you truly see suffering in the face of another, you lose all faculty to judge or rationalize.
All you see is the others suffering, all you feel is an overwhelming sense that you know nothing, really, that nothing of what you thought you could bring to this scenario is appropriate now. Right now the undertow of guilt takes you off kilter, and your appetite, your ability to enjoy yourself, your full belly, your life of good soup, it disappears. In its place comes a realization, one that Levinas borrows from Pascal: ‘My being-in-the-world or my ‘place in the sun’… have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing?’
Pretty calamitous stuff right? Wait though. It gets worse. Now that you know you are guilty, that you are responsible because YOU have taken the others’ enjoyment from their lives, you respond in the only way that makes sense after such an upheaval. You stop knowing and start listening. You don’t try to predict what is needed of you, and if sacrifice is needed, then all the better because this would be fitting of the damage your existence has done. You give bread. Not from your pocket, or your plate, but from your mouth. You literally regurgitate what you have already enjoyed.
What ethical response could be more personal, more wholly directed towards an other’s needs? What ethical response could be so completely unmanageable?
Maybe you’re thinking – but there are more manageable ethical systems – than say, vomiting in someone’s mouth, right? Ones that allow me to live my life just as I want it, donate to charity, be careful about what kinds of food I eat, and do a job that makes a difference. Doesn’t have to hurt. And I’m not denying that this kind of higher level engagement with suffering is necessary, it is. But without the dystopic encounter with the face, where does this higher level draw its energy? What disrupts it enough to make it effective?
If you are anything like me, you’ll notice that more often than not we are surrounded by the symbols of ethical life devoid of the face. The pretense of the city, the lack of face in SO many of our engagements, the physical distance we place between ourselves and the suffering of others so entrenched that we NEVER have to experience the face of suffering if we don’t want to. It’s there, our avoidance, you can feel the face everywhere in its absence.
The higher structures we put in its place, not BECAUSE of the faces but INSTEAD of the faces, codes of eating like ‘vegan’, ‘organic’, ‘free range’, ‘local’… we convince ourselves that these labels will stand in for any necessity for direct encounters with suffering. We invest in food manufacturers and suppliers rather than farmers and makers, letting them make decisions for us about how well these labels are dealing with suffering. And we get homogeneous, faceless, packaged food, that hides all trace of suffering, because suffering (maybe like vomiting) doesn’t sell.
And the result? Let me give you a perfect example: free range and organic chicken meat in Australia. The reality of this industry in Australia is rather hidden, but also, rather cruel, because the life cycle of the chicken has been so industrialized. Chicken farmers don’t rear from eggs – another industry does this and then passes on the chicks for pasture raising. And ALL these birds, regardless of the fact they are being sent to free range situations, are bred for grain fed lives. They are what are called ‘fast growing’. They’ve been designed to eat and grow and eat and grow and do so so fast and furiously that they can be culled at a bloated 3 weeks of age. Now, if you take one of these chicks and place them in a free ranging context, you are putting them in a situation where they can’t eat enough to feel satiated. You are condemning this bird to constant, overwhelming levels of hunger. Sure, you can grow them more slowly but this only extends their suffering.
Not that we would know this as all we see is the happy chicken grazing on green pastures on the label.
But, what if it were still possible to have a face to face encounter with this suffering? Well it is, but you’ve got to be there. And there is a farmer in Australia that was there. He came into the vicinity of the suffering and was brave enough to turn and face it directly. And he responded by changing everything about what he did, so that he could support a different kind of life for chickens destined for meat. From this response, he’s created a ‘higher structure’ called ‘Sommerlad Farmers’. These farmers have taken on the whole life cycle of the bird. They’ve reintroduced a selection of slow growing, heritage breeds and are producing these meat birds via strict guidelines that are derived from their careful listening to that face to face encounter. And this is what guidelines need to be – held in check, and often even broken again and again by more encounters that throw into disarray what we thought we knew when they were made. These chickens aren’t selling fast mind you – they are raised for 16 weeks not 3, and by the end, they don’t always look like the kind of chicken you’re used to eating.
