Challenging assumptions of foodies

While celebrating restaurants using local ingredients at the annual Wellington On A Plate festival, A/Prof Ian Yeoman wasn’t afraid to ask, is it really local?

Associate Professor Ian Yeoman addresses the ConversatioNZ Symposium during the recent Wellington On A Plate (WOAP) festival
Associate Professor Ian Yeoman addresses the ConversatioNZ Symposium during the recent Wellington On A Plate (WOAP) festival

Associate Professor Ian Yeoman is an expert in food tourism and future trends and was a guest speaker at the WOAP festival's ConversatioNZ Symposium, 'The Future is Kai: New Zealand in 2030'.

"Everyone at the symposium was talking about the authenticity of local produce. I challenged some of those assumptions," said Dr Yeoman.

"For example, if restaurants want to participate in Wellington On A Plate, one of the conditions is they have to use local ingredients. I questioned what defines something as local. Many restaurants used Whittaker’s chocolate, which is made in Porirua, but uses imported ingredients.

"Generally speaking, there’s a huge debate about authenticity and whether New Zealand has a distinctive food product or experience. There are some food operators that strive to tap into an authentically local cuisine, such as the themed restaurant ‘Pacifica’ or those serving Māori food. But overall, cuisine in New Zealand is blended and has evolved, rather than something that is original."

Foodies, he argues, are less interested in 'local' and 'authentic' food, and more interested in novel food experiences.

"Food tourism is about trying something new. Consumers will continue to crave nuanced, unique and refreshed experiences. If you look at the festival, it’s all about innovation and new experiences."

But, he says, it comes at a price, which in turn excludes those on lower incomes.

"One of the things we discussed was the focus on high-value in food tourism in general. It’s expensive and as a result, creates a social divide. Across the world, every destination for political and economic reasons is chasing the high-value tourists in order to increase revenue.

"This focus on wealth and exclusivity can result in alienation from communities, thus dividing tourism along a socio-economic line. I argue that food festivals must never forget their roots and engage meaningfully with their community."

Dr Yeoman further explained community is about creating a sense of good, and promoting involvement rather than alienation.

"A good example of this is the festival’s Rimutaka Prison Gate To Plate event where prisoners prepare meals under the guidance of qualified chefs. It provides training for the prisoners and supports those wanting to make a positive change in their lives."

Festival director Sarah Meikle says it was interesting to add Dr Yeoman's insights into the mix of speakers, which included a food critic, organic and ethical farmer, and other industry players.

"It's always great to have someone bring some abstract thinking to forums such as this."