FOOD FOR LIVING
AN INTERVIEW WITH NEIL BARNETT. NEIL IS A DESIGNER, EDUCATOR AND A CHEF WITH A PASSION FOR RAW FOOD. gardentogourmet.com.au
LJ: Have you always had a passion for food?
NB: Yes. Making food was always an essential part of our home life. My mum is an excellent cook and she made everything fresh: soups, birthday cakes, Sunday roasts, chocolate mousse, the list is endless. The home made sandwiches that I took to school were known as Barnett Burgers and were very sought after whenever there was a chance for swapsies with my classmates.
My first solo food adventure was making spaghetti bolognese, aged 10. My mum wrote out the instructions, and left me to it, periodically peeking in to check that her work surfaces weren’t overflowing with tomato sauce or soggy pasta. After that I was always trying out recipes whenever I got the chance. That piece of paper hung on the back of our kitchen door for ages.
LJ: What inspired you to work in the design industry?
NB: My dad was a photographer. He had a studio in Notting Hill, and later in Fulham, both very cool areas in London. My mum had won a scholarship to art school, so visual creativity was all around me while I was growing up. I always knew that I would study graphic design. I remember at my interview for Central St. Martins, one of the interviewers (there were three on the panel) asked where I saw myself at the end of the course and I replied immediately “with a job in the design industry.”
And that’s what happened. Straight from college I got myself an internship, which turned into my first job at a large branding agency. After that I worked for a smaller studio before taking my masters in visual communication, freelancing and then going to Cambridge to do my post graduate teaching degree. From then on teaching visual communication and freelance design were my career paths.
LJ: How did you build your understanding and knowledge of food?
NB: My first exposure to raw food was about 15 years ago, when my wife and I went to a friend’s for dinner. They had made a raw pizza. The base was made from buckwheat and dehydrated, not cooked in an oven. The tomato sauce and all the toppings were fresh, raw vegetables. It was an amazing experience. Everything tasted so vibrant and the flavours were stunning.
Several years later when we came to live in Sydney, my wife started looking at alternative, healthy food options and had soon re-discovered raw food. We looked at web sites, books, went to classes, purchased equipment and gradually built up a pretty good catalogue of recipes and techniques. Making raw food for us was like a cross between a science experiment and an art project. The ingredients we were exposed to: acai berries, goji berries, lucuma, maca, coconut oil, agave (to name a few) were new to us back then. We began introducing our friends to the things we were making. They all thought we were crazy when they saw us drinking green smoothies or making zucchini noodles. But they always loved the tastes and were surprised at how full they felt after eating only small amounts of the delicious, nutrient dense food.
The latest stage of my raw food knowledge and understanding took place earlier this year when I spent a month in Los Angeles at the Matthew Kenney Culinary School, taking the Introduction to Raw Cuisine course, followed by their Advanced Raw Cuisine course online. I learnt so much from knife skills, to flavour balancing, from recipe testing to plating and presentation skills. We were exposed to so many techniques and being a full-time student again was a very invigorating experience. It has helped take my raw food understanding to a new level.
Later this year I am launching Garden to Gourmet, my raw food business that specialises in creating bespoke, raw food dining experiences for people in the comfort of their own home. I can’t think of anything better than having a group of friends round for dinner, lunch or tea and enjoying beautiful looking and tasting food that’s also really healthy, nutritious and totally unique.
LJ: Does your design background influence your food career?
NB: I feel that instead of designing with type and images to communicate messages on a page or screen, I’m now designing with fresh, raw ingredients to expose people to new food experiences. The visual aspect of food is absolutely crucial to how we perceive the taste - you only need to look at the vast amount of food blogging that is currently going on to see this, and as our first reaction to anything we experience is emotional, good plating skills are essential, especially when many of the ingredients and preparation processes may be new to your diners.
I don’t feel that you ever stop thinking like a designer, so for me designing visual messages, translating ideas into words and pictures for specific audiences is no different to combining and processing fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted grains to create different flavour combinations that are experienced as tastes and smells as well as viewed on the plate. The design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity are just as important when it comes to constructing and plating a dish as they are for placing elements on a screen or page. There is the additional consideration with food that you have to also balance the flavours (fat, acid, salt, sweet, bitter and pungent) so that when your food goes from a visual experience to an oral experience it still delights your diner.