So this is an isolated example of ethics for city eating, and there are others, but clearly I want more of them. I think there are ways that we can accelerate the number of face to face encounters that can occur between eaters, makers, producers and the animals, plants and soil they care for. But it’s going to be messy. Cities need to be open enough to allow us to lay down a fabric that is woven deeply with rich, penetrating connections between faces and their stories: from this animal, to this farmer, to this supplier, to this eater, each one knowing the whole line of faces. The faces become the threads that connect, and there will be so many rough edges and unraveling’s. But as in any ecosystem, it’s the rough edges that hold all the textural potential. They are the ecotones of the city, the most diverse, most lively places to live. The edges where creation occurs.
We won’t be able to avoid our ethical responses quite as easily as we can now, in a city like the one I imagine.
Which brings me circuitously (which is the best way really) to Wandering Cooks.
I decided to create a business that could sit on this textural edge. That could bump together more and more faces more stories than I’d seen possible in the place we live in. The City of Brisbane is on the middle of the east coast of Australia. Unlike the bigger global cities like Sydney and Melbourne, Brisbane (Australia’s 3rd largest city) is typically known for its proximity to famous beaches and lifestyle culture. Australian mainstream food is dominated by two (that’s right, just two) enormous chain conglomerates, Coles and Woolworths, who run a duopoly and tell the farmers how much they will sell for. But Brisbane has some amazing producers, and as we found out, loads of latent talent…
At Wandering Cooks, we support that breed of food maker in Brisbane who hasn’t settled down, who is on the cusp of their learning, and who doesn’t even know how to begin, particularly when commercial kitchens are prohibitively expensive to create and run. I wanted to make a place that would take the fear out of their creating, so that they could begin before they were ready, making lots of mistakes, and hopefully, bump into many faces that would impact the way and what they created.
Physically, we are housed in an old warehouse in the centre of the city. We constructed 5 kitchens that would allow for heaps of flexible use and lots of interaction between makers. And the wall to the kitchens is transparent, so that outside, where our event space and bar has grown itself, the food makers can be seen by the people who are their customers.
At first, starting a business didn’t seem to be a far cry from studying, writing a phd, working in someone else’s kitchen. In each situation, I could dream up perfect scenarios, analyse them, imagine like crazy, and bump up against many walls to my understanding. But owning a business is next level in the way it engages a sense of responsibility. It’s the ultimate endurance event in ethics because it puts one’s desire for ethics face to face with one’s aptitude for making money or just staying afloat.
Conceivably, the right business should be able to weave any kind of ethical possibility into reality – all that’s required is the right kind of match between the possibility and the customer- will this thread of possibility be picked up by the customer, will they weave it into the fabric of their businesses so it can truly live? It’s the way Sommerlad Farmers found existence – they found each other, and then they found advocates, and through them a network of customers who cared enough to spend over twice the money to buy their scrawny looking chickens instead of a generic free range bird.
In the case of Wandering Cooks, we have two customers: our micro business food makers, and, by necessity in the end, our eaters & drinkers. To me, this looks like the perfect potential, because we are not only providing resources for our food makers, but we are creating a market for them too. And if we can solve the market problem by bringing them ethical eaters, then we are all the more likely to be transforming something together.
After so much planning and building, the day we opened finally arrived. But like I said, business is an endurance event and again and again, ethics and money, ethics and money come up to bat against each other. I don’t know how many of you have experienced the level of panic that arrives when dreams are sent out into the future- you wave them goodbye and good luck and then find them crashing back into reality like a sack of broken watermelons. What I mean is, projections don’t account for paying customers.
But there’s also a strange comradery that can develop at this point of panic, if you can for a moment, find a face to face encounter for yourself. Someone to see your suffering. As a business owner, we are taught to avoid these face to face encounters as well. But as I was on the search for them anyway, I did what others rarely do, I talked with people about the terror. I avoided people who faked it in favour of people who would tell me the truth about business and how they have suffered. And I kept my face forward – leaning into the pain. The decisions I’ve made that led me to so much business anxiety were also the decisions that placed me on the edge of my learning, making me a weaver of my own dreams.
We started creating events that celebrated failure and involved people who would talk about food and business in a truthful way. Events became the back bone to our livelihood, not in terms of revenue, but in terms of trust. Our events put the faces that needed to see each other in the same room. And this hadn’t happened in our city before. All our food events are celebratory in a larger, structural way.
