The Social Power of Gastronomy


Some of the biggest names in food, journalism, design and more took to the stage at the Transforming Society Through Gastronomy symposium in Modena on 24 July.
The Social Power of Gastronomy

Chefs, journalists, media, foodies and fans from around the world flocked to Coleggio San Carlo in Modena this week for a day dedicated to Social Gastronomy, the first such symposium hosted by the Basque Culinary Centre and chef Massimo Bottura and in partnership with Acqua Panna and S.Pellegrino.

Sat beneath the ornate ceiling of the 18th century theatre, ideas on the strength of culture, the influence of art and ways of creating connections between people through gastronomy were shared, as an international panel of experts took to the stage to give their take on the power of gastronomy ahead of the Basque Culinary World Prize Winner announcement.

The eclectic selection of speakers explored the impact of food through the lens of their speciality, whether cooking it, writing about it, filming it or designing spaces in which to eat it. Amongst the line up were JR, the French photographer, London-based designer Ilse Crawford, Daniele De Michele, the Italian DJ and food activist, the British food writer and historian Bee Wilson, as well as Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio, US food writer Ruth Reichl, David Gelb, the US film maker, two-Michelin-star Basque chef, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Lara Gilmore from the Bottura partnership. Each took their turn to put their spin on how food affects their creative space.

Here's a closer look at the themes that emerged from the day's inspiring events.


Massimo Bottura, from the World's Best Restaurant Osteria Francescana and founder of the Refettori project kicked off proceedings, with characteristic presence as he welcomed the room to his hometown.

Using the powerful imagery of Ai Weiwei dropping a 2000-year-old, one million dollar vase to illustrate the point, Bottura posed the question - "Is it the end or the beginning?" before drawing on the importance of culture: "Culture is our weapon not to deny the past but to try to renew it." A chef's job, he said, is "putting pieces of the puzzle together and re-connecting ideas."

Using the example of the refettori in London, Paris, Rio and Milan as the perfect embodiment of "hospitality as an international language," he went on to say, “We made people feel comfortable – a kind of hug to make them feel welcome.” However, rather than the project as charity work, Bottura was clear that this was a cultural project, "not just to feed the needy but to feed the world with beauty."

Left to right: Lara Gilmore and Massimo Bottura


Ilse Crawford and her London design studio were the team tasked with designing the interior of the Refettorio Felix project to feed the needy in London, to one simple brief: “Make it beautiful.” As Gilmore pointed out, "there's no reason a soup kitchen shouldn't look like a beautiful restaurant."

Drawing on the team's skill of re-connecting humans with spaces, Crawford explained how they were able to fulfill the challenge by drawing on humanity and creativity to make things better for them, “first of all to bring people together around a table ... to build a community and restore dignity to people."


Enigmatic French artist and self-professed urban activist, JR, also presented his creative mission: turning the streets into the largest art gallery in the world with the intention of changing perceptions. “If chefs can do it in the kitchens, artists can do it with images,” he exclaimed.

Touching on some of his most impactful projects JR spoke about an image he had installed on US and Mexico border designed to provoke questions about immigration. An image of a 65-foot-high card board cut out baby, smiling, clinging precariously to the barrier dividing the two countries and peering over the top, "what can a new born baby think about the wall at the border?" asked JR, "certainly not what we all think of." In an ironic side take the artist also showed a photo of himself exchanging food and tea with a policemen, through the gaps in the divide, once again reminding the audience of the symbolism of sharing food.


The transformative power of food was given scientific grounding by British author and academic, Bee Wilson, as she highlighted the significance of the simple act of taking a single bite.

From how the alignment of our teeth has evolved to our food preferences, it all begins with the simple act of taking a bite size mouthful she explained ... bites have consequences. "Through the bite we can activate social change," she said, whether it's learning new tastes, changing how we feel about putting different foods in our mouths or chefs shaping desire for what we want to put into them.


“If gastronomy is an engine for change nobody did it better than Jonathan,” said the acclaimed US writer Ruth Reichl of her friend and colleague, the late Jonathan Gold, as she gave a heartfelt speech in memory of the LA food critic. "Changing the world through gastronomy," continued Reichl "John would have loved the theme of this meeting because he has done exactly that for a lifetime: putting food on the world map. He turned Los Angeles from confused to a gluttonous city. Food truck, gourmet restaurants, holes in the wall: for him they were all the same, all worthy of exploration. He believed in each of them and in the symbolic strength of what they did ... he understood better than anyone that soft words break through our world much more than any other." And, after all, she reminded the audience, “sometimes it’s the smallest stories that are actually the biggest of all.”

The US film director behind Chef's Table, David Gelb, also spoke of his inspiration, "I travel a lot, I eat incredible specialties, I meet fantastic people: I'm very lucky. My mother, a cook, has handed me the beauty of my job." Describing his award-winning documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi he said: "It was supposed to be a feature film about sushi, but then it became the story of the relationship between a father and a son." As a result, he realised, “we’re not making a film about food or how to cook – we’re showing why they cook and we’re making films about people.” Hence, his films are powerful stories about people overcoming challenges.


"We always say that 'we are what we eat', but I say we are how we eat," said Andoni Luis Aduriz, the enthusiastic chef from Mugaritz in the Basque country. Giving a historical account through the ages, he demonstrated how every change in human society has almost immediately been reflected in the kitchen. Bringing us up to the present day, Andoni drew the room's attention back to social networks, illustrating how Instagram is helping to define who we are, based on how we eat. "If we want to achieve results we must use these platforms to reach people and talk to them about what organisations like the Basque Culinary World Prize are doing for gastronomy," he said.

Daniele De Michele, the Italian dj and food activist, otherwise known as Don Pasta, gave an impassioned speech on traditional Italian cuisine using an analogy of Parmigiana, a recipe that is symbolic in "understanding who we are through what we eat."


Chef and winner of Latin America's Lifetime Achievement Award 2018, Gaston Acurio from Lima’s Astrid y Gaston explained how gastronomy has transformed Peru, while highlighting the responsibility of chefs in building a better world. “We live in a world of anxiety. The kitchen is a wonderful opportunity to get the best out of us,” he said. However, he warned, "there are still many problems that we have to face as cooks and as activists." The first thing to never forget "is that the greatest ingredients of our food cultures are the result of the journey and of the intermingling of cultures."