LJ: What new things is Raw Food bringing to the plate (food industry)?
NB: It’s been so interesting to watch the rise of the green smoothie for example. Five or six years ago, making and consuming green smoothies was a fringe activity. It only happened in health food cafés or at home by people who had read Victoria Boutenko’s books Green for Life and Green Smoothie Revolution on the power of green smoothies. (she raised her whole family on a raw diet, having researched our DNA similarities with gorillas and observed their diet). Now you can’t go past a supermarket aisle, or celebrity magazine without seeing a green smoothie. Young coconuts and coconut water are another example of what raw food has brought to the mainstream food consumer in the last five or so years. We could only find these coconuts in selected health shops and now they are available in every Coles, Woolworths and music festival!
I also think that raw food has raised awareness about the amount of processed sugar we consume in the standard western diet and ways to avoid eating this harmful substance. For me the key message from raw food is about eating food in as natural a form as possible. Without ‘cooking’ our food we don’t denature it, which keeps the enzymes and nutrients intact, making it better for us. It can be easier to digest (but needs to be chewed well or partially broken down prior to ingesting as we have no enzymes to break down cellulose with), which means that you don’t use up so much energy digesting food after you’ve eaten it. Another positive aspect of raw food is that it is alkaline, compared to cooked food which is acidic. For optimum health, our body ecology should be alkaline in nature.
If raw food helps people reduce the amount of processed meat and sugar they eat and replace these with raw vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, nuts and seeds then I think we’ll all feel much better, from the inside out.
LJ: Who are your big influences and inspirations in both design and food?
NB: The list of people here could almost be endless as I believe that you never stop learning or being inspired. But here goes with a few: (design) Willi Kunz, Antoni Gaudi, Peter Geenaway, Joseph Cornell, Marian Bantjes, Wim Crouwel, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Ellen Lupton, (raw food) Victoria Boutenko, Gabriel Cousens, David Wolfe, Matthew Kenney, Julie Mitsios, Judita Wignall, Karen Knowler, Russell James, Simon Wright, Roxanne Klein, Alice Waters.
LJ: What is the most rewarding aspect about your position?
NB: Collaborating with other staff, who have different skill sets and ways of thinking, to work together to achieve a single aim. I also really like finding people’s strengths and letting them use those strengths when we work together as a team or group. Teaching is such a special way to spend time with people and it’s always rewarding when you see not only talented students producing beautiful work but when a student has grappled with an issue, not given up, listened to feedback and makes a breakthrough or a paradigm shift in their work.
LJ: How would you recreate your favourite Australian dish using only raw ingredients?
NB: I’m not sure about my favourite Australian dish, but I do really like ice cream, and I’ve made a number of flavours including orange with cardamom and mixed berry with lemon grass from only raw ingredients and I am currently working on creating my other favourite dessert; trifle, from purely raw ingredients.
LJ: How are your food experiences changing the way Australians enjoy eating?
NB: I’d like my food experiences to make people more aware of what they are eating, not just from an aesthetic and sensory perspective but from a long term health and sustainability perspective too. Obesity is a huge problem (no pun intended) in Australia and around the world and by being more aware of where our food comes from, how it’s processed and which additives (eg. sugar and salt) it contains, we can make healthier food choices. I’d love to see Australians enjoying less meat in their diets and eating more vegetables and leafy greens. I try and use the following criteria when selecting raw ingredients to work with: Is it fresh? Is it in season? Is it organic? Is it locally grown?
A final thought on sustainability: It can take about 100,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef * (a kilo of potatoes is about 500 litres by comparison) and as the world’s population continues to climb towards 7.5 billion, we need to consider how our food choices impact on our planet’s limited resources.
LJ: What advice would you give to someone who is wanting to go out into either the design or food industry?
NB: Find your passion. Tell people about it. Experiment. Play. Practice, practice and practice some more. Share and collaborate whenever you get the chance. Adopt a positive attitude. Get a mentor. Be a mentor. Ask lots and lots of questions. Note down the answers. Under-promise and over-deliver. Enjoy the ride, it’s all there is.
LJ: What’s your favourite guilty pleasure?
NB: Eating 90% dark chocolate, while watching Downton Abbey.