In conversation with Dani Lasa (co-founder of Imago)
Daniel Lasa Etxegoien is an intuitive chef, with extensive experience in generating and driving creative projects. For almost two decades, he directed the creativity and R&D area of the high-end restaurant Mugaritz, in the Basque Country. He is currently part of the Imago gastronomic collective, one of ALC’s strategic collaborations.
What is Imago?
Imago is a community of people who do not necessarily start from the kitchen. Cooking is a fairly endogamous profession and, we are even isolated from society, because what we do is attend to people’s pleasure, and for that you have to practice your life on the margins. Normally cooks tend to practice a specialization during their lives. And that is like compacting your knowledge, generating more skills and becoming more specialized in what you do. But what we’ve done in Imago is using cooking as an excuse to expand.
In that sense, when we call it community is because we start to generate a lot of collaborations and alliances related to the kitchen so we can have a broader common vision of what the fact of food can mean. A restaurant is just a small part of that reality. It is like the tip of the iceberg in which many things come together: the tribute to food, specialization, culture, festivities, friendship, social aspects. If we are talking about a haute cuisine restaurant or with a certain aspiration, it is about feeding people and making the daily process as easy as possible. What we did was to surround ourselves with people who could give layers of knowledge and meaning to all this phenomenon, there we have been getting to explore the implications of eating. And that’s what Imago does, through all these collaborations, we try to understand what the cultural implications of eating are.
Gastronomy is a constant narrative in the platforms that ALC develops at an international level, it is always present. How do you understand gastronomy as an engine for social change at Imago?
What food tells us about this transformation is a very final objective, but I do see it as almost utopian. You always work with that idea.
I wanted to be a cook and I saw Argiñano on TV when I was a child and I wanted to be like him, I wanted to cook. But life, probably, and the way I worked at Mugaritz, led me to think that food was not only about cooking and cooking deliciously and in the best restaurant in the world. It was a tool that implies many concepts in itself. Therefore, and taking a very holistic view: every time we choose to eat and decide what to eat, we are making very important decisions, not only as individuals but also as a group. We have to teach at different universities. Last week I spoke with people from the Master’s Degree in Gastronomic Sciences at the Basque Culinary Center, where there are people who come from different disciplines of bio knowledge, engineers, designers, historians, artists, and who wanted to do a master’s degree in gastronomy because they understand that it also involves many more things. We talked about how the ways in which we generate food and consume are drawing in a very decisive way how the world is going to be in the future.
Today we are more than 7 billion people. In 2050 we’re talking about 10 billion people; people who are transformed into calories, which they have to eat every day. Imagine all the implications behind that. I believe that if we were all more aware of the meaning of eating every day, we would surely have a slightly more responsible footprint in the way we generate food. And it is very easy to understand, because it is no longer just the footprint on the planet by generating calories but also by generating nutrients, and 30% or 40% of what we generate is going to waste. Our rhythm of demanding this from the planet is like stealing, that is, stealing from our children’s loan. Well, we believe that this has brutal implications when it comes to determining our future. Just like what is happening on all these platforms in which we are working now with ALC: people eat every day, three times the privileged ones.
Food is a daily fact. Producing it is a daily occurrence, employing people to produce food. There is a great crisis behind closed doors as well, in the social justice that exists in the employment of people. Obviously you are not paying what things cost, but the price that has been set at an economic level. Food is present all the time, we practice it every day and it is very easy to say why it is important. Because the people of all those platforms in which we participate eat every day. It is very easy to keep it in mind. And secondly, because they are affected by the way they do it. We are fatter than ever and we are more insane than ever. And all this surely because of the distance we have towards food. The more you cook, the more aware you are of what you eat.
Is that the point of union that Imago has with ALC’s work, to influence that gastronomic potential for the social?
We had to be in a very competitive restaurant, (in the kitchen there is competition between restaurants, especially when you start). It happened to us in Mugaritz, for example, where we were working. You had to share that knowledge with professionals and you had to share it with critics, who were going to be the ones who were going to put their voices to it through an article, through appearances in the press, etc. To be interesting for those congresses, to be interesting for those critics and to give a little depth to what we were doing, we generated a lot of materials, audiovisual, training and a lot of things, but always from a very elitist perspective, in the sense of that our consumer, in some way, was that top customer who could afford to pay for that. Perhaps living a little close to the ground, which is also important, helps you realize that you only represent a tiny part of something even unreal, a little crude, grotesque, of a society in which reality does not happen there above, but it is an almost metaphorical representation of what happens at street level. And that did feed some frustration, because I was responsible for development and innovation, and I had the feeling that we were doing all that research to reach twelve thousand five hundred people a year.
