Ben McMenamin isn’t one to sit idle. A chef, environmentalist and social entrepreneur, he is now combining these passions to generate change through his main passion – food. His initiative, Social Food Project, organises fun and engaging events that aim to enact social change from the ground up.
How would you explain the Social Food Project to a stranger?
The Social Food Project hosts pop-up food events that have sustainability outcomes. We think the best way to engage with people is through interactive sessions that are social, educational, fun and wrapped up in stories. Our events include sit down dinners, cooking workshops and public demonstrations.
What was your inspiration to start the Social Food Project?
The inspiration for starting the Social Food Project (SFP) came from a ‘light bulb’ moment when I was working in a restaurant a few years ago. My job at the time was on the grill section, with one of my main tasks preparing fish. Every day we got in 3-4 whole fish, which I would fillet and cut into portions. Every day we would be left with 3-4 fish carcasses that I was instructed to throw in the bin. One day as I was about to throw out the bones, I thought to myself “surely there is something we can use this for!”. So I stashed them in the cool room, did some research and found a recipe for a seafood chowder that utilised the bones and other seafood offcuts. I went back to my head chef at the time and asked if I could put on a special, which he agreed to, and it was one of our best-selling dishes ever! From that point on I started thinking more about how we can utilise products more and engage people in sustainable food – which eventually led to the creation of SFP.
Tell us about your background – where did your love of food and gardening come from?
My interest in this area came about by combining my two passions: food and sustainability. I have been working as a professional chef for 11 years and love working with food. I have also always been interested in people and the environment, and how things fit together. As a chef, I noticed how much waste was being generated in restaurants and wanted to learn more about how I could make a positive difference. So I enrolled in a Bachelor of Social Science (Environment) at RMIT and over 3 years I learnt about behaviour change, social research and the forces that drive people to act in particular ways. Then 2 years ago I decided to combine the things I had learnt at university with my culinary experience and started the Social Food Project! Now I am working on a range of projects that include supporting chefs to be more sustainable, connecting local producers to eaters and creating systems for improving wellbeing in hospitality workers.
Where do you hope to see Australia’s food culture in 10 years?
I may be biased, but I see us becoming more connected to our local producers and makers. More people will develop artisanal food skills – bread making, curing and preserving, and have a greater respect for food that is grown and processed ethically. I think that the best way to bring about change is to speak and act on it, and I see food becoming more central to cultural and political conversations in the future. Speaking about better ways of doing things is big motivator for my work; when you talk about a positive food future, I believe it is more likely to come into reality. Just like how a science fiction author might predict the future and inspire people to make it a reality (this is what happened with the internet!) we want to talk about a best-case-scenario food future and join with people to make it come true. The only difference is that we are using cooking as our tool for communication.
What’s been your highlight for the Social Food Project so far?
A recent highlight for us has been working with the City of Melbourne on Melbourne Knowledge Week. Together we hosted a few events, including a Utopian Foods event that looked at the food system in 50 years in a best-case-scenario. As part of that we served a range of interesting foods, including food that would be wasted, insects and food that was produced in an urban environment. This was all about telling an alternative story to the dominant ‘dystopian’ story we hear everywhere. We also did a bug dukkah making workshop as part of the Urban Ideas Playground to encourage people to think about alternative protein sources.
Why do you think its so important to connect people with their food source?
It all comes back to resilience. When people who produce food are disconnected from the people who eat food, there is less empathy and understanding of how the food is being produced. It is really easy to turn a blind eye to the way our food is being produced when you don’t see who actually produces it. This then leads to a general lack of support and care for these people, leaving farmers isolated, who have an increased chance of leaving the land – or worse. We need to encourage diversity in our food system because in an uncertain future climate, large-scale industrialised agriculture that have monocultures and rely of pesticides and fertilisers are susceptible to failure. If we put all of our eggs in one basket, and that basket is carried away in a flood, we won’t have any food to eat! Small scale food systems that are diverse and regenerative are far more resilient and will put us in a good position to deal with challenging future scenarios.
Social Food Project is only a year old, but what’s next for it?
We have some really exciting things in the pipeline! As well as running our regular events (Stories over Supper and the Farmer to Table cooking workshops) we are also creating a video series that seeks out ethical producers, shares their stories and then goes back to the kitchen to cook with their produce – check out our first videos here: http://www.socialfoodproject.com/video/. I am also working on some exciting projects including an ongoing campaign to promote local food and the creation of a chef’s alliance or collaborative that gives support and advice to chefs who are looking to engage with sustainability.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
Probably a teacher. I come from a large family of people working in the education sector and it has always seemed like a really important role in society.
To find out more about the Social Food Project, head to their website.