July 11, 2018
We check in with Chef Asher as to why he threw out his ‘seasonal’ menus.
So why did you throw your menus out this week?
I’m just stuck, really stuck. I couldn’t move forward today and the menus were holding me back. Cooking this way is about being inspired and I couldn’t go into work today being inspired with out having to change things up.
Cooking in what way? Can you explain what you mean by that?
Cooking fresh and nutritious food that’s local. Cooking with produce that is in season and being able to fully utilise and showcase that instead of just using the large scale products.
Is your menu not fresh and local?
Everything revolves around this with my menu but I still fall into the trap of just buying what is available and unfortunately what is available isn’t often what is in season locally.
Do you think customers should be able to expect a menu and they can expect what you have got on your menu? Why is that a problem?
I think at Little Seed people to expect us to be sourcing everything as locally, consciously, fresh and sustainably as possible and often the thought is that we are doing everything like that and that other places are as well but the reality is that to be able to offer them what they want doesn’t always align with what is in season or its ability to be sourced sustainably.
Are you saying it is somewhat a contradiction to have a menu that lasts longer than a week and to meet these ambitions?
The traditional seasons don’t align with foods we associate with those seasons and more and more we are getting into situations where all of our stock standard fruit and vegetables are being offered year around through buying them in from other places around Australia and the world. This impacts on our food imprint through travel miles and the quality of the food from being in transit and storage. Avocados for example are available all year around because they are being bought in from overseas and stored and gased to keep for longer periods just so we can have them all year round.
Yes that is true, customers do like to have avocado on the menu all year around.
Yes people come in to the café and think that because they can buy avocado at the supermarket why can’t they have it on their menu? Supermarkets mass buy these products and store them and as a result smaller operations and consumers can buy them year round.
How does that make you feel?
I feel a bit confined by what I what I want to achieve in my business and my own personal aspirations and what the customer wants because they can see it all around at larger chains / cafes / restaurants / food suppliers making them believe you can get these things all year round and at certain price points and think that it is going to be just as nutritious and sustainable for them and that they can still pay bottom dollar.
Do you think we pay enough for food produce? Are we paying for the full cost it has had on it’s production line and the environment?
No. I really don’t. I feel like over the years food produce pricing has been driven down and down which has then resulted in our producers having to give into pressures to be able to supply these products all year round, with quick turn around and low pricing and to match the pricepoints that the large supermarkets demand of them.
Does that affect the nutrition density in our produce as well?
Yeah it’s all connected and it’s all a cycle of how we can produce these products on a mass scale and have it available to the whole of Australia for example . It’s such a large nation – what’s local and in season in one area shouldn’t necessarily be available in another.
What do you base all of this on?
I do research. I think a lot of it is common sense once you start opening up your mind and heart to these questions. It doesn’t make sense that things that are fresh and local in one part of the world should be fresh and local in another. But there is also research studies and publications on everything we are talking about, the evidence is there on how broken the food chain is. Also, I base it on the product I receive quality wise. The colour, taste and flavour, the way it leaves you feeling afterwards. I really notice first hand the difference when you are buying from bulk storage as oppose to buying it direct from a local grower who is using biodynamic practices from the quality, the taste and flavour is completely different. And the nutrition density is also comparable. I know that the local grower I get a lot of my fresh produce from does measure the nutrient level of his food himself. And if you look at the spectrum from when modern agriculture took off to now you can measure the decline in nutritional value from when we had a more localised approach to food.
It seems there is a lot to worry about in the world, so many issues requiring our attention, why should we take issues that you are raising as a chef so seriously in our lives?
I think that if you don’t start paying attention to these things they have a tendency to spiral out of control and by that I mean we are going to get to a point, in fact we are there already, that the way we farm will mean we are not going to be able to produce quality food on the same scale. There is a tipping point with the quality of soil that has certain qualities that plants require to grow and become nutrient dense. If we can’t adopt a more biodynamic local approach to food and farming then we will be in trouble.
But what if I eat local, fresh etc at home but the three-five times I eat out each week, why can’t I just let loose? Isn’t it about moderation? Can I hold different standards with cafes and restaurants etc?
I think that the thing is you ultimately need to hold retailers and producers to a standard that you believe should be met. If you don’t do this you aren’t contributing to the change that needs to happen. Businesses make changes based on how consumers behave. If you’re not active in this then nothing will change. And while your participating in this behaviour 5 times a week eating out you are making a difference for good or bad.
What battles are you coming up against when trying to make a difference as a café in the hospitality industry?
Well for one, the ability to find time to go and source more locally grown produce when I am demanded to be on site in my business 24/7 and not being able to explore better options. And two, the price point on what I can charge for my food. It doesn’t reflect what I pay or want to pay for the produce and three, being able to get the consumer to want to meet that price point.
Is that because we think food should be cheap?