Probably, already in Mugaritz, that R&D began to generate mechanisms or dynamics to be able to reach society as well, either through collaborations with universities, with social, cultural centers, to share our knowledge, our experience, as a phenomenon a bit particular to the food fact and, whether we like it or not, we were forming and we were reaching society in a theoretical way. There we were awakening to that need to reach people a little more, that our activity could have implications and that it would affect people’s day-to-day a little. I had already had a punctual relationship with Gorka Espiau and before the pandemic, we had a little communication and the fact that the pandemic left us on the street, because it precipitated that all this had a greater place.
And it is precisely at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, that we already started to work more deeply on the Thailand Social Innovation Platform. At first everything was like a kind of a mess, because we didn’t understand each other very well, we didn’t know the purpose. The purpose of ALC we understood, there is not so much of protocols and methodologies, but of processes. But there were certain processes through which we understood that ALC had a way of reaching society. It could well be health, mobility, energy, food to mobilize, transform, dynamize societies that in a certain way dragged difficulties. And it was very easy for us to understand that gastronomy could be an engine of, if not of change, at least of generating dynamics that could lead to change.
That was how we began to talk, to look at each other’s work. At that time, the uncertainty probably made us assume more responsibilities than we were capable of responding to professionally. And it was almost more will than professionalization. Because we always say that this is a work in progress, that perhaps this specialization doesn’t even exist and we are building it little by little, depending on what the final object is, whether we want to generate a material or not, but as we go along and that is a little bit our jump from that somewhat aspirational part, to the more real part.
How has your work been with the UNDP platforms? Given the pandemic situation and the complications it has brought to mobility, how has the experience of working remotely been?
It has been beautiful and there has been a degree of brutal ingenuity. In the end, culture is what dresses us as people and what makes us participate in groups and customs that we are often not even aware of. And it is something that is deeply ours. It is an unconscious act. When we are presented with the possibility of working in the south of Thailand around gastronomy, food or the food chain… We always had a little doubt: Who are we? And to a certain extent what reassures us, or what we have believed, is that in reality we are only like catalysts of events. In reality [things] have to happen naturally and sometimes, in this case, talking about the affected societies or the process, all they need is for someone to light a spark within a lost trust, within a vision that is negative about themselves. Whether we like it or not, and it depends on the distance from which you look at it, something similar happened in the Basque Country.
How has not only living but being part of a large-scale socioeconomic transformation like the Basque one, in which gastronomy has been key, influenced this more social work carried out by Imago?
We had a very difficult situation, and it is true that it is not as simple as it may sometimes seem, like the sentence that sums it up: “…from a bad region in 1980 and a region that in 2020 is quite good, the change from weapons to casseroles.” It’s not that simple, but surely there are elements of gastronomy that have helped make it happen. Apart from many personal decisions, a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, forgiveness, recognition, etc. But maybe the kitchen keeps us entertained, it’s fun and it makes you survive, because you eat and, if you eat, you will surely stay alive. It is like a compulsory act that you can also decide to do in a more or less fun way. We said, what was going on here for the last few years? What elements have been activated around the food or gastronomy value chain?
Associations have been generated, policies have been generated, parties and festivals have been generated, recipes have been collected, congresses have been built, a lot of exchange has been generated. If we were to call that a prototype, each of these actions could easily be considered as inspiring prototypes for realities that are wanting to transform themselves, such as Thailand, Pakistan, Mozambique, Colombia, Uruguay, etc. We could create a product market in which other associations, gastronomic societies, etc., can later be generated. We present prototypes that, depending on their culture, their society, their relationships, their politics, their economy, may or may not happen, because perhaps this cannot be done but it may be worth it to do this. What we really do is collect the information from there, which is kind of how we see the process.
And how is this work articulated with ALC’s in practice?
We compared all of this, thinking of what we were capable of gathering at a cultural, gastronomic, anthropological and sociological level. But a search that was very… you can imagine, from here, from this same screen. We have seen ourselves using Google Translator, taking texts totally in Thai and passing them into English and then into Spanish. And, what part of the knowledge do you collect? Because you also don’t really know what part of reality you are picking up and, as you know that you are working with very sensitive people, sometimes you can be making a wrong reading. And in that process, in that objective of generating a process, we would like to be able to build the mechanisms or the architecture so that this information is collected in the most objective way possible, as complete as possible and as close to the population as possible. It is still to be built, but until now it has been like a work in progress and [if] we want to build in an area of knowledge or in a professional activity, well, it will have to be ordered, organized. Surely regularize and that’s where we are, but we’ve been building it little by little.
