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by Sara Bavar
"All food expresses a sense of place, the elements in a local area are special and give richness to the seasonal cycle."
Terroir is a French term meaning all food expresses a sense of place, that the elements in a local area are special and give richness to the seasonal cycle. Arlene Stein, Founder and Director of Terroir Talk and Terroir Symposium has understood the value land, food and the community that brings it all together. She recognizes the important role food plays in shaping our world, both economically and politically.
Her mission is clear and effective. Through gastrodiplomacy, Stein is reshaping the global food systems by providing a platform for chefs, producers, restaurateurs and industry leaders to connect, learn and interact within their own industries & communities. Currently, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic and the restrictions imposed, Stein has created a virtual community, hosting curated Webinars about the future of food sources and the industry in general.
Sara Bavar: What was your inspiration for starting Terroir? How much of it was influenced by your work with the Slow Food Movement?
Arlene Stein: I started Terroir to build a platform for sharing ideas and resources within the hospitality industry. It was always about community and proving a platform for inspiration and education within the context of professionals who cared about the ‘terroir’ of quality food. While we share the same ethos of Slow Food, our objectives were more geared to bringing the hospitality industry together so that we could improve our credibility as a noble profession that could make a difference if we empowered ourselves.
SB: What is Terroir's objective? Message?
AS: We work with food and drink leaders from within the hospitality industry and use this as a way to build a better system for change in the food and beverage industry. Our mission is to support an ethical, sustainable and resilient food system, by building networks for knowledge sharing and collaboration.
SB: What have been some challenges in the hospitality industry that Terroir has helped overcome since it's birth in 2006?
AS: Our programming has always focused on showcasing exceptional examples of organizations and individuals that make a difference in building better models of food and beverage service. It was also built on the idea of building networks that could create mutually beneficial relationships. So in essence what we try to accomplish is putting the right ideas in front of people that are important and timely.
I wouldn’t say that we overcome challenges, but we curate the right content that helps people think through current issues facing the industry. Our most important work is being able to bring the right conversation to the table that will inspire action and continue to foster relationships that go beyond our programs. I would say our biggest benefit has been that through this network people find opportunity.
SB: What was your most memorable Terroir event?
AS: I think the most important project we ever worked on was “One Fish” in Newfoundland in 2015. We brought a select group of media, fishers, government, academics and chefs to St. John’s to meet industry experts and examine the history of an Atlantic-based community built on fishing. It was a learning journey that championed best practices in ocean protection; shared lessons from 1992's Cod Moratorium; and started a dialogue which ultimately resulted in the overturning of key government legislation.
SB: What are some obstacle facing people in the hospitality industry (producers, distributors, chefs, restaurant owners, etc.) today, especially given the COVID-19 crisis? Can it lead to the creation of a new and improved food model? If so, what could it be?
AS: The biggest challenge the food service has is that we have been working with a model that has been broken for a long time and has no built in resiliency to deal with any type of blip, let alone crisis. Restaurants and everyone in the food supply chain has worked on margins too slim, that are unrealistic, staff are chronically underpaid (or work for free), suppliers are working with payment terms that sometimes exceed 90 days, and rents in major cities are exorbitantly high. It’s a model that doesn’t yield success at the best of times.
I think this is a wake up call to reframe the business model so that the restaurants and suppliers we truly love, can succeed – and most of that will be as a result of the community engagement. I am already seeing so much innovation from chef/owner operated establishments, that care enough to think about how to cater to their consumers and producers who have a loyal following because consumers trust in their products. This crisis will hurt us all, but it will also give us the momentum we need (hopefully) to rethink how to build a more sustainable model that is truly relevant to our customers.
SB: What role can Terroir play with regards to the uncertainty facing people in the hospitality industry all around the world?
AS: We have committed to continuing the conversation and highlighting human stories and inspirational ideas through our virtual channels. We are doing webinars and Instachats, sharing recipes and most importantly, calling our friends to see how they are and asking what we can do to support them through this crisis.
SB: How do you think our lifestyles and habits will change as a result of social distancing, global economic contractions and potential disruptions in the food supply chain?
AS: I think the real crisis (that has yet to hit the food supply chain) will come from the farms. We are just entering into the agricultural season and we are already seeing some of the issues that will impair us through factors like, migrant labour (not being able to travel), farm planning (how much should they plant?) and the uncertainty of farmers knowing who might buy their crops come October, when the restaurant is no longer a buyer. Farmers typically plan a year out, so we might squeak through this year, but the real impact will be next year when those farmers who didn’t sell their yields become much more conservative.
I am not as sure about social distancing. The government plays the biggest role in this factor – whether it is deciding on legislation on social restrictions or communicating positive messaging to help people feel safe to go out again. One of the assumptions being made is that when restaurants are able to reopen, they will have to operate at half their capacity, which to me is absurd. I am not a doctor or a scientist, but it seems to me that if you let people convene in a space for any amount of time, they will all be sharing germs, whether they wear a mask or sit 6 feet apart. They will all be opening the same door to the restaurant, using the same bathrooms and sharing the salt and pepper shakers. Nobody is working in a lab, so mistakes will just happen and people will share bacteria. So it’s either safe or it’s not. We can look at models of best practice from China and Hong Kong, where they have dealt with various outbreaks of the disease and see what worked for them. What won’t work is asking establishments to open with half a revenue model, that’s just the death of the business.
SB: In the past years chefs have become powerful players in the hospitality industry. In your opinion, are they using their "power" responsibly or should they be doing more?
AS: There are plenty of good examples and big name chefs that are trying their hardest to protect their employees. To a good restaurant owner, their team is like family. People are trying to figure out ways to provide meals to staff, to ensure they are getting paid, or have access to government benefits, doing advocacy, galvanizing communities to provide meals for front line workers. These are all wonderful things.
The problem is not every restaurant is created equally. There are some that have made a lot of money on the backs of their employees and their suppliers, who furloughed their staff the minute the crisis hit, asked for government handouts and started charity campaigns to support their staff. Which seems great in principle, but I would have liked to have read more headlines about big name chefs that opened their own wallets first.
SB: How are you dealing with social distancing? Any messages for our readers?
AS: We have it pretty easy in Berlin – although we had a lockdown, we never had to stop going outside. We have always been allowed to go to restaurants for pick up or to markets for that matter. I think every government needs to set in place rules that make sense for the outbreak in their particular region, and then it’s up to us to follow the rules so we can bring an end to this madness. That said, there is no need to shame your neighbor and the racism around who started this virus needs to end – it’s showing a terrible side of humanity. We need to be kind and understanding and ever more reliant on our community.
SB: What are some future projects? More virtual events?
AS: Lots of virtual stuff and hopefully, gods willing, something in Italy at the end of the year. Maybe that’s hopeful, but that’s my current state of mind.
Click here to learn more about Terroir Hospitality and the work Arlene Stein is doing.
Click here to learn more about Voula Halliday, illustrated of the featured image, chef, and author.