We started with Conversations with Punch, where I would use David Wondrich’s wonderful book to woo my customers into conversations they had no forum for previously. Relaxed, earnest, open conversations began in these meetings and were embraced by Brisbane’s food industry.
We brought our events down into the dirt, and we drank and ate as we rolled around in our broken dreams together. We weren’t seen as the antichrist to bricks and mortar business but the site of interaction between fine and informal dining, gypsy restaurants and established counterparts.
I heard, again and again, how it was almost impossible to carve out a living in this city, as a small producer, and I had to agree. This was a city that couldn’t seem to tell the difference between hand-made and brand-made. We were barely treading water. Our bar would go from packed with 200 people on an event night to earning $50 on a regular evening.
We decided that if we could, we would make our kitchens free. We couldn’t, but we’ve gotten pretty close. We started with maybe 15 food makers, we hit 30, then 50, then 70, and now, we’re supporting over 100 food makers, which puts us in the top 2% of kitchen incubators in the world.
Now, in many ways, we’re well on our way to achieving success as a business. We’ve been voted Australia’s coolest micro business and I may just manage to pay myself next month! But in other ways, something devastating has arrived with our success. After 3 years, I’ve noticed a certain homogeneity creeping into our space, despite the extra faces. Deliveries turning up from the same huge distributors, boggling conversations with more and more miserly customers wanting ever cheaper rates from us, not because they need them now that we’re so cheap but because they really don’t appreciate how much sacrifice has already gone into this place’s creation.
When I look into our 5 kitchens now, humming with industry, I see our makers weaving a fabric that supports the exact industry annihilating face to face encounters in the city. And the worst part of it is, Wandering Cooks is providing the subsidy, not to the local ethical farmer but to Woolworths, Coles and more recently Aldi and Costco.
So now, on the brink of us being ‘stable’, it’s time to start again – scrubbing the space clean of the ill placed subsidies and finding a new way. The best way, in my opinion, would be to turn our current customers into ethical weavers. So we created a charter, and this is what it declares:
We might be small players in the food world, but we are huge when we work together.
We commit to being ethical in our sourcing and waste practices – buying our ingredients from local farmers and closing the loop between soil and food.
We may not be perfect, but our hearts are aligned, and we promise to work with collaborative creativity every day.
And one day, we will be both big and small at once – thousands of beautiful businesses transforming our food culture together.
So how does this ‘higher level ethical strategy’ play out for us? Well, I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’ve started with more face to face disruptions. Food trucks, the last bastion of cheap eats, have become our first focus. If we can convert these bastards who knows what we can do!! We need to find ways that ethics and money can meet up and shake hands.
One of the most popular food trucks in Brisbane is run by a British immigrant who loves traditional Scottish preparations but seems to mostly use beef cheek because he can get it cheaply and it falls apart so beautifully.
We sat down with him and he said, no way can I use grassfed. I’d love to but it’s too expensive. I’d have to sell my burgers for 20 bucks and my customers won’t stomach that. But then I said, what if we work together and we can organize to buy some whole beasts?
We can use our kitchens to carve them up, our freezer rooms to hold some, you can take the cheapest cuts and we’ll sell the rest through the buyers group that meets here every week? His eyes lit up as he recalled how much he’s missed being able to take on larger cuts, but that his truck’s too small to handle them. He started imagining the possibilities, of food truck long table dinners in our carpark, of make bresaola and bone broths. And I got excited because I’d just managed to turn his head a little to the south, towards the place where his meat comes from so that next time, perhaps, his face would encounter something other than a miserly customer and he would not be able to step back into the world he inhabited before.
This is how I see the threads developing – through hard work by all of us and more risk. I think it’s supremely important for people to realise the kinds of risks ethical food producers take all the time to remain intimate with the face to face, and that such stories must remain available to the public view if we are to encounter the true costs of business done ethically.
If we start valuing the time it takes to transform our faceless city fabric into a rich tapestry of ethics, then couldn’t every neighbourhood have its community supported abattoir, its butchering room and its buyers group. Could every food truck or market stall or grocery corner store become an outlet for the makers and producers of our city? It’s a dream of course, unrealistic many would say, but that, I hope, is the beauty of business.