Diane Dodd is the President of the International Institute of Gastronomy, Culture, Arts and Tourism (IGCAT) and co-founder of the European Region of Gastronomy Award that has grown into a World Region of Gastronomy Platform. Together with experts from the growing World Platform of Regions of Gastronomy, she has pioneered the Young Chef Award, the Food Film Menu, the Local Food Gift Challenge and the Top Visitor.
In this conversation, Diane reveals a bit about her background, how IGCAT and its flagship project European Region of Gastronomy came to be, while also disclosing some details about the organisation’s ongoing projects and its future. She also delves into issues regarding sustainability, food heritage, food waste and hunger.
Can you talk a little bit about your background? How did you become the president of IGCAT?
It’s actually quite an unusual path because I started in theatre and dance, became an arts manager and then did events management. Through that I studied cultural policy and ended up in international cultural policy, mainly working with European Capitals of Culture.
So, I started working on many projects for the European Capitals of Culture which is a process that starts around eight years before they may be awarded, with them bidding for it. They have to build a huge stakeholder group and develop a vision for the city and use culture to somehow bring about change, whether to bring about peace – in the case of, for example, San Sebastian, which was European Capital of Culture in 2016 – or to bring about the regeneration of the city, which many of the regions use the title for.
Having worked in this project and internationally for quite some time and for UNESCO on the convention for the protection and promotion of cultural diversity and reflecting on issues around food – because I had my own food problems – eventually led me to IGCAT.
Meeting people from tourism who had similar questions around gastronomy and particularly the possibility for Europe to develop its profile around gastronomy and culture, started this conversation around the possibility of having an award for regions that are really bringing together, holistically, solutions to sum up our challenges, using culture, gastronomy and hospitality to do it. It was kind of a process, many years ago, this would be 2010. With a group of fellow colleagues from around Europe, from different sectors, just discussing, “wouldn’t it be great if…that’s a great idea, isn’t it?”.
They then became interested in starting IGCAT and I ended up in this role of just trying to organise that between all the experts involved and bring in new experts as well. We wanted to do something cross-sectorial, a conversation across sectors since very often they do not talk, they stay in their own silos.
One thing led to another. We got a group of regions together to talk – “would you like an award like this? Would it work for you? Would it be interesting for you? Would you like to work with a pilot project to get it started?” – they said yes, and they all contributed to the idea of the European Region of Gastronomy.
IGCAT has evolved since then and it has a lot of ongoing projects. Can you talk a little bit about some of them?
The Region of Gastronomy is really the flagship project. It started off as a pilot project in Europe, and has been going on for ten years with incredible success, due to the people working in their regions and their passion for them. And when you bring people together, two and two don’t make four anymore, it makes eight or ten because it’s becomes combined energy and vision building.
It’s a beautiful project. To watch how the regions transform in the process. I guess, what we do with the award is, we make it more urgent to work together otherwise, it might be just put off indeterminately. The award creates a kind of urgency to get things done. To bid for the award and being awarded, brings about international visibility, stimulating local pride, which gets people motivated, generating actionable positivity. I can see it every time.
Initially, there may be some resistance by some quarters, because it is viewed as hard work or additional work. But when it’s moving, it’s like a snowball and the energy and positivity around just keeps building and building and building. Then regions end up recognising that there are more things that they can do working together, as a platform, than if they were just doing it by themselves. So, the idea of having a platform of European Regions of Gastronomy emerged, they started working together and I kept facilitating the meetings, two or three times a year.
As of that, questions emerged around the need to help inspire young chefs, for example, to become ambassadors for our regions, to connect to their territory, to think about biodiversity and ecology, about reducing food waste, about what would be our food for the future, etc. If we can inspire them to do that, it would be a great thing. Hence the idea for the European Young Chef Award that emerged three years ago, and which has been incredibly successful. We’re on our fourth edition and we have a lot of inspired young chefs as a result, so, I’m really happy with that project.
Another project is the Food Film Menu, which literally came from the recognition between the regions that they really didn’t have good audiovisual materials that showed off the quality of their gastronomy, landscape and culture. They have tourism videos, quite standard ones sometimes, and there didn’t seem to be anything that really provoked or shed ideas about gastronomy and culture. So, this project was built through that question, of how we could inspire directors, amateurs or professionals, to use food and the landscape as protagonists in films that could tell a much better story about the region. We all know that a picture tells a thousand words, and that’s what we felt was needed, audiovisual material that could really capture the essence of these amazing, beautiful (many) undiscovered regions.
The question was that we didn’t want them just to be selling points or tourism points. We wanted them to also talk about food futures, about sustainability, about the sustainable development goals, about promoting these young chefs that we were completely inspired by. We wanted them to be seen and heard as well.
This was combined with the recognition that a number of food film festivals had started in Europe. Very sporadically we found a couple of these street film festivals where creative managers were thinking of combining food films and food experience. And we thought we should connect those.
We then discovered that many of the major film festivals were starting to have a gastronomy section. So, we thought that it would be a great opportunity to create content about or around the European Regions of Gastronomy that could fill the content holes in some festivals’ programs. And actually, it’s been incredibly successful.
We had our first edition last year with thirty-one submissions, which I think was quite good for us because we were hardly known, and we were only advertising it in the then fourteen European Regions of Gastronomy. So, we were quite happy with that. Out of those we selected seven runners up in different categories and then three overall. The success on social media was quite fantastic because we opened it to public voting. What has also been great is that we now have a number of festivals that want to show the content and create a space for the European Regions of Gastronomy in their own programs, whether by just showing the three overall winners or all of the seven category winners.
