Head Chef of Queenstown Hilton in New Zealand, multi award winning, passionate real food enthusiast, entrepreneur & ambassador, Peter Thornley was a joy to speak to recently, on a tour through Australia and putting on a very special dinner in Sydney here at the Hilton.
Chefs really do have such an enormous opportunity to educate every day, especially with the celebrity pedestals we bestow upon them. They are spokespeople for food and the public most often, listens. Peter takes that responsibility on his shoulders, speaking at every opportunity about sustainability, animal rights, kids education in food and the critical importance of considering provenance. A beautiful thing about Peter is that, as with many inspiring chefs around the world, there’s just as much of the doing as there is of the talking!
He’s not a reformist. Real Food has always been his way of life, growing up on a farm where they ate what they raised and grew, living by the seasons and preserving and pickling for the out-of-season times. In this day and age, Peter very much sees this as a privileged upbringing and strives to help others do as best they can in a more urban setting, by simply raising their consciousness.
As a 5 star hotel chef, I was curious to know whether he found it a challenge to be sustainable in an ‘I want everything now’ Luxury hotel environment. He says ‘It wasn’t easy to convince my bosses that we could be adventurous enough to respect the seasons, without upsetting guests. To me it makes such sense. I mean, I’m sorry but it’s minus 2 degrees outside and no, you can’t have a strawberry! San Francisco’s a few hours that way if you’re desperate for one!”. He continues “I really think our desire for everything and anything NOW, is the first shift that needs to be made. When it comes to nature and reducing food miles and moving towards a sustainable food supply, a huge difference can be made by eating from your hemisphere. Huge. An apple tart becomes not only more delicious but far more special, if you were only to eat it in Autumn. A fresh blueberry compote on pancakes in summer. The flavours are more intense, it’s less expensive, it’s better for our planet. There’s no one losing there”.
When asking him how he felt about supermarkets, I learnt something that my conspiracy theorist mind devoured. The major supermarket in New Zealand happens to own major shares in a seed company and only carries one green bean variety, which happens to be the variety of seed they own. There are so many different bean varieties that risk being forgotten when this sort of profit-only, market domination occurs. It made me wonder what the situation was for us in Australia and whether I’d find the same little secret if I investigated here. I certainly know for sure that the sad extreme of this style of profiteering is rife in the world of Biotech / GMO seeds and ‘produce’.
I asked Peter to define the role and responsibility of the chef today. He passionately promotes the opportunity that chefs have to educate their guests and the wider public. “All it takes is making sure you use the language on the menus such as locally caught, sustainable”. He goes onto suggest that “if as chefs, we emphasise provenance, ethical farming, local produce, guests will have that seed planted for them when they’re out and about shopping. They’ll find supermarket selection dull and crave seeking out more interesting market fresh produce. We have to insist it and we have a huge responsibility to uphold, in addition to nurturing the create craft of dish and menu creation”.
What’s one thing Peter suggests to people trying to take active steps to a Real Food Rockstar status?
“Think about the provenance. Don’t buy cherries from the USA in the dead of our winter. Never mind the chemical sprays to ensure they last that far, but the food miles are ridiculous. Read that sentence on the back that says ‘made from imported ingredients, packed locally, and see if you might be able to support a brand that does it better and closer to home. If we just start to buy a little closer to home, we will literally start actively protecting our planet”.
What’s something Peter predicts and is pushing for in restaurants?
A sustainability / local produce usage rating from critics and on dining directory sites. A rating system that will recognize chefs and operators throughout the year for their efforts to use local produce and be mindful of the environmental impact of their dishes and ingredient choices, as well as of their venue on the whole – loving the sound of that!
So, if you’re to make a little change to the way you shop and procure, simply start to get curious about provenance. Shopping at a local market will not only support your local economy, but drastically reduce carbon foot print. We are such powerful people, us consumers. Let’s start to exercise it towards exciting, positive change.
Real Food Rockstars – we can all be one!