Brian Daly interviews Simon Bryant, former Executive Chef at Hilton Adelaide, and Festival Director of Tasting Australia.
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Opening quote: I think that its important when you shop to realize that you're voting. And when you cook, you're voting and you're voting to make a better, kinder, place for everyone, animals included.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast. My name is Brian Daly and today we're discussing the growing movement in restaurants and cafes around Australia of putting humanely sourced food on the menu and to talk about it I'm thrilled to be joined by one of the luminaries of the Australian food industry, former executive chef at Hilton Adelaide and festival director of tasting Australia, Simon Bryant. Welcome to the podcast Simon.
Simon: Thank you for having me Brian.
Brian: Simon, many people would know you from your long running ABC show with Maggie Beer, the cook and the chef. How did you get started? When did you first think I love food and this is what I want to do?
Simon: I look won’t romanticize the career. I was a serial career changer. I'm a motor mechanic by trade. I then went back to school and did my year 12 certificate, went to uni, swapped around unis nearly finished an economics degree. I had to get a job, long and protracted story but ended up cooking. I kind of decided at some stage that when I was out to my neck in suds washing dishes that I preferred it to my macro economic stats lecture and kind of love it. So I've been very lucky.
Brian: You've always struck me as a person with that curious mind, that is something that defines you I think, and your interest in so many things and you've obviously got a deep connection with animals. You're a strong advocate for animal welfare not just through your work with RSPCA’s choose wisely campaign but you're also an ambassador for the Animal Welfare League in South Australia and for Animals Asia foundation amongst others. Did this come about through your work as a chef, or was it something that was always there?
Simon: I think in hindsight, you can sort of see a pattern. But in foresight, and I had no idea I just think that I'm very grateful to, especially my mum, who led by example around issues of empathy, perhaps compassion and I'm still yet to be the person that I would have liked her to be proud of. In those areas, you can always do better. Like she was a mad collector of miscellaneous and sundry animals that it wasn't unusual for us to bring home, you know, dogs on bits of string that we'd found or whatever and we had all sorts of stuff going on at home with you know, ducks. I think that you know, we had we had a hobby farm when I was even younger, and I think a really good thing that pinnacle moment was probably when we had to, you know, eat a chicken and bearing witness and participating. And I don't think it's a bad thing. I think as a kid, you have, you need to be shown these things. I hate the behind closed doors aspects of what we have about eating meat, and I command a lot of cultures that eat it, but they live it and they are not in any form of denial or cognitive dissidence around the fact that it is death.
Brian: Yeah, and it's true. We've been removed from that I think as a society. I remember seeing the next door neighbour’s had the chickens as well. So, it was like it's something that we did experience and we did understand where it comes from. And I guess that started you off is looking into how farm animals were raised for food and has influenced your views on animal welfare in that regard.
Simon: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we like to be honest, my family was a bit mad and I love them for it and they ended up doing that crazy thing where they went and did the tree change hobby farm, but they gave it a real good crack. And I think that it was a beautiful thing to see old race horses that you know, out to live out their days and you know, on a beautiful bit of pasture and, you know, because you're not trying to make a profit, you've just got stuff, you've got land, you can put it on it and let it be quite happy. And that was quite shocking to me when I actually saw a real, real commercial operation because we do have that mad idea in our head that it's all green paddocks and happy animals and you know it commercially, that can be viable to a degree but it's never going to be like that stupid cartoon in people's heads of what a farm is like. And I think that was a bit of a gear change in my head when I was a curious young chef and I started going to farm gates regularly and looking at process and conditions. And the best farm that I've visited would probably horrify a lot of people. And I don't mean to put anyone off they're doing a great job these farmers in the animals are incredibly well cared for in a lot of, in all of the supplies that I buy from a lot of suppliers that want to do the right thing. But I think our idea in our head and our visual image of what we think of farm is completely off the mark. We do that as a coping mechanism, perhaps. I don't know.
Brian: And we're such urban dwellers. We were so removed from that, that process, aren't we?
Simon: And I think it's really important that we, we join those two realms together if that cartoon or storybook in our head and the reality. I've got no criticism of people that want to eat meat, that's fine. I serve it and I'm a chef and I'm responsible for that. I think that you need to, and perhaps advertisings played a bit of a bad role here and marketing of what the reality is. And I think we need to merge those two points together and have a more realistic picture in our head. And then yes, you can make an informed and responsible decision and still participate in the eating of animal products. But I would prefer that we were doing it with full knowledge of, or at least adequate knowledge of the realities of what that means on all sorts of levels for welfare, for land care, environmental issues, and also for the producers themselves. It's a tough job.
