The FINANCIAL — Eating junk food from other cultures, along with one’s basic food intake, is contributing to various diseases as our bodies are not genetically built for it. Going back to our roots more while eating is the best solution for bad health, according to world travelling chef Michele Haines. Implementing ‘Slow Food’ movements seems an achievable goal to Haines despite the implications of globalization.
This is Haines’s second visit to Georgia. She was invited here by the restaurant Monsieur Jordan. Here she has created several-course meals, including rice parfait au pistou el crevette and crepe suzette flombee au cointreau. Previously, she worked in Russia for Slow Food, promoted as an alternative to fast food, that strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages the farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.
The 71 year-old chef owns a French bistro, ‘Spring Mill Cafe’, outside of Philadelphia.
“It is preferable not to be influenced by fashion and not to eat fashionable food. If it is fashionable and good for you, then great. But if it is a trend that is not necessarily good, I suggest you should not do it. In this case we are imitating other cultures. Having junk food from other cultures, along with your own basic food, is too much. It is the same in Japan. They eat Japanese food, which is marvellous, then they go on to eat ice-cream, whipped cream and cakes which of course they are not used to. Their bodies are not prepared for these kinds of foods. They have several generations of bodies which have never had that stuff. So, that is not good. It can result in rising cases of diabetes and other diseases. I think every culture should go back to their roots more. That is what our body can absorb in a healthy way,” Haines told The FINANCIAL.
Haines is called an ambassador of peace through food. She has volunteered in more than twenty countries as a chef. “While travelling, I do not want to be a tourist. I want to be a part of everyday life. I love people. Georgian people are very generous, open, and helpful. So, it is a marvellous experience. My mission is to go around the world and to show people that we can be different, we can disagree, we can have different religions, but we can still be together. If we start with food and wine, we have a link and that link makes a better life in that we then communicate, we respect one another and we do not hurt each other. It is marvellous in Georgia because people are very open.”
“In Russia I was invited by the slow food movement which is organic, targets the preservation of traditions and beautiful dishes of the past, both plant and animal-based. It is kind of a respect for life, respect for the earth, and being careful with climate change. It is a really big movement. Russia is slowly starting to be aware of eating correctly for the sake of their body’s health. There is a movement in Russia called ‘LavkaLavka’. It is like Slow Food. Only locally-produced foodstuffs are used. It includes eating in season. I did a project in Rostov, with friends. This year in Russia I also did cooking in Irkutsk and Vladivostok. It was a very big project,” said Haines.
Q. How possible is it to implement the Slow Food movement in Georgia?
A. If you are really close to the land you are organic by definition. You do not need to be taught. If you live in a small village for many years you need to have certain things provided for you. Most villagers in Georgia are still, fortunately, living with mainly local produce. Georgia is very lucky as with its rural environment you are automatically organic. That has been the way of life for centuries. In Georgia it is more a question of balance, not excess. An excess of food is not good for the health.
Q. Do you consider globalization to be an obstacle in regard to promoting Slow Food?
A. Going back to our roots is possible in the globalization era. The slow food movement shows that. In the U.S. for example, the movement is very strong. There are some exceptions, like coffee, which is not grown in New York, so it is taken from other places. However, the basic food, like vegetables, meat and fruit, should be local. I, personally, would never touch a chicken, or beef, that had not been running around freely. My body cannot process it. I was raised the other way, so if I eat that horrible food that comes from huge factories my body would immediately get sick.
Q. Georgia is an import-dependent country even in terms of food products. What is your solution to the problem of local production not meeting demands?
