Are you familiar with Parabere Forum, an annual conference on world food issues from a female perspective? Janine Kennedy, shares her conversation with Chef Joshna Maharaj, the official Canadian correspondent for Parabere, about her personal ethos, her culinary style and how she got involved in Parabere Forum.
Parabere Forum is an annual conference on world food issues from a female perspective. Yes, you heard that right — a female perspective. We know how male-driven the culinary industry can be. We throw around terms like “bro culture” and tsk, tsk at the sexual harassment stories we read online, but what are we actually doing, as food writers and professionals, to change the testosterone-dominated world of food? One of the many things Parabere accomplishes is providing an answer to this question.
This year, the forum took place in Malmö, Sweden and was centred around the idea of “Edible Cities.” Several times Canada was mentioned as an example in presentations highlighting the different ways we can nourish the world’s urban areas. Whether through city-driven farming methods, ways of healing social differences through food or changing the way we look at home economics and culinary education, from the viewpoint of the world stage, our country has a lot to be proud of.
We can definitely be proud that Chef Joshna Maharaj is our representative as the official Canadian correspondent for Parabere. She spoke at the 2017 forum in Barcelona on the idea of “social gastronomy” and how chefs can make a positive social impact through the foods they prepare. We caught up with her to learn more about her personal ethos, her culinary style and how she got involved in Parabere Forum.
You first attended Parabere Forum in 2017, when it was held in Barcelona. What were your first impressions of the forum?
Honestly, the first thing that hit me about Parabere in Barcelona last year was the overwhelming feeling that I had found my tribe. It was so encouraging to meet other chefs, like me, who were doing different and really community-focused things with their careers. It was also amazing to meet a group of talented, inspired female chefs who were so committed to making things work in very unlikely circumstances. Female chefs can figure it out and make it work!
What’s your background in food? Have you always had a personal connection to preparing food for others?
Yes! I am the oldest female child in an Indian family so there is no way that I was going to escape the kitchen. But I have always loved taking care of people, and there is no better way to do that than to put a nice plate of food in front of them.
How does your food style tie into the social issues you champion?
My food style is deeply rooted in my values, and this is perhaps most evident in how I source ingredients. I spend a lot of time telling people about how much fun they could be having in the kitchen, and why it’s so worthwhile to invest in a relationship with food. When I cook, it feels like an important opportunity to walk my talk, and make sure that I’m out there doing all of the things that I’m encouraging others to do. On the plate I try to produce food that is wholesome, honest and crazy delicious, pushing the idea that you can eat in a way that is good for your wallet, good for the planet and still a joy for your mouth!
Do you think male chefs and female chefs differ? If so, in what ways?
I think male and female chefs differ in the same ways that men and women differ, and I think this is applicable in every industry. I think that men and women have distinct approaches to the kitchen, in the way they cook, and the way they lead teams. I also think that there is a way to value and celebrate those differences that doesn’t have to set one up against the other … though it feels important to say that a more feminine approach to the issue would be about making more space for everyone as opposed to maintaining the idea that there’s only room for one at the top.
Do you think Canada has a long way to go before we truly achieve gender equity in professional kitchens?
I don’t think Canada is different from many other countries on this issue. We definitely have some distance to cover, and most of this change has to happen in the hearts and minds of the people in the industry. I do think that Canada’s commitment to diversity and inclusion (all flaws considered) would be incredibly useful in bridging this gap, and it would be something quite valuable that we could offer this discussion on a global scale.
At this year’s forum, Chef Rene Redzepi (Noma) basically told the media it was their fault for writing about him and other male chefs so often and they were the ones with the inclusivity problem. Do you agree? Is it a media problem?
I agree that the media has a big role to play here concerning the chefs they choose to highlight and the conversations they choose to have about the industry. But I was honestly hoping for more from Chef Redzepi. I was hoping that he would position himself as an ally and talk about the things he had done in his kitchen to ensure gender equity. I would have liked to see him use his position at the top of the heap to talk about how things need to change. And I would have liked to see him own his male privilege. It’s a real problem to suggest that this issue is just one that the women have to sort out, and it’s disappointing that chefs like Chef Redzepi don’t take more leadership here.
How can we, as food writers, bloggers and food professionals, become more inclusive in our food choices, our writing and our day-to-day lives?
I think that one of the most important things that can boost inclusivity is to consciously take a moment to rethink your understanding of what it means to be a chef. Chefs are not all white guys in crisp white jackets with their arms folded seriously. And chefs are also not only people who work in restaurants. What it means to be a chef is changing a lot, and it would be wonderful for our food media to be more reflective of this change.
When you’re feeling down about the problems in the world, what do you like to comfort-eat?
Oh man, I love starch. Cookies particularly. When I’m stressed and overwhelmed, I bake because sweet starchy things will cure what ails you, in the heat of the moment.
Where can we find you? What do you have planned for the year ahead?
I’m still happily living here in Toronto! I’m thrilled to report that I’m about to start writing a book about my work rebuilding institutional food systems. But I’m also about to launch what I hope will be a very successful crowdfunding campaign to launch a movement around changing institutional food. You can find out about all of these things at my website www.joshnamaharaj.com.
If you’re interested in learning more about Parabere Forum, or if you want to attend the 2019 forum in Oslo, you can contact Joshna or Janine Kennedy for more information on joining the Canadian delegation.
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Chef Joshna Maharaj, Parabere Forum Canadian Correspondent was written by Janine Kennedy. Janine describes herself as Irish by marriage, Canadian by birth, and Cape Bretoner by divine provenance. You can connect with Janine on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.