Deactivating almonds: foodie backlash and the commitment to food


If you’ve been on Twitter over the past week in Australia, the slightly bewildering hashtag #activatedalmonds has been in ascendency. Pete Evans, chef, reality television judge and corporate spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Sumo Salad was eviscerated 140 characters at a time over a weekend newspaper fluff piece that documented his day of eating:

7am: Two glasses of alkalised water with apple cider vinegar, then a smoothie of alkalised water, organic spirulina, activated almonds, maca, blueberries, stevia, coconut keffir and two organic, free-range eggs.

8.30am: Sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread with liver pate, avocado, cultured vegetables plus ginger and liquorice root tea.

12.30pm: Fresh fish, sauteed kale and broccoli, spinach and avocado salad, cultured vegies.

3pm: Activated almonds, coconut chips, cacao nibs, plus green tea.

6.30pm: Emu meatballs, sauteed vegetables, cultured vegetables plus a cup of ginger and liquorice root tea.

It’s the sort of empty listicle that a PR rep answers on behalf of the talent by email; a gaily-colored box of text to further brighten the weekend’s non-news. Something a bot might write on your behalf. They’re hardly the most hard-hitting or meme-worthy pieces of newsprint. Collective schadenfreude is Twitter’s raison d’etre and on this occasion, it could taste the slight alkalinity of blood. Why did this article in particular spawn a virulent response?

Search any newspaper website for the word “superfood” and you’ll get a similar bucket of nutritionism snakeoil. Pete alone is not spearheading an unforeseen interest in spirulina or the weird hubris of passing off food as nothing more than a nutrient delivery system.

Evan’s sample menu is aimed at any number of masters: his corporate sponsors, his reality television employers or the subscribers of the Sunday Age. It plays to the obsessions of desperate, rich dieters and smacks of a strange corporate fealty. It’s not the daily diet of a man who eats for the unambiguous pleasure of doing so which is what the public is lead to believe about chefs.

Celebrity chefs are strange advocates for good eating. When commercial imperative clashes with chef’s previous personal tastes and ethics, commerce wins every time. Here’s an ad for a cheap pilsener starring Ferran Adria. Here’s organic chicken aficionado Jamie Oliver making industrial chicken sandwiches for fun and profit. Pete’s transgressions aren’t noteworthy alongside his international counterparts.

There is something about the deep commitment to his routine that is unnerving. He didn’t crack at 3:00pm and eat a pastry from the catering table. No midnight drive-thru at KFC, eating powdered mash and gravy one-handed on the drive home, crying into the empty “Family” sized bucket on the couch. This was the first image that came into my head when I thought of Pete Evans’ diet. I barely know who the man is and expected the worst.

When we see the growing “backlash” against foodies, it seems to be against this deep commitment. I hate the term “foodie” because it has no real definition and seems to encapsulate any particular interest in food from haute cuisine to ethical eating. You can as easily be labelled a foodie if you can comfortably follow a cupcake recipe or you’ve taken a decade to write the world’s definitive history of cupcakes. There’s no shortage of nuanced nouns to pigeonhole people who eat. But foodie backlash it is, not gourmet backlash or glutton backlash; an all-encompassing counterattack on the commitment to food.

Instagramming your meal to death.

Steve Cumper, Australia’s best food blogging chef, recently noted the new zealotry for “real food”, the modern hipness for home-growing everything and being the person who shoots, skins (and photographs) the rabbit pre-terrine.

This real food is apparently unencumbered by status, it is home grown, it is foraged, its is hunted, it is gleaned, it is not, as Lance Armstrong put it, about the bike, or in this case, not about the Kodak moment.

This is honest, unprocessed, un-wanky, un-restauranty, un-gather your photographer mates around you to capture the ad hoc picnic in the dis-used cannery on the wharf kinda food. This is the kinda food that doesn’t need embellishments, is SO un-gourmet, shrugs off pretensions and artifice and reveals itself to a few hip but grounded uber-cools who operate high in the coolosphere where the air, I’m told, is crisper.

The trouble is: Why are people like me hearing about it all the time?

I feel smug when I publish what I grow in my garden, mostly because growing up outside the city, planting a vegetable garden was unremarkable and the least noteworthy of domestic pursuits. Hopping the back fence with a .22 to shoot dinner was just something that I thought most kids did even if it wasn’t the case. It didn’t seem to mark any deep commitment to food because it was common amongst neighbours.

And the Internet didn’t exist.

The backlash isn’t so much about the commitment but the conspicuousness of people’s commitment to food whether it is Pete Evan’s voluntary deprivation or hearing about real food all the time from Facebook updates and blow-by-blow degustations captured on Instagram. When I hear that people want out of Facebook, I wonder how boring their collected acquaintances are and I’m certain what they had for dinner is a large part of it. Where previous backlashes against foodies was more about the excesses of gourmets, it is now all-encompassing because our friends don’t know when to stop; to leave the unremarkable experiences unremarked and save the best for conversation.