Each platform is at a different stage. There are some where narratives are beginning to be collected. But in the case of Thailand or Pakistan, the prototypes are already being put into testing. Could you comment a bit about these prototypes?
Thailand was a shock, honestly. You wonder, my goodness, how much of what we are talking about comfortably from here can become a reality there? Through whom? Why? Because this will affect lives. And our surprise was when we made the Thailand portfolio, where there were very diverse prototypes. The surprise is when it is the mayor of Yala, the president of the network of mayors of Thailand, the one who takes it and says: now with this we have to move forward and this is a good start to do things, we are going to launch a market that integrates different prototypes, etc. And budgets are projected there that will affect the organization, the work. In Thailand it was that market, in a way, that was going to materialize that chain of prototypes, that portfolio, and in Pakistan, on the other hand, it was more a bunch of prototypes that were deployed and that they chose in a certain way through the innovation process there, via the UNDP in Pakistan, the oil that they already made, the oil from peach or apricot seeds. It is something much more punctual, something that they already did and where we have helped to value it. From our perspective, as I say, it’s about empowering, giving them confidence. Now we are being asked to participate in a recipe book, in a possible prologue for a publication. And that is very nice because in some way you have intervened, if not in the decision, at least in getting them started, debating, joining in those conversations. It is no longer just about oil, but about people who feel part of it, who have sometimes felt bad, who have hurt themselves, who live badly. And if there is no apricot kernel oil, at least there will be dialogue.
Having in mind that many of these platforms are being implemented in remote regions, what has the process of building the portfolio been like and what can we learn from it?
One reality that seems like a contradiction to us from where we stand here is the water in the Hushe Valley. They have a lot of glaciers, they have a lot of water. But there is no infrastructure for water to be accessible. So, before thinking about food, we have to think about very basic things, infrastructure, so that these people can have access to water. But it becomes very complicated. I would like to physically live the experience of what it means to be literally two days or one day away from the nearest place, which is not very different from yours either. So, working on the Pakistan SIP portfolio was a very sensitive thing for us, because we knew that to aspire to have prototypes linked to food, many, many basic things were needed.
And the paradox is that, having raw material, in the case of the apricot even in excess, there is a moment in which nature is exuberant and does its job and releases everything and you do not have the capacity to hold it in the sense that you can’t treat it, refrigerate it or keep it in edible condition and they spoil a lot of food for that reason. We had proposed that cold logistics platforms could be made, for example, from town to town, with a certain distance between them to make a network of cold stores. But on the other hand, children suffer from malnutrition, they do not have a good diet and it is probably because they cannot access those high-value nutrients or those calories on a regular basis. So we proposed that the people could be trained, those who may be cooking to be able to make preserves. For example, cooking in apricot kernel oil fat. Being able to preserve chicken in fat, oil or brine so that they can have access to food for all time in the Hushe Valley or in Pakistan in general. Those zones are like in a zone in which there will be no peace because it is between Afghanistan, between India, between China, between Pakistan. These are areas that historically will be disputed and at the same time abandoned. And what the Pakistani government does is subsidize wheat. We had the idea that they would be more autonomous and that they could cultivate more. But we know that this does not depend so much on the capacity, but on someone allowing you to do it. There are natural, human, political inclemencies. Many things to solve.
Narratives are very powerful. See how hard it is to survive. A regression in the rights of women, schools, etc… The important thing is to reach a minimum agreement to continue advancing: initiatives and ideas to be able to imagine the future.
Imago is a collaborative project that operates in the field of food production, transformation, distribution and consumption –understood as the gastronomy value chain–, to analyze its logic and address initiatives to address the social challenges that generate. It is a culinary company that works in a network with different actors (Basque Culinary Center, ALC -Agirre Lehendakaria Center for Social and Political Studies–, Gasma -International Gastronomic University Campus– or Asociación Civil Revitalización del Alto A.C. México) shaping to current and future food systems.
Imago works by applying skills of analysis and dissection to find interconnected solutions to complex dysfunctions rooted in the food system. They simultaneously study the procedures of food production, distribution or consumption logics to promote a food culture understood and practiced as cultural heritage.