A. Perhaps the number of naturally-reared animals will not be sufficient to meet all of the existing demand, but in this case it is better to limit one’s meat consumption. Animals are very bad for climate control. They produce a lot of gas. A high number of animals is directly linked to climate change. They are like cars. Cows and pigs cause big problems for the environment. The solution to solving climate change problem is consuming less meat. Everybody should make an effort in this regard, as with cars; there should not be one car per person who drives to work. That would be ridiculous. Car sharing is very helpful in this respect. In addition, people should walk more. We have become very lazy. We have become overly dependent on cars. If we have to walk just three blocks, we get into the car. However, things are changing. I remember how, even in New York, there used to be no sidewalks, so I had to walk on the highway. Then they started building sidewalks as well as bike lanes. It means things are changing. More people are jogging, biking and running now. People started worrying that their bodies were getting into really bad shape. So, they started jogging, walking and running. The President of China was in Washington recently. He named climate change as one of his main concerns. Lots of people create lots of problems. As the President said, climate change is going to be a priority of his calendar. That is good. Because they create lots of problems with gas emissions and so on. So, we seem to be going in the right direction. However, we each have to try. We each have to be good at doing a little bit to make things better. That is our responsibility. Not necessarily to others, but to ourselves. We must respect our beautiful bodies.
Q. In Georgia, like in many other countries, the number of fast food restaurants is increasing quite rapidly. As a promoter of Slow Food do you consider it to be a problem?
A. I look at fast food restaurants in two ways. Good food is very expensive. I do not like the word fast food. Eating should be a pleasure. While eating I used to communicate with my family members. That is how it should be. Some restaurants in the so-called fast food business actually have a very good selection if you know what to choose. They now have salad bars. They have everything made from vegetables. Their choice of meat has also improved. So, for a family of four eating calmly in a place like that and talking to each other in a civilized way is much better than going home screaming, cooking, smoking, watching TV and all that stuff. However, choosing properly is crucial. Being a practical person today means not condemning something that helps negate one’s crazy and hectic life. Finding balance in that is important.
Q. Which of Georgia’s food simply must be tried?
A. Georgians make great meat dishes. I love lamb and you are very good with lamb. You can try good Georgian food in many restaurants. However, if you want to truly experience Georgian cuisine then you can eat very well at home. I love Georgian bread very much. I would recommend that foreigners try it. The country has very good vegetables. Georgia’s reputation is well-known all over the world. My foreign friends always mention Georgian food as one of the best.
Q. In Georgia you are planning to cooperate with Key Management Solutions (KMS) Georgia which is involved in training staff for the HoReCa sector. How important is a technical cooking education?
A. Most people, especially nowadays, do not help at home. Most kids do not even know how to properly hold a broom and sweep. In my restaurants I have seen waiters whom, at 24-25, I had to teach how to sweep the floor. This is ridiculous. Today many families do not cook as much as they should, so many youngster do not know the basics. That is why school becomes important. If you came from a background where you cooked with your mother and helped her then certainly a cooking school could be seen as very expensive. So, for someone who has a background in cooking, I would recommend working in a small restaurant, learning from a chef and then going to school and finishing by learning all the other details. I think that practical experience is much better. Today, lots of children are influenced by chefs that are more stars than chefs. Indeed they are giving bad examples to children. Everybody thinks that they are going to be stars, travel around the world in a private jet. However, that is not the way that life is. The reality is working hard for very long hours. This is a profession which is always in the workplace regardless of the time of day, or day of the week. A restaurant is a place which always works when everyone else is having fun. Many children go to cookery school, learn, and later start hating it as it is not what they expected it to be. So, in such cases they end up having spent lots of money and then quitting. For that reason, chefs should speak a little bit more about the truth of what most cooks do.
Q. Who would you cite as your biggest influence?
A. My grandmother influenced me, not in terms of having a career as a chef, but in terms of loving food and preparing it as my grandmother did. We were a very gourmet family with a great mindset. My mother is very demanding in terms of the quality of everything. Even today at the age of 95 she might spend 20 minutes on simply choosing a sock that properly matches the colour of her skin. French people love to criticize. So, when you are raised in that way you also become very demanding. The idea of being average is dreadful to me. I am always striving to do the best I can. My family influenced me that way: to learn more over time; to love people; and to make beautiful things.