December 11, 2013 at 4:58 pm

What Is Good Food? The Importance of Being a Gastronome

What is a gastronome? Well, that will be my ‘title’ after I graduate in a few months from my bachelor’s degree in Gastronomic Sciences at The University of Gastronomic sciences  (UNISG) in Italy. When I first arrived here just over three years ago I certainly wasn’t a gastronome, I wouldn’t even have described myself as a foodie, just a girl with a very broad, undirected interest in food.

My aim was never to become a gastronome, I just wanted to study a food-based degree at university and then land my dream job, which, after the chef-dream ended was as a food stylist or a product developer. Eating was always a pleasure (although I hardly cooked despite collecting a lot of recipes).

I decided to take a gap year between school and university, and for four months of that year I volunteered on three organic farms across France and Spain with an association called WWOOF. Up to that point in my life there had been no experience more fundamental in creating and formulating my views on food. It was only at this point that I realized how simple and beautiful food and people’s relation to it really is. I grew food, harvested it, sold it, and exchanged it at markets. For the first time my hands were in the soil. It took 18 years for me to have my first holistic gastronomic experience, and I wasn’t in a Michelin starred restaurant, or in a kitchen, I was on a farm. I got a glimpse of what food was at its essence is and I wanted more.

WWOOFing in the South of France

WWOOFing in the South of France

We (especially in the Western world) are obsessed with food, constantly thinking and feeding into this big food culture of blogs, cooking shows, celebrity chefs, and so on and so forth. All of these are great mediums for sharing ideas and information, but in the end we are all still detached from the actual food itself. The people who do not care what they eat and eat without any thought, awareness or context leads again to a detachment from food. It is only in the middle that we can cultivate a real relationship with what we eat.

After this revelation, I didn’t want to feel detached from my food anymore. I returned to London, declined my place to study Food and Nutrition at an English university, and decided to keep on WOOF-ing. I couldn’t study food on what was to me a soul-less course that hadn’t changed for 20 years. By chance I came across an international university in Italy where you study food in its entirety from all angles and visit food communities and producers across Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world. I was sold.

Over the past three years and finally studying gastronomy at university, food has become less and less about my academic life and more about my life as a whole – professional, social, and personal. The most important thing about this university is not the classes but the fact that it has brought my classmates and myself together.

Wine degustation course at the author's university

Wine degustation course at the author’s university

We are gluttons. All of our social interactions with each other happen over a plate of food and glass of something. We cook together, break bread, and share ideas at the same time. It is one big dining table. We do this with each other on a daily basis and then with others when we travel.

I have been to Kenya, Slovakia, China, and Denmark with the university and each food community has been unique and different. Yet despite the variance each one is similar in the fact that their food is an integral part of creating and sustaining their society and culture. Everything is shared all day every day. This is conviviality at its finest. Food is one big social lubricant; its purpose is to be shared.

This is the cornerstone of being a gastronome—this deeper understanding of food itself and its role in creating and sustaining a society.

So after three years, how would I define a gastronome? Is it the dictionary definition – a gourmet, a connoisseur of good food? What is good food anyway? Is it synonymous with organic food? Or plates you eat in a Michelin starred restaurant? Are they functional foods, fortified with phyto- and zoo-nutrients? What about fair trade?

For me good food is sustainable food: sustainable in not only its production but its place in the culture of society. A food produced with as little chemical help as possible (though, in fairness to the farmers, that does not always mean no pesticides at all). A food that has roots in a particular place or culture and will continue being produced with or without modern influences. Good foods are foods that play a role in friendship and hospitality and where thought and love have gone into their creation. This can be an apple from the market or a meal at a restaurant (Michelin starred or not).

(Credit: Hsing Wei)

(Credit: Hsing Wei)

We have made the matter of food so complicated. We being governments, consumers – everyone. It is all so very simple and it is the role of the gastronome to remind us how easy it can be. We connect all the pieces of the puzzle by studying food in its entirety: the history, sociology, chemistry, horticulture, anthropology, aesthetics, nutrition, economics—everything. Thus enabling us to do more or less, well, anything.

This is the beauty of being a gastronome in an international university and moreover the beauty of food and its ability to unite people and bring us all together. We’ve all come from different corners of the world to be trained in the art of gastronomy. After a few years, we leave the gastronome nest to implement what we have learned however and wherever we see fit. This is why it is so hard to define a gastronome.

I have friends who, post-graduation, have become journalists, chefs, microbrewery owners, school gardeners, research and development workers, buyers, and (my personal favorite) an organic snail farmer. You name it; we do it. If there isn’t already a role for it, we will create it ourselves.

Having a holistic view of past and present global food systems means we are better able to guide and shape the future food system, creating a global equilibrium between the stuffed and the starved. We cannot define the system. That depends on the combined effort of every single person on the planet, but we can help give it a nudge in the right direction. We’re daily small-scale activists. We don’t hold banners or rallies or come knocking door to door for support. We each create in our own little pocket of the world, like bees in a hive, with help from and consideration for our global neighbors. Working on microcosms of the macrocosm.

How will I choose to express my role as a gastronome once I graduate in March? My journey started in the soil, passed through the classroom and is currently continuing in the kitchen. Somewhere along the way I became a gastronome, which means everything and nothing at all. Where the next stop is, I’m still not sure, there are too many choices. They say the devil makes work for idle hands, so I guess it’s a good thing that a gastronome’s work is never done.

-Zachi Brewster