Gordon Ramsay’s Melbourne Restaurant

Unless you’ve been bound up in real news in Australia (e.g. remember Iraq? there’s still a war there), you’ve probably heard the words Gordon Ramsay Lesbian Tracy Grimshaw combined in some unholy fashion with great density. Chef Gordon Ramsay has been in town, stirring up the sort of misogyny that could only be surpassed by a visiting rugby team.

The media is loving it and milking it for a full week of coverage. The Prime Minister has weighed in saying Ramsay’s comments’ “as reflecting a new form of low life” which left me wondering what were the older forms of low life that are of concern to an Australian Prime Minister? Libertines? Footpads? Mountebanks?

Generally when you meet chefs or see them interviewed, their obsession with the minutiae of ingredients and the process of transforming those ingredients into food is evident and inescapable. Any attempt to interview them about nigh on any other topic eventually gets steered back to eating. What is most dismaying about Ramsay’s flight through town is his lack of focus on food and the media’s lack of care.

He’s planning to open an outlet of his Maze restaurant in Melbourne in the Crown Casino complex, and it hardly rated a mention by himself or anyone else. Odds on bets are that it will be doing haute tapas as it does in Cape Town and New York which will lead to an inevitable showdown with Movida. Anchovies at high noon. It is opening in the middle of an economic downturn. These are compelling food stories and they’re not being told. Ramsay seems to be too busy telling dick jokes to talk about food.

This is the outcome of food and television. Food plays a backdrop to human drama rather than a central focus because food alone makes for bad television. To be sure, television can mirror the soft-focus porniness of food magazines or blogs – the panning shots of a steaming meal, wide vistas of a cornucopia of ingredients – but to draw and keep an audience it needs narrative drive.

The narrative of food alone is either recipes or the path from living animal or vegetable to the plate. You could tell these stories almost without human intervention. By themselves, neither of these narratives are engaging because for the former, we’ve had almost 70 years of the “stand and cook” model of recipe TV to be oversaturated and for the latter, most of the public still don’t want to know from whence their food came. If you eat food with a head on it, you’re amongst the minority.

This is how we end up in a situation where we have food television without food. Human drama is the driving force behind food television. It seems that (in Australia, at least), we want chefs who say “fuck” to camera (Ramsay) or game shows (Masterchef). Nobody wants to see the prep chef peeling potatoes in the basement. The prep chef is only intriguing when she knifes someone.

Most telling of this whole foofaraw is a comment by Jason Atherton, one of Ramsay’s chefs, who is also in Melbourne at the moment presumably to begin staffing Maze. In Hospitality Magazine, he mentions:

“Atherton said Gordon Ramsay will spend as much time at the Melbourne restaurant “as the concept needs him”.”

It’s similar to McDonald’s: the concept needs the clown Ronald to make the occasional appearance. (At least, it used to). Gordon Ramsay’s primary qualification is no longer chef, it’s television presenter; the provider of drama against a food backdrop. He still needs the pretence that he cares about food lest the whole edifice and concept behind his restaurants crumble. The concept needs celebrity to survive and give it sustenance. It needs celebrity to somehow differentiate itself and draw in the punters who would never otherwise throw down a hundred dollars for a meal.

It no longer needs food.

Vue De Monde, Melbourne

When Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future Yet Come decides to take me out to dinner, he’d probably take me to Vue De Monde to wallow amongst the Baby Boomer dugongs in suits and pearls. That crystalline vision into how my life would transpire if I spent the next twenty odd years focusing upon crapulence would scare me much more than a pauper’s grave.

It did scare me.

This is no fault of Shannon Bennett’s, the oft lauded chef behind the restaurant frequently name-dropped as the best restaurant in Australia.

The only thing that Bennett has left lacking from Vue de Monde is a sense of pomposity. If you were fresh from doing the rounds of France’s most ostentatious eateries I’m not sure whether this would delight or disappoint. The room at Normanby Chambers in Little Collins St, Melbourne is lit with bare strings of oversized, chromed bulbs, the focus of the entire room being upon the open kitchen with mirror above the staff doing the plating. The architectural message is that you’re there for the food and for the front-of-house theatrics that accompany it.

(The Laguiole silverware is a little pompous but much like a Hard Rock Café, it is available for purchase in the gift shop. The fish fork would be a handy piece of equipment for aerating compost.)

It isn’t the level of service that sets apart Vue de Monde but its distinctiveness. It is not a slavish attentiveness that is confused for service at many a fine dining establishment but the ability of staff to have some agency in their roles. If I was making a bad decision in choosing a wine or dish or attempting to customise something to meet my foolish caprices, I get the feeling that Vue De Monde’s crew would tell me that I’m making a grave mistake in no uncertain terms rather than an obsequious “has Sir considered the…”-type suggestion.

