Sophie Lamond talks to us about what’s driving declining cooking rates amongst young people and the importance of keeping it simple in the kitchen.

You may have seen our last piece about declining cooking rates or heard about our Heaps Cooked event series being rolled out by dozens of food loving cool cats as we speak. In the lead-up to events launching later this week, we chatted to Sophie Lamond, the founder of Fair Food Challenge, about her thoughts on the deserted dinner table.

It seems like everyone has their own two cents to put in about our generation’s current food habits: from spending too much on avo smash, to being too tech-consumed to sit down at the dinner table together, to simply not having the basic culinary skills that our parents and grandparents had. Last year, the now-known-as Fair Food Challenge conducted an insightful survey, which sought to understand the relationship that (roughly 350) students at the University of Melbourne have with food. Sophie, could you expand briefly on what came out of the survey?
SL: The angle that we came from was that we wanted to know what students do with food and what they cook. Essentially what we hoped to reveal and demonstrate was that people could and would be interested in learning more about food. Which we did. Now that we’ve been talking to people on campus about these food-related issues for a while, the same hierarchy of ‘needs’ seem to always come up – we’re price sensitive, if we can afford it we’ll go for healthy, and if it’s healthy, then we’ll worry about the environment.

For students in particular, time is also a significant consideration – and hurdle – when it comes to preparing food.
SL: Absolutely. When I don’t cook, it’s because I don’t have time, when I waste food, it’s because I don’t have the time to deal with it, and I still rant on about food waste. I’m still a student, and I still find myself in those situations where you get to the end of the week and realise you haven’t found the time to cook. Additionally, what’s not talked about very often are the structural barriers . Everyone’s saying “save money by shopping in bulk”, but it’s like, where do I put all that food? On top of that it’s a big upfront investment to be able to afford, say 60 rolls of toilet paper, or whatever. And let’s face it, rental houses are pretty precarious. Being able to invest in bulk food and decent kitchen tools, that are going to be more long term, that’s a massive step that most people aren’t able to undertake until they’re in their later 20s.

Furthermore, I worry that in a lot of student housing, people are only able to cook with plug-in appliances. They’ve got a bed, a sink, a door, a cupboard, there’s no kitchen space. Which is why the Toastie Press event is great, because it addresses the resource and space issues that young people face.

I don’t think we talk enough about the design of space and how that is actually quite prohibitive. Essentially what happens is that you’re running out of money, you don’t have much spare time, you don’t have a lot of space or you’ve got belligerent housemates….then suddenly you’ve got plenty of reasons not to fuss about making a meal for yourself at home.

Cooking

How, then, do we jump through all of these hoops in order to make cooking easier, more accessible and more enjoyable? Ultimately, how do we get millennials in the kitchen?
SL: I think it’s about demystifying it. A lot of people have this paralysing sense of ,“If I’m not doing it perfectly, I’m not doing it right”, we’ve gotten caught-up in this Masterchef loop of feeling obliged to go out and buy 17 different ingredients so that we can cook something brilliant. Now, I’ve cooked some absolutely shocking things, and that’s okay. The end goal is that I’m going to eat something that I’ve made, and that’s enough. And you do get better. I still get excited when I’m like, “that poached egg was GOOD.” The point is that we need to celebrate the small victories.

One of the things that I think is really important in facilitating the development of the confidence to do that, is teaching people about which flavours go together. You can make something really, really good, if you use three or four ingredients that pair well. One of my favourite foods is crusty bread, butter, radishes, pepper and salt. DELICIOUS. And so simple. You’re 100 per cent able to make a fantastic meal out of two or three ingredients, without needing to add heaps and heaps of fancy ingredients.

It’s interesting, if you look at traditional cuisines, like Italian food, recipes are innately seasonal, because things that go together are growing at the same time.

Absolutely, but supermarkets have made this damn tricky for us because everything’s available year-round, and unless you dig a bit deeper, conduct your own research, you wouldn’t know what’s in season and what’s not. Therefore you don’t have the knowledge regarding what’s best to cook with at any given time in the year, and what’s going to taste best with what.
SL: Of course, so if we can get people back to those really simple recipes, have them realise that it doesn’t have to be fancy, it’ll remove a lot of those mystifying aspects from cooking. I suspect a fair amount of this confusion and overwhelm is closely tied to the social media obsession that we have developed with food. We could actually tap into that as a resource and use it in a much more wholesome way, and it could be very productive.

How then do we learn this sort of basic food knowledge and make it more relevant to young people? Especially when it’s amongst all the noise about pistachio rosewater cronuts and nopal cactus salads and whatever other new food trend is bouncing around…
SL: We need enough coverage so that these food habits become the new normal. I think peer-to-peer learning, which is what YFM’s really about, is incredibly effective.

If you can get a few friends to teach their friends and spread it outwards from there, then you’re onto a winner. I think if you can get people to find their ‘gateway drug’ to cooking, that one thing that they can really nail – and they get that real sense of satisfaction, have that ‘demystifying’ moment where you realise that it’s much more simple than it’s made out to be – then that’s a big confidence booster. Rather than going, ‘oh wow, that’s a really amazing, cool, complicated dish but I could never do that at home’: those simple but essential things that give us parcels of victory are so important.

You’re totally right. On another vein, in regards to food insecurity there are concerning figures emerging, especially amongst students and young people in Australia. The Foodbank Hunger Report for 2016 found that Gen Y is twice as likely to experience food insecurity as the average Australian. How does this play into declining cooking rates?
SL: Some of us have a tiny budget to be able to spend on food, and I think that’s why it’s really important that we get back to those simple building blocks. One of the things that really frustrates me about the way we talk about food is the way fast food is always considered as cheap. But fast food isn’t actually that cheap in Australia. I think that’s a big American idea, but we’re consistently told that it’s the same in Australia. So we are fed this message instead of being taught how we can, say, bake carrots or beetroot to make a wholesome dinner. Cooking on a budget can be delicious, but there’s this overwhelming idea that eating on a budget is going to be really gross. Which is why again, it’s important that we go back to valuing those simple, and much more affordable ways of preparing food.

And lastly, what’s your go-to appliance or utensil for a quick-fix meal?
SL: The frypan. You can do alooot of things in a frypan. I think you can nearly do anything in a frypan. A good frypan that you can flip something in, yep, that’s it.

Written by Claudia Lang and Shani Brampton

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