It clearly creates content for the festivals, so it’s a win-win. Films are getting shown across Europe now and that’s inspiring more directors to apply this year, and so we’re expecting to double the number of submissions. The opportunities for showing this content are growing as well because we developed a collaboration agreement with a number of festivals. It’s exciting for the directors of these films because they get visibility across Europe, it’s exciting for the regions, because they’re getting to be seen on a global stage, and it’s exciting for us at IGCAT because the European Regions of Gastronomy are becoming known internationally.
Do you feel that the pandemic has constrained IGCAT’s projects in some way, or has it maybe spurred some kind of creativity that can be used to do things differently?
Clearly, we’ve had to do things differently. For instance, our platform meetings have been online. It’s been incredibly successful in a sense because we realise how much more sustainable we can be. On the other hand, we’ve lost an essence, which is to really discover each other’s regions and see the projects in action. So, I think that we have to find a combination for the future. We have to be more sustainable, maybe not travelling as much, while also being able to see and feel the regions.
The Food Film Menu project benefitted in a way, because people actually had the time to engage with it and see the feasibility of it, even though it was all online. On the other hand, it was difficult, because launching a project in the middle of a pandemic makes it harder since we need to convince people to put that little bit of extra effort in.
Despite the pandemic, we were very pleased with the response. I think it can only get bigger and better, as time goes on and more people get to hear about the competition. Probably the biggest difficulty was getting people to know about it. We didn’t even have visuals to show. It was a struggle. Whereas this year was easy, because we’ve got all the films from last year, we can now do a social media campaign showing off what we did, as inspiration for this year.
I always felt that the pandemic was an opportunity. The English are very good at that, finding an opportunity in every crisis and that’s what we did. We found an opportunity to really spend some time on this project, to give birth to it, and now it has to grow.
The pandemic has heightened the scrutiny around meat and seafood-based diets for environmental and social reasons. Also, it has exposed the global food system and underscored inequities in terms of access to food. Given this prevalence in the food heritage throughout the world of proteins like meat and seafood, how do you envision a more sustainable way forward, while maintaining its essence?
That is a really tough question. I think we must inspire future generations to move towards a higher vegetable-based diet. Studies show that we need to do it and we need to do it urgently.
For example, in the European Young Chef Award, all chefs have been asked to consider a vegetable, fish and meat balance, in which those giving predominance to the use of vegetables, will be credited higher in the overall opinion. That doesn’t mean we lose all proteins for good, but it’s a question of finding the right balance and going back to a more sustainable use of meat and fish.
In my grandparents’ generation, having beef or having lamb, was reserved for Sunday lunch. You didn’t have it every day of the week, it just wasn’t available. I think we need to go back to those times where meat and fish are for special occasions. It’s something that you have to celebrate. It’s very interesting how meat and fish became so predominant. I think because it was a sign of generosity and hospitality in its time. If you were offered meals, you were offered big meals of meat and fish, because that was a sign of richness or a sign of real hospitality, whereas probably every day of the weak you ate vegetables. But somehow, it just became something we started taking for granted in our diet because we’re always giving ourselves “treats” on a regular basis.
And that really came to my mind when we were visiting Sibiu, which was European Region of Gastronomy in 2019, and every meal was very heavy in meat. So, we started questioning that, asking the organisers, “why is that?”. They said that they ate vegetables all the time, it’s just because we were their guests and it’s normal to offer meat and fish, because it’s special, it’s a special occasion. But of course, we were there, and it was every meal, and it was almost overpowering. We really need to go back to these vegetal based diets and make them popular again. It won’t be a sign that you’re denying your guests hospitality if you do it.
I think it’s about changing awareness, changing perceptions. One of the things I’ve really noticed because I travel a lot and because of my job, I’m often very healthy – good nutritional organic meals. When I’m in my own locality, in the normal social groups of the moms and dads from the school and so forth, it shocks me how often or how unhealthy the food is at social gatherings and parties, very much based on crisps and processed snacks. For me, it is easy to actually go back to healthy, like some carrots and a dip. But it’s complicated to get people to move into being healthier again. The faces of shock when they come to my house and they get these food options as a snack and they look like, “we’ll bring a packet of crisps next time we go to Diane’s house”.
Is there anything you would like IGCAT to do in the future that isn’t already being done? What kind of institutions do you need to be involved in order to make it happen?
There are so many things to do. I think because we saw the success of the Regions of Gastronomy in Europe, last year, my board gave the go-ahead to roll this out across the globe.
We are a tiny secretariat, so this is a huge challenge for us. We do have around eighty different experts around the globe, so we’re working with them, and we’ll probably grow our expert base over the next few years.
We believe this same program can work for regions in many countries. The question is how we do that sustainably and not “do it like Europe is telling you what to do”. We didn’t want that. So, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to our experts to figure out if the focus areas work for them or not. That has made us have to adjust our program a little bit. We are also working with our experts in particular continents to see if it’s a real possibility for regions to enter into this program, and if there’s an opportunity to work with regions in less economically developed countries, that have a fantastic gastronomy and food base culture where their working to protect and promote their diversity but need that little extra helping hand in terms of international visibility to do that.
I think it could have many possibilities, but we’re a tiny, tiny secretariat and so, we really need some big sponsors to come on board or to be taken up by one of the big international organisations that is willing to take this project under their wing.
We started out as a non-governmental organisation, a small association. This is growing so big that it now needs or could be handled in a different way. We just need to find the right combination of people who share our values and our principles. That’s the most important thing for us, values and principles are what counts.
This has already grown in five years into something I never could have ever imagined so, who knows what will IGCAT look like in another five.