Embracing a Culture of Local Sourcing with this talented chef & forager
Chef Keith Abela grew up in the food industry. He uses his own foraged ingredients to add exciting, fresh, and eco-friendly flavours to the dishes he creates. He is deeply involved in this locally-sourced philosophy and is making big strides in introducing more sustainable practices locally. Oh My Malta catches up with him to find out more
Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get started in the food industry?
I started working in the industry when I was 15 years old. I always wanted to be a chef, really, apart for a few years when I wanted to be a marine biologist. I think it was the fact that when I was younger, on the weekends, I would spend my time split between my grandparent’s restaurant, the farm or fishing. Spending that much time being surrounded by great ingredients and watching them go from farm to plate really left an impression. Later, I graduated from ITS, worked in restaurants around Europe, I actually owned my own restaurant for a few years, I studied food and flavour sciences, and spent a few years as a chef instructor. I’m currently a forager, lecturer and wild crafter, and I’m also doing research on local ingredients. If it has anything to do with food, I am automatically drawn to it.
What are the biggest food trends in Malta at the moment?
Using local ingredients, which is great to see as I think Malta has some of the most flavoursome ingredients you can find. I’m also seeing a rise in wild ingredients on menus across the islands. Malta has so many interesting wild foods you can eat (if you know what you’re eating that is, as we also have loads of plants that can cause harm!!)
What would you say are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the local culinary scene over the past ten years?
I have definitely seen a rise in nouvelle cuisine, artisan food producers and healthy eateries. I think its great to see local chefs showcasing their talents in a restaurant setting and getting awards for their efforts. I think that is fantastic and when those restaurants work with an artisan food producer, I think its even better. It comes full circle and love seeing people work together and help each other out. We also have all these affordable, healthy eateries popping up, which I think is amazing. In my eyes, food is not only a method to sustain ourselves, it is also a form of entertainment, medicine and a social gathering ‘tool’, so it is great to see such a variety of restaurants that can fill these sort of criteria, depending on what we’re looking for.
How important are issues such as food waste and ethical, local sourcing?
I think it is one of the most important issues of our time. On average, in the whole food production line (from farm to fork) we only consume around 40% of what we produce, 60% gets thrown away. When food gets piled up on each other, it produces carbon monoxide, a potent greenhouse gas. This makes up roughly a quarter of all our green house gas emissions. Also, the cow dairy industry accounts for another quarter of total emissions. Therefore, very literally, more than half of all global warming gasses are produced by our diet and eating habits. That’s just crazy, especially when you think about all the co2 emissions that are produced by importation, which don’t make up part of that 50%! If we buy fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and consume less cow dairy, we will not only vary our diet, but we will have an increase in vitamin intake and decrease harmful carbon emissions. Keep in mind that those grapes you buy in March had to come from South America and by the time they get here they have little to no nutritional value.
Do you think that in order to preserve traditional cuisine, having an innovative approach is fundamental? If yes, is there a boundary that should not be crossed in order not to risk losing the nature of traditional local cuisine?
Yes definitely. Our lives are changing everyday and its only an innovative approach that reflects our fast paced lifestyles that will keep those traditions alive.
No, absolutely not. Boundaries should be crossed. This is innovation. It only takes three generations to make a food traditional. Think of it this way, the tomato has only been around in Malta for roughly 500 years, but we have only been using it as a food item for the last 200 years and now it’s probably the most important crop we have here. Maltese traditional foods are based around fresh and seasonal local produce and not recipes per se. If you want to keep food traditions in Malta alive, all you have to do is support your local farmers and fishers.
Do you think chefs should learn about farming and what it takes to grow something?
Without a shadow of doubt, this is something I have been saying for a long time. We, as chefs have lost a special connection with nature, very few chefs know local seasons and local ingredients and the time and effort it takes to grow them. When I grew carrots for the first time, I realised that they took around 6 months to grow… 6 months! In a kitchen the carrot is seen as one of the most boring vegetables where we throw them in everything and they never make it as the star of the dish. Learning how to grow food or at the very least, knowing what goes into food production, will create a completely new respect towards said ingredients.
How do you think the corona virus outbreak affect the local food industry in the long term?
Most people have now learnt how to cook at home. Everybody seems to be cooking foods they would usually order in a restaurant, so I do think that now, people will go out to eat a little less and this will surely affect the food industry in general. However, we are social creatures and I hope that people will still go out and enjoy restaurants as they employ thousands of people. Time will tell I guess.
You’re obviously extremely diligent in researching just how sustainable a particular product is… For those who like to eat responsibly and healthfully, what are a few things we can do that will actually make a difference?
Eat less red meats, replace cow dairy with either sheep or goats dairy, eat carbon neutral foods such as mussels and clams, try to buy line caught, sustainable ‘fish’ such as mackerel, lampuki, calamari and parrotfish (these are cheaper anyway) and eat loads of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid buying foreign produce especially avocados and salmon, which are almost as bad for the environment as eating beef. The world is running out of fresh water and it takes roughly 200litres of water to produce one avocado then we have to ship them over from half way across the globe! The carbon footprint of this ‘healthy’ fruit is just insane.
Do you believe restauranteurs and chefs are doing enough to shake the sector up regarding sustainability?
Some are, but in general no, they’re not doing enough but this isn’t their fault, they have a business to run with lots of families and their livelihoods at stake, so restaurants and chefs have to please the consumer. If the consumer demands more sustainable foods I’m sure restaurants and chefs will listen and serve sustainable foods but as long as consumers demand ribeye, salmon and avocados, restaurants will have to sell them.
Have you discovered any new products recently?
Recently I’ve been asked to experiment with local goats’ milk as the industry is in decline and there are only four registered goat milk producers on the island. Goats’ milk is such a wonderful local product and I’ve been making a variety of aged cheeses and yoghurts out of it. It is just amazing.
Any tips for how to keep cooking exciting in the winter?
Experiment with herbs and spices. They’re cheap, super healthy and they add a whole new range of flavours to your repertoire. Also replace a little salt with a little MSG and your food will become even better … and no MSG is not bad for you, that’s a myth that started in the seventies.