Inclusivity, Authenticity, and Sustainability: Life Lessons to Learn from Food

There is nothing more magical than food’ was the opening statement that began the ‘Entrees’ panel discussion at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. Celebrity chefs Yael Shochat (Of Ima Cuisine, Auckland), Tony Tan (Malaysian-born Asian food expert) and Karena & Kasey Bird (Masterchef NZ Champions) set out to prove, as they talked about how food teaches us lessons on inclusivity, authenticity, and sustainability.


Food is an entrée to a place. It is a pathway towards understanding the way people live, their social structures and what they value. There is nothing more magical than food as a means of expressing culture and bringing different people together to eat.

Each chef on the panel had their own dishes that they defined as an expression of themselves. Yael Shochat is Israeli-born, Tony Tan is Malaysian-Chinese, and the Bird sisters have a strong Maori heritage. Although they all spoke of completely contrasting cuisines from all corners of the world, the Auckland audience was, to an extent, familiar with each of them.

An Israeli Salad – Yael Shochat’s staple Israeli dish, served aside falafal and hummus at Ima Cuisine (photography @eatlitfood)

New Zealand, and Auckland in particular, has a high number of immigrants from around the world. This has led to an incredibly diverse range of cuisines that we have access to at our doorstep. If you go to Sandringham you can be immersed in delicious, authentic Indian curries. Just down the road on Dominion Road there is an immense selection of Chinese restaurants to visit. It was discussed that there’s still room for this to be balanced considering the complete lack of Maori cuisine – there is but one single food truck on Queens Wharf serving Hangi in Auckland that the chefs could mention.

The world may be a difficult and confusing place. But this inclusivity of cuisines proves that despite our differences, food has the powerful ability to bring us together and help us to understand each other much better. 


Good food has a responsibility to stay authentic to its roots. The reason – in Auckland at least, that places like Sandringham and Dominion Road are so iconic is all to do with how authentic the food is. Authenticity, as discussed by the chefs, comes from making a genuine effort to immerse oneself in a culture before they try to replicate its traditions.

Authenticity is understanding just what it is you are cooking, and why,’ was a powerful statement that came out of the talk. Everyone was in agreement that it takes responsibility to authentically cook the food of any culture. This is done best when the chef takes the time to learn the history and the social constructs of the meal. Why do they use the ingredients they do? Why are these cooking methods the most popular?

Bluff Oysters served two ways by Karena & Kasey Bird at their recent ‘Creation Dinner’ degustation event. (Photo – Faanati Mamea for The Spinoff)

It is seriously frowned upon (and generally upsetting) when restaurants that are inauthentic to a culture or even try to make a culture its ‘theme’, open. You can always tell which restaurants these are – they come and go and don’t last very long at all. It seems that there is a definitive guide for how to treat other cultures food among the industry, which is commendable.

It was interesting to hear these chefs from across the globe discuss the absolute importance of respecting cultures and remaining authentic when it comes to food. There is a lot to be learned when it comes to diversity and cultural appropriation that we can learn by taking a page out of the food industry’s handbook.


Food plays a huge role in the sustainability of our planet. In order to learn life lessons on sustainability, the food we eat is the most logical place to start to look. Messages on sustainability ran throughout this talk. They were both explicitly mentioned as well as ingrained in the way the chefs spoke about cooking and food.

Kingfish sashimi/crudo with yuzu dressing, served by Tony Tan at his Hong Kong Food City Lunch at Masu by Nick Watt for the Auckland Writers Festival (Photography – Tony Tan)

What I mean by this, is that along with some serious messages about using seasonal ingredients and produce that is sustainably grown locally to help preserve our environment, these chefs also discussed how it’s just ‘better’ all round to cook sustainably. Sustainable food is tastier and more authentic as well as ethical. They discussed the value of simplicity: only using few ingredients to create delicious dishes, and instead of cooking huge dishes, cooking enough food and doing it right is the way to make food taste much better.

It was agreed upon that it’s important to cook ‘food of the land’ – which means to cook dependant on seasonality, local availability, and cultural reverence. It’s no breaking news that produce is tastier when it’s in season, and fresher when it’s grown closer to home rather than imported. The Bird sisters raised an important factor on top of this, suggesting that we can look back to our past to make sure we are cooking sustainably for the future. In New Zealand, this means looking to Maori methods of biodynamically growing produce.

Key Takeaways & Highlights

The messages in this talk may have been framed around food and the food industry, but I think they are important messages to translate to any industry. The food industry is probably more advanced than the rest of society’s existing constructs, including politics, laws, or other social constructs that we have developed for daily life. (At least when it comes to being respectful of traditions, of the lands we live on separately and of the earth as a whole.)

It could be key to look to the food industry for advice on how we should be acting as people on a day-to-day basis: Treat different cultures authentically and with respect, be inclusive despite differences, and to live sustainably so that we can have peace in society for years to come.

It’s interesting to me that food seems to have all of society’s social structures: culture, hierarchy, and the environment, working harmoniously. These systems are accepted as general knowledge across the industry. Yet our own governments, churches and institutions can’t figure out the same terms? Food, it seems, might just have the solution we’ve been searching for. I mean, we all know what happens when we argue on an empty stomach.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.

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