Brian: So it really is a difficult barrier to overcome as you say there's advertised idea in people's minds about the rolling hills and, and all this on a farm and then they see the guerrilla footage of really dire stuff shot darkly at night. So, they're the two extremes I guess that people are seeing about they're pulled one way or the other, but how can we help producers become more transparent? And how can consumers get a better understanding of what actually goes on?
Simon: Yeah, I think that's a really good point, Brian, that the poor producers, they're, you know, they're kind of stuck in this place where you've got a very naive childish image in people's head of what a good farm would be. And then they see some kind of you know, night time raid footage, like you said, which is horrific. And you kind of bounce between one end of the core and the other. If a producer wants to actually show you what's in the middle of the core, or the real thing, they're kind of damned if they do damned if they don't, at the moment, they need the consumer, to I'm going to be harsh to grow up so that they're able to tell the real story and, and those bits in the middle like, it's great to say we're, you know, sow stall free, but you know, and that the kill methods, you know, pretty, pretty seamless if you want to use that clinical word, what about everything in between that, you know, you've still got farrowing crates and you got them for a reason, because that's an economic thing, but we don't have to, if we if you give more margin for the producer to be able to have braids that have smaller leaders that can manage their piglets without crushing them, tooth clipping, tail docking, pre transport stress before animals are loaded, behaviours in the paddock, rutting, whatever it is all of these stages of life that the animal goes through and also the lifespan, people would be amazed, I can buy some beautiful hundred and 20 day grown out chickens that are huge, people would be shocked that actually you're eating juveniles, the lifespan of a bird you know, 45 days or whatever it is. People would be quiet, you know? Wow, okay, but that's the reality. Let's show that and let's show the ages and the life cycles and the behaviours in between. And then we can really talk because you've got the whole picture. And you haven't sort of pushed people to one extreme or the other. And I think that's very important.
Brian: I remember hearing people saying in their 20s that have grown up in the city saying, I've just realized that the chicken I eat is actually the same thing as the chicken at the animal.
Simon: Yeah, that's actually a really interesting wormhole, a rabbit hole to go down, language. Quite often we disassociate the product with language. Chicken ok, but beef is so disassociated from cow, you know, and I write on my menus for that reason, pig cow sheep. Yeah, I get why we use the words most of them are French derivatives, beef, whatever. But I think it's really important to cement what you are really eating in people's minds, and all of that stuff in between, putting down age is not a bad thing on a on a menu like I don't care how many days you dry aged your meat, what about the age of the animal, and commendations to a lot of the Nordic chefs that are now eating expired dairy cattle that could be like a six year old dairy cow, those concepts is just bizarre to us. They, you know, our dairy cows are just so exhausted by the time they're expired, and they never hit our table. We want milk, but we won't take accountability for the baby males and we won't take accountability for the expired females. They should be on our plate. And by filling in all of that life cycle of what really happens in enabling a producer to show that without being outrageously criticized, because we have a sort of crazy idea of what the ideal is, would be very, very helpful. And it would fill in the whole picture.
Brian: And lead to more informed choice.
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. I mean that there's some really pinnacle things. I'm a big fan of the five domains model around functional and mental domains of how the animal's behaving. And its emotional responses. Visually, you visually yes, there's density. Obviously, there's the fact that the animal can't, you know, doesn't have much space issues with factory farming, but you've got to look beyond all of the visuals and just get down to the facts is that animal actually, you know, given a correcting environment are its behaviours as close to natural as possible without getting all airy fairy about it? And you know, that's where empathy becomes a really good indicator too about the animals feel levels, distress levels and I actually take a gauge from something sometimes as simple as the dog on a sheep farm how that dog looks, is it that hand shy, is it nervous of loud voices there's some really good indicators of how functional the levels of ethics in my opinion are. But yeah getting beyond the that silly picture of you never going to see rolling green hills just forget about it guys do in like mad, you know, one chicken per 50 hectare sort of crazy farms, but you pay absolute fortune for that product. And I'm very privileged that I can get that but there's other acceptable levels that I'm very comfortable with. And I think that the, the RSPCA model ticks a lot of boxes, and one is that I think also, you can't self-audit, industry can’t self-audit itself in a sector situation you need outside, you need outside accountabilities and standards and guidelines.
Brian: And that's what those Approved Farming Scheme standards provide for, for not only the producers to run by, but also consumers to know that they're getting what they're paying for.
Simon: Absolutely. And I think that it gives a really good playing field. So if you're not quite there, as a producer, you've got something to aspire and aim towards, with some really clear targets and assistance to get there and I like that part of a lot of schemes where they're a little bit more inclusive of the input of the producers so they can ask the questions and I can gear up and get to a level of certification. You might want to go beyond that. And I think that we need to keep pushing the bar and we and the schemes that are incredibly you know, low level, but they're better than nothing, the schemes and certification level so they're incredibly high. And that's fine. But I think that you need to have some levels that you need to achieve that are accountable and have some clear objectives involved in a measurable.