I think culturally we believe that food should br cheap, it’s a basic food right and as such when I’m paying for food or it being associated with food it should meet that paradigm. Food is a basic human right, that’s true, but the value and appreciation that we put on it has become less and less in western cultures where we don’t want to spend money on basic human rights or health but instead want to spend it on throw away consuming habits and lifestyles and luxuries.
You are the only chef in your business, why is this and does this limit your ability to make change? It sounds like that maybe consumers aren’t aware or don’t appreciate the value of your work particularly in relation to other jobs in society?
Again, this is another social paradigm where we have been brought up to believe that there is less value in this field of work than others. And that there is less skill and worthiness in this. My wife and I really strive to change peoples view points and a lot of these social paradigms that don’t serve anyone.
You are open to the public 27 hours a week, how many hours are you working to be able to offer that?
It’s hard to put a number on that. Over 60 hours per week for sure. We have in past gone from a model that originally started as 7 days a week working as many hours as possible which was over 100 hours per week each for my wife and I. I remember we were filling out a census form one year and it asked how many hours we worked in a week but only supplied room for two digits so we just had to put 99 hours. This is not uncommon in this industry. Comes down to the value that people put on their food and they don’t wish to pay more.
You have been running your business for 8 years now, have you been able to increase your prices in line with 8 years of increases such as wages, rent, electricity, insurances, legals, accounting etc?
No I haven’t been able to increase my prices to absorb these. Instead I find myself having to work more hours on my own to absorb these rising costs. Because it is more socially accepted for other professions to increase their prices to their services but people only look at the cost of what they think they can buy those ingredients for at the supermarket and think that is what they should pay.
Are you saying that your workers don’t deserve a pay increase?
This is the thing – I believe our staff should be receiving this for the hours and the style of work we do. It comes down to the cultural shift that needs to happen to allow for these increases. We are striving for a sustainable business model and you have to be concerned constantly about how many hours you can afford to put staff on for, how many hours you can have your restaurant open for and how much you can charge for your food. I want to be able to cover our costs, live sustainably myself and attract people to work in the industry. There is such a strong cultural paradigm around the hospitality industry being a low skill, low grade work, unworthy application and that you would only be in the industry if you it was a stepping stone on the way to something better. This makes it really difficult to find people that value their job, the worthiness they feel and their ability to come in and work in a way that is meaningful because they see it as a stepping stone and don’t receive the stability they think they deserve.
It seems like everyone in this system is feeling a little cheated, from the customer who already feels too far out pocket by simply making the purchase, the staff who feel they don’t get compensated fairly in comparison to some other industries, the producers who might be doing quality work who are feeling under supported and inadequately reimbursed to keep sustainable and so on. It really feels quite broken. It seems like even before you getting compensated you want to be able to adequately compensate the producers and people that are a few steps back in the process before it even gets onto the plate in your café.
It needs to start somewhere. My local grower – its all chemical free, biodynamic, adding nutrients back to the soil etc. This is someone I really want to support as he is doing such important work and I see more value and would pay more because I believe in the product and its health benefits and benefits on the environment. I wish I could pay more for his product. The mass produced produce supplied by big supermarkets and large wholesalers are setting the price points for our produce – and these small local growers are having to compete with this pricing.
But people can’t necessarily spend $30 on a meal when they eat out. Is there a way we can find middle ground? Or do you think the whole model of eating out is questionable?
Well you have the fast food chains who are open 24/7 supplying food at lower costs which translates to food which less nutritional value and higher negative impacts on the environment. And this mass production of food and the real squeezing of our primary producers to produce things at a lower cost provides for an unsustainable future of eating out.
Are they covering the health or environmental costs in the prices at fast food chains? Or the people or life that have been affected in the production of that food?
Yes. They aren’t taking into consideration the nutritional value of our food or the follow on effect its having on the producers and the environment of having to meet the unrealistic expectation on the price and turn around of food. Fast food is driving the price of menu items down which then continues to affect peoples perception around what food should cost. And then higher end restaurants charging top dollar and still not really taking ownership of the food quality and where its coming from. But its being presented in a way that it is.
You talked about being creatively blocked, why is that so important?
When you find yourself in a spot where you can no longer express yourself true to your core self and values you find yourself conforming to social norms which don’t necessarily serve yourself or anyone else, it starts to take a toll on you creatively. And even though fundamentally I have always believed in doing things true to yourself, little things start to creep in which start to have an effect on how you can express yourself creatively. Food is an expression for me, and outlet coming from my heart and if that isn’t being fulfilled it can create a burden.
Why should I care about this and food in relation to the world?
Food is at the core of who we are. The biggest change you can make in the world is to change your diet. Changing the food you eat and how you are thinking or not thinking about food. It really is a change in how you view that and your consciousness around that. For me that is whole food plant-based eating for health, environment and ethics. This is the best way address so many of our modern day issues.
No menus this week, will you not be cooking this week?
No I will be cooking! I will just have a range / variety of different items that may change within hours to suit the food that is available and to allow my creativity to flow without restraints. Keep up to date on our website and social media.