The egalitarian service is the most Australian element of the whole experience but does rest upon retaining and training the best of staff, the people that you can rely upon to chat comfortably about how a thermomixer works or the technique used to turn parmesan into a rough sand. Delicious, delicious sand. There is no menu; you submit yourself to the whims of those service staff. They can be steered in a particular direction but the absolute and final control over your food is out of your hands. They chose:

Amuse bouche: A single cos lettuce leaf containing a smear of jamon paste and a sous-vide quail egg balanced atop a wine glass half filled with silky ham consommé and pea foam.

Plate of salmon from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

Salmon attacked from all sides: smoked, sliced, jerked, creamed; some sort of dried fish foam (salted cod, perchance?) and a frankly superfluous layer of gelatinized something. There is caviar and micro-herbage. Cubes of fried sourdough on each end.

Mushrooms: tubes of liquified Swiss Brown (?), slightly gummy and al dente on the outside but squirting silky shroom juice from within; with pan-fried shimeji (?) and slices of eringi(?); tarragon emulsion. My mushroom identification skills would kill me in an unforgiving forest.

Gel canneloni, serrano ham and parmesan sand from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

Gel cannelloni with powdered parmesan cheese and olives; two perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes topped with their own dried skin; some respectable Serrano ham. Where the hell do you get a tomato this impeccable and ripe in winter? I love technique; the mix of industrialisation of food (gel) with small-producer artisanship (ham). It also seems to look like an in-joke about hot dogs, to which I am obviously not averse.

Foie gras, frozen in liquid nitrogen then powdered in a thermomixer, served cold with a dash of “Thai” curry sauce (poured at the table) and three flawless nasturtium leaves. I wish that I could get dispensation for punching people every time that they call a curry “Thai” because it contains coconut milk. But the foie gras, melting on the tongue, is awe-inspiring and smooth like chocolate.

Cold shot of verjus with hibiscus tea, served in a martini glass.

Toro and tuna ceviche from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

A dainty square of toro on a perfect corn puree; tuna ceviche topped with glass noodles soaked in a lightish soy, shredded fennel(?) and something else green. All surrounded by tuna bone stock and butter. A microdot of sesame salt on the side. By this point my palate is pretty much shot from all the permutations of fat.

Hare: two slices of hare loin on pureed, roasted garlic; a gamy hare jelly; yeast foam; a sourdough lattice. More microherbs.

We skipped out on dessert. I would possibly have burst an internal part. My stomach is still not well trained back into ingesting huge quantities of high fat, Western food. I walked out feeling like somebody had inflated a balloon full of rich creamery butter within me. I’m still recovering.

Probably the only complaint that I could muster was the umami-ness of nigh on everything; all playing on the centre and back of the palate rather than forcing anything to the edges of sour, astringent or bitter. I could have probably specified against this in advance. I’m sure that if you’re a much bigger aficionado of French cuisine, you’d pointy out that I’m missing much of the subtlety but the effect of having so much umami does feel like the chefs aren’t painting from the full palette available to them.

Price: we ate and drank at roughly the speed of $1 per minute per person, for three hours. You do the math.

Location: Vue de Monde, 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, Australia
Phone: +61 3 9691 3888.

Does Gordon Ramsay write his own extrafood column in the Herald Sun?

Gordon Ramsay’s Humble Pie was a 2006 bestseller but it was the award-winning feature writer Rachel Cooke who quietly wore out the “f” key on her laptop. Then again, she can afford a new computer, having pocketed a rumoured £100,000 share of Ramsay’s rumoured £750,000 advance.

From “Literary Haunts”, The Times, November 12, 2007. Surely Ramsay has much more lucrative things to do with his time than pen a few hundred words a week for extrafood in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper. So who is the food writer at Gordon Ramsay Holding’s PR agency, Sauce Communications? Any idea, Ed?

Five Links on Friday: 22 February 2008

“The only reason to move to Sydney would be to kick Bill Granger in his white-panted balls”

Which was how my friend J summarized my decision to move back to Melbourne. I personally have nothing against Bill Granger and he has nothing at all to do with my decision to not move anywhere near him. The other reason to move to Sydney seems that in my absence, the rental property market in has gone to hell. The delicious dividend of the hellacious market is the following bánh mì thịt heo nướng, stumbled upon while I was between real estate agents in Footscray.

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng

It is the real deal and unlike the properties that I saw, worth waiting in a queue to get. If I could live inside a sandwich, it would be this one. Flame-grilled chunks of marinated pork meat sit atop pickled, shredded carrot and daikon (instead of green papaya); coriander leaf and stalks; spring onions and fresh chili. The bun is as fresh as you’d find anywhere on the streets of Saigon, the meat even fresher.

Thịt nướng specialists, Truc Giang Restaurant, Footscray

The restaurant’s name, Truc Giang, betrays its Southern Vietnamese origins.

Price: $3

Location: Truc Giang Restaurant, 36a Leed St, Footscray, VIC
Phone: (03) 9689 9509