Brian: One area then seems to have got through to some level of the population is the increase in the purchase of cage free eggs and, and other higher welfare products like RSPCA Approved chicken, pork and turkey in supermarkets. You know that people are beginning to take animal welfare in consideration when they're shopping, but there's still a job to do isn't there with extending our awareness and behaviour when people are eating out? Which is, which is I guess why you're involved with the RSPCA’s choose wisely campaign.
Simon: Yeah. And I think that what you said Brian is very true that I've yet to meet a consumer or a producer that says, oh, look, I'd love to be horrible to animals. It's a basic economics thing. Costs, and probably a lack of the consumer willing to spend the time, and I’m not being judgmental, to dig a little bit deeper in and see what that $3 for a product really produces as opposed to $6 or $7. It is quite often pure economics. If there's a reward for the producer to reach a level of animal welfare, and the consumer is prepared to pay for that, and they're educated, why they would want to pay for that. Then all players win, I think the misinformation for years was the problem with terms bandied around with no real checks and balances below them and we still live in that world and we always will. And deceptive I guess, the whole semiotics around food is very deceptive. The words the imagery, the signs, the packaging. I mean, what does free range mean? It means nothing like your teenage child allegedly is free range. But if you shut the door, it'll just sit there. And so you can have access to outdoor areas, but if they're in relation to laying hens, but if the birds don't have some shade out there, and they're not being fed, or watered, or the pasture is just completely useless, and they don't want to scratch around, they're not well, they're just probably hanging around in the shed. So, you know, you've got a look at what that all means in context. And I think that consumers have got curious and I think that trust is a big issue. And I think the RSPCA’s always had huge trust levels with the general public. So, it's a it's a good project because it brings with it a level of authenticity.
Brian: I was reading your website and I love the quote where you're saying The choices you make when you shop are as important to me as the cooking, what are some of the choices you make in order to put humane food on the menu?
Simon: Well, my biggest choice, well actually my biggest challenge is when I meet with a client and I'm explaining why my menus, are very expensive. My cost of inputs is very high. Sometimes you pay three times the benchmark sort of commodity and I hate that sort of concept, commodity price, or more, you can pay up to $20 a kilo whole weight for buying whole sheep, which is it really quite expensive because on the commodity market, that product would be $5/ $6 right. Now that's because of better practices, no dogs, no prods, no stress in transport and better shade areas in the paddocks, yada yada yada. I need to explain that to the customer and I also need to explain to the customer why they can't have a fillet of or whatever, because it's not economically viable for my producers to sell me the foot of an animal by 300, I mean where they're going to do have a paddock full of animals walking around with one foot missing because I want to serve a hock. So a lot of it's about me convincing my customers and clients that number one is a big mental shift that the menu is the menu it's what I can get that I'm comfortable with from producers that I trust and I've either visited or I completely know that they are doing the right thing by numerous you know, relationships through the industry over 20 years they might have moved farms I'm not going to go out and you know, police that and then getting that understanding from the consumer that yeah, you can't have certain things on your menu, they're just not viable and cut is a is a big issue that people believe that you can just have this bit. Well what about the rest, and that has massive ramifications in the supply chain and how we treat animals just from that one consumer choice of demanding certain cuts or certain types of meat certain times when they're not viable for a breed cycle or a climate cycle. Beyond that, then obviously I've got to not go bankrupt. So there's that massive tension and there's that little bit of your head that always just thinks, wow, I could be you know, cutting my cost by this much, you've got to keep yourself accountable and lye straight at night and aspire to get the best products you possibly can on for the for the customer, and then just communicate that story. I guess beyond that, it's about authenticity and just making sure that your supply chain really is what it says it is. And to me, that's actually I need to see, I need to see the research papers and I need to see what those certification schemes are. And I, you know, my caveat is I'm a dumb chef, I'm not a legal expert or animal ethics experts say, you know, you have to spend some time and wade through the disinformation.
Brian: Is that a hard thing to when you're talking with your clients to actually get educate them on, on what's involved and to switch their minds into thinking this way?
Simon: Sometimes, people you know, time, timing, society, you know, is at certain stages as a group, I think you would have been burned at the stake a couple of hundred years ago as some sort of witch if you said something that today is perfectly acceptable. So you know, you can't come across as condescending you have to wait for, for the market to change, you know, and I still think you just need to be on the right side of history, history always gravitates in human rights and animal issues, in environmental issues. Forget about the blips of the industrial revolution, and I don't know, whatever is going on now. We will always gravitate to a place that's kinder and better and has less suffering. Because I believe as a species, we have empathy, and we want to do better. But there's certain times when I mean, right now, it's a bit of an economic disaster. And people might not have the consumer spending power to be able to make these choices, that's fine. You can do that, you can make a bad choice, but at least be honest with yourself and hold yourself to account for it. When I talk about these issues with some of my customers, you know, some people just look at you like you're crazy. And then you know that maybe you have to just back off a little. And, you know, you have to move your thinking a little when, and maybe in the middle, but it doesn't mean you have to compromise.
