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Advocating For Food Literacy With Cook & Educator Charles Michel
Interview by Mona Bavar
Article by Lynne Myers
“I believe food literacy can change the world.”
~ Charles Michel
What if learning about food was put at the top of school curricula alongside learning how to read and write? That’s the vision of food educator Charles Michel, who is on a mission to inspire more conscious eating habits. You may have seen him on Netflix’s ‘The Final Table’, where his artistic flair and desire for a deeper connection to food set him apart from a roster of renowned chefs. And if you’ve watched any of his TED talks, you'll have probably been inspired by the enthusiasm he displays for his subject – a key attribute for any good teacher.
Michel wasn’t always a food educator. In fact, the French-Colombian cook was classically trained in gastronomy. He then crossed over into the art world, where he used cuisine as a medium to convey his message. Michel has now firmly set his sights on education, and on reconnecting people with food in a bid to improve not only our physical and mental health, but also the wellbeing of the planet.
DLISH director, Mona Bavar, recently caught-up with Michel to learn more about his vision for global food literacy.
Mona Bavar: You’ve said before that you wanted to study chemistry and physics, but then you decided instead to travel and explore the world. How did food play into this? Where did your love for food come from?
Charles Michel: When I was 17 years old, I saw food as a universal language. I thought I could go anywhere in the world and speak 'food' if I know how to cook. I'll never be hungry if I know how to cook. And I'll never run out of a job because people eat every day, right? That was always my thinking when I was a kid.
I am very privileged to be born into two different, but at the same time very complementary, cultures: Colombian and European. Things that seemed like terrible injustices in France were seen as normal in Colombia. And there are things in Colombia that are seen as extreme privilege. These contrasts allowed me to see and understand a lot from a young age, and also ask lots of questions. They are different mindsets. That's what triggered me into wanting to travel and to see the world through the lens of food, initially. Then I got into a classical cooking school in France and that led me down the rabbit hole of fine dining for a few years.
MB: Do you like to cook? Or do you enjoy the research side of food more?
CM: I love cooking. I don't necessarily enjoy cooking in a restaurant because the way restaurants are designed is basically a little industry. The principles of today's kitchens and restaurants were born out of the excitement that industrialism brought in the late 19th and early 20th century in London and Paris. The codes of a restaurant were fast-paced and you could have a menu where you would be able to choose whatever you wanted. That was extremely exciting 120 years ago. Today, we realize it's just a little arm of an industrialized food system that does not necessarily serve its full purpose for society and for the planet.
I see all my friends who work in restaurants who have to struggle so hard, especially in 2020. And many customers don't understand the effort that it takes to make a good plate of food because it's just a transaction. We've lost a little bit of the soul of food through this industrialization. Before, the restaurant was something sacred, something familiar, something convivial, at the center of our cities, at the center of our communities. Then we discover industrialization, which has its uses because we're talking about scaling up and feeding many people. However, the way it is done today, to fight for profit, is not working for humans and it's not working for the planet. We need to re-question it.
My love for food didn't come immediately, but I knew there was something deep inside me that wanted to see food being elevated - elevated in the sense of aesthetics and of principles of art and beauty. A static painting on a wall could cost a million dollars or more, yet something that can not only be as beautiful for the eye but also feed your body is just $10.
Some say food can not be art because it feeds the lower senses - basic instincts, the body. And we have had this perspective since Aristotle and William James, the father of modern psychology, who gave an almost spiritual reverence to the higher senses, which are defined as vision and audition. And the lower senses - the animal senses like taste - are considered primal, and hence less interesting to study.
I think this speaks to the dichotomy or the paradigm of us being disconnected from nature. Certain belief systems have leveraged the arts in sound and vision, whereas their food plays just a symbolic role. Those religions were actually built on the first agricultural societies that managed to live in abundance, and they wanted to be more than nature because they could. But I feel that the cycles of history will eventually bring us back to understanding how important, central, and sacred food is, whatever you believe in. Gandhi said that God manifests in the form of bread for those who are hungry. Try not to drink a glass of water for eight days and then have a glass of water and you may change your understanding of what water is.
Photo by Jordi Cervera
MB: Do you think it’s our senses that are driving our poor behaviour with food? Or is it something more profound within our psyche that needs to be addressed?