Brian: And obviously, now is a hugely disruptive time, as you were saying, but I wanted to say it's also an opportunity for the industry to take stock and look at processes and think how can we do this better? I mean, we're all in this hiatus of not being able to do business as usual. So, do you say that there's a way that we can take this time to look at a better systems and better way to go forward into the future?
Simon: Look, I think that times of great social and economic stress, often the initial behaviour is a little bit illogical and, something that, you know, maybe bordering on unconscionable that people go straight to that sort of panic and a bit of self-interest and we've seen that with consumer spending patterns that the supply chains just break with a 1.5 to 2% flex in demands. Pasta, loo paper, say that can be incredibly disruptive. But on the back end of that, on the longer curve, yes is giving people time at the moment as many periods of history have to reflect how their actions affect other beings, mainly people at the moment. But yeah, I think that reflections are really valuable thing. I think we all live too fast and we don't have time to consume information in great detail we we've been brought up to sort of skim over a lot of information rather than really tackle problems systematically and spend the time to do that. And we do have the time. I also think that it's a really big reset in people's heads. And when you sit around one issue which is, you know, a massive economic and health issue and issues around the distribution of income at the moment that opens the door to, to resetting around a whole heap of issues.
Brian: And do you have any final messages for the food industry or food lovers around Australia for what we can hope to achieve in the future?
Simon: I think like, I think you have to accept that this is a very challenging area. What's important to you, is important, there's no point anyone else telling you what's important to them. When you're a chef and you're trying to put a dish on the menu. When you try to write a menu, like just a three-course menu, sometimes I sit there and I'm just I can't do it. I look at a product and I look at maybe it's virtual water, then I look at it, you know, ballpark of its CO2 greenhouse loading then I look at it, you know, welfare as far as stress and behaviour, then I've got to look at its price then I, you know, then there's a whole heap of sort of like just a much general emotional response. So, I mean, I love chickens, I think that I have the area so might be happy to look at when they're walking around, they don't make me too happy to look at when they're dead. That's just a basic thing for me. There's certain values that we have as a society where we write one animal's life higher than the other because of our social law. Contextual stuff that we've been brought up with all life is precious, and then what you know what it what are you trying to achieve? For me, I think that being kinder is more important than any of the things but probably not if it causes complete carnage in all sorts of other areas and it's not viable for a producer and you know, it's got a slide library involved in it, or something. So, it's about ticking boxes that are important to you. If you're concerned about animals and you feel a general empathy, then there's some very easy boxes you can tick for very minimal effort, because someone's done the work for you. And this is the beauty of certification schemes. So, I think it's up to you to make those decisions. But I think that the other on the flip side is there is no perfect decision, you have to accept that it's a minefield of almost issues that intention with each other. Because what might be good in one domain might be bad in another domain, or and it's not a straight cut and dried, binary sort of, you know, thing, there's shades of grey in there and you have to accept that there's a lot of grey, but I think that you also have to you have a responsibility to just try and do your best, but not work yourself up into a frenzy and always be reminded, always be reminded that it's part of a longer curve. And if you can be part of those people that are pushing that curve in a direction that you want to see it going, then you know, sometimes you have to be patient you have to accept that you need time is the vital ingredient in cooking. It's the vital ingredient in issues like this, you can't just think that everything's going to change in two seconds. And structures are embedded for economic reasons and all sorts of social reasons. And so, you know, you can't despair when things are not, you know, looking great when you look at a particular industry or whatever, but you've got to look at how far it's come and where you think you can help take it with your little footprint. And I think that's important when you shop to realize that you're voting and when you call, you're voting and you're voting to move those curves out to make a better kinder place for everyone, animals included.
Brian: Simon it's always is a pleasure speaking to you and to see the contribution you've made to that curve over the years and continue to make through your actions as a chef in your work with RSPCA’s choose wisely and for your advocacy for higher welfare animal outcomes in farming and beyond. It's really inspiring and I hope we get to speak again soon. So, thanks for your time today, Simon.
Simon: Bryan, thank you and I hope to be better at my job if we speak again.
Brian: We've been talking today with Simon Bryant, legendary Australian chef and festival director of tasting Australia. And thank you for listening. If you'd like any more information on the RSPCA choose wisely initiative, visit choosewisely.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website at rspca.org.au or all the usual podcasts suspects. I’m Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.