CM: We live in a sensory deprived society, where our eyes and ears are bombarded with information guiding our decisions and behaviors. And social media plays a massive role in shaping the way we think and believe. We are not in tune with our senses. We are disconnected from our animal route; I would say even our human route. We can live a whole day without ever making a fire and without ever cooking once, which are, arguably, two of the most ancient human things. Cooking made us human, according to Richard Wrangham in his book ‘Catching Fire’. We’re disconnected from this animal core that makes us so special.
I would even say that there's another big conversation which is that the tension between the masculine and the feminine is heavily skewed towards the masculine in the modern world. In my opinion, connecting to the primal animal being is a move away from the patriarchy and towards the matriarchy - more to nurturing and less to monetary growth. Money has become a religion, when you think about what really drives power on this planet today.
A Taste of Kandinsky by Charles Michel
MB: What led you from cooking and art to food education?
CM: About five years ago, I had this huge life crisis just after I had stopped doing research at Oxford around 2016. I was traveling, crashing on couches all over the world and just barely managing to pay my flights. It was wonderful. But I was asking myself, 'Who am I? And how can I be of service in this lifetime?' During this time, I really thought, ‘should I be an artist, should I just get into fine art?’ - I even got an invitation to be an artist in residence in Brussels but ended up declining it. I thought, ‘should I be a consultant, work for the food industry and try to change it from the inner workings and the guts of decision making and innovation in food systems? Or should I be more of a chef and choose that persona?’.
I had a hard time defining myself and then the answer came without me looking for it: I decided to go into education. Why? Because, for systemic change, if you really want to think about the long run, the 21st century, the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 agenda... If we really want to achieve that, in the long term, we need to start with children. We need to start with youth, educating them better, making them more conscious, more mindful, and eventually more intelligent consumers of the future.
We live in a food illiterate society. Cooking came to be 1.8 million years ago, according to archaeological evidence of fires and bones being roasted - it’s that old. We're teaching kids how to read and write, and about history and mathematics, but we're not teaching them how to interact with food: growing food, cooking food, eating food, sensing food. All these things that are fundamental for their mental and physical health, and the health of the planet - hence, the health of our children and grandchildren and the future of humankind. I believe that food literacy can really help shift the paradigm and that's why I chose to be a food educator.
I'm not teaching kids at the moment, but maybe one day I will. Or I will create a community of educators. There are so many chefs out there who are jobless because of this pandemic, and they have all these skills closed behind doors. They have all this knowledge that can help people connect better to their food, to themselves, and to nature, and I think maybe that could be a way out - having more food educators.
MB: What's the objective?
CM: We’re entering the Anthropocene and it's kind of the Age of Humans. But we're just messing it all up. So, I guess the objective is just to do my part not to mess it up. And to support a fast transition.
MB: A transition to what?
CM: I don't want to use the word ‘green’ because it's become political. As I see it, and I think I mentioned it in my last TED talk, a transition to becoming ‘homo regenesis’. From homo sapiens to the architects of life on this planet. Imagine, 2 million years from now, something happens and everything is gone. An alien civilization comes to Earth and finds the remains of this planet. What legacy would we leave to the universe? A planet that's completely trashed and burnt, with limited amount of life and a bunch of metal and plastic. Or are we leaving a beautiful work of art as a legacy as a species - temples, forests, cities in jungles, floating continents, statues, art everywhere. What is our message?
We have egocentric systems and leaders fighting over who knows what, when we could have a united planet celebrating the fact that we're alive and the fact that we are so precious in this universe. We’re seeing so much suffering in an abundant planet. We are exterminating species that we should be protecting. Forever, a life is gone. Forever, a leading manifestation of DNA is gone because we were high on oil and greed.
We need to do better. I believe that we can do better. And for that, we need a massive structural shift, and I think it starts with children.
MB: What do you think about the emerging field of gastrophysics?
CM: Gastrophysics is to gastronomy what astrophysics is to astronomy. Gastronomy is the science of our decision making when it comes to interacting with our edible environment, to put it one way. Gastrophysics is understanding the science and the reasons behind those behaviors. I see gastrophysics eventually being this class that kids love taking before lunch, in 10 or 20 years. What a fun way of approaching food and talking about biology, physics, chemistry, culture, history, anthropology, sociology! Every single topic touches on food.
MB: Are you developing this subject?
CM: I’m talking about it. The word is out. I don’t think the great change that we need to see is going to come from one-man or one-woman shows. It’s going to be about communities building great things and I definitely want to be part of a community that facilitates this. I definitely see my children learning gastrophysics at school. That’s the fight I choose to fight and I think as long as we are conscious enough, willing enough, and courageous enough to do the work, great things can happen, in this decade in particular.
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