The Host: “Food is everything”

First welcoming us in August 2016, Ostara Cafe has become a frequent venue for TRJFP’s communal dinners and one of our warmest and most enthusiastic supporters. Since opening earlier this year, the Leith cafe has been quick to make itself popular. Serving a very high quality, locally sourced, essentially organic menu, Ostara wants to turn assumptions around by also being affordable and putting an emphasis on community. I had coffee with David McVey who runs the cafe with his partner Carey, to get a sense of where this no nonsense approach comes from.

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Why did you open Ostara?

I spent 16 years working around food but not really thinking about it too much. I managed bars and restaurants and travelled all around the world to do it. I grew up next to a pub and started working there when I was 17. And then I progressed up pub chains, serving the worst of the worst, foodwise. But I was jaded by that by my mid-twenties. So I moved to a place where people appreciated food – Melbourne. Here [in Scotland] that was just what you did until you worked out what you were going to do. In Melbourne, people were happy about working in a restaurant or a bar. There was an appreciation of the craft of service. That respect doesn’t exist here, I don’t think it ever has.

Every year you keep asking yourself what am I going to do and I came to the stark conclusion that after 16 years, I’m not gonna know how to do anything better than this – or if I am it’ll take 16 years! I wanted to do something different but it still had to be food. I brought back a lot of ‘foodieism’. And I wanted to go back to studying.

And you stumbled across in the MSc in Gastronomy at Queen Margaret University…

It was the only course of its kind in the UK, and funded by the Scottish Government until 2019. I thought: I know about gastronomy, ’course I do!…

We saw a lot of things and heard a lot of things on the course that you can’t unsee. I turned into a vegetarian for about a year. The reason we opened a cafe was because of our experience in hospitality but opening this kind of cafe was because of what I learned in that year. You can’t unknow it. When you know the politics of free range you can’t put free range on the menu and celebrate that – ‘free range’, all 30,000 of them in a cage.

Or, more positively, you had to open a cafe knowing what you know – it was a burden but you could do something with that knowledge.

People can leave with a little more understanding – and maybe they’ll pass those stories on to somebody else. It wasn’t some grand plan, we’re still developing it and we will be for a while still. Carey cares about the same things I do. We wanted to be a community cafe – we’ve had a school photography group in, we’re working with you guys at TRJFP. We’re really young, we’re still finding our way. As we become more developed, the ethos of the cafe will become more defined. Everyone [on the MSc] took it their own way: mine was to put it into a space as much as I could and hope that space could bring in not just people with the same ideas or ethos as us but just people.

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TRJFP dinner at Ostara in August 2016.

An aim you share with TRJFP. What led you to work with us?

We’re working in such a way that there is very little waste, we’re very conscious of that. It’s ingrained in us to waste, we’ve always done it. Since always. In times of abundance, we’d leave it and move on.

But now we don’t know the difference between abundance and scarcity. We don’t know what abundance means and we don’t know how much damage that is doing.

In a crisis we do. And we’re in a crisis, but the crisis is masked. We don’t see the crisis, because of how food is being communicated.

You can buy a 2kg bag of chicken wings from Farmfoods for £2 – I’d never shop at Farmfoods but if I only had £2 and needed to get the most calories for my family, am I gonna go buy a soup pack or the 2kg bag of chicken wings from Farmfoods?

…?

I’d get the 2kg bag of chicken wings from Farmfoods. If you’ve £1 in your pocket, and someone offers you a bag of flour for £1.20, you’ve only got £1. They can say here’s another bag and it’s still £1.20 but you’ve still only got £1. It doesn’t matter how much food we produce if it’s not getting to the right people.

What’s wrong with that 2kg bag of chicken?

A lot of things. It’s not what’s wrong with it. I could get all righteous and say how the chicken is reared in an unsustainable way. What matters is calories for your kids. I guarantee that anyone who’s in a position where they’ve got to do that, or using food banks or whatever, it’s just about having some food. It’s not about being healthy – they’d like it to be, no doubt about it.

That’s a misunderstanding we all fall into – people know what is and isn’t healthy.

A lot of people don’t care.

Is there anything political about what you’re doing? Would you like there to be?

We wanted a certain type of food to be accessible to everyone more or less. We are running a business, we don’t want to go bust but we’re not here to make money. Say the word organic and what pops into people’s heads is “more expensive”. If you go to the supermarket, which is what most people do, they’ve put this expense on it. That kind of food is never going to be accessible to everybody. We wanted to do a really simple menu that was going to be accessible.

Or it won’t be accessible unless people come with this attitude like yours?

If you look at other countries – Australia, the US – that sort of thinking is prevalent. If you look at Edinburgh, there are very few. Maybe about five, including us.

And with that goal of accessibility?

Even fewer. We’re not seeing it as our niche – that’s just how it should be. I don’t want to say too much about organics, I just want people to have them. Very little on the menu advertises it but about 70% is.

Are you an activist?

No. Because I’m not very active! I care. I like to show people I care. We’re totally disconnected from everything, yet food is everything. Access is what we have to solve.

And what’s the solution?

There isn’t one.

What’s the first step?

Grassroots – it’s got to be at a community level. The ones most affected by food poverty are the ones that have got to be encouraged. You can’t go to a community like Granton [an area with a notoriously successful community growing project] and then go to another and say look I’ve got the solution, I’ve seen this, here’s some tools here’s some seeds, off you go. It has to grow organically. There’ll be people in these communities – could be a few, could be one guy – who will want to help, who will want to do something. But if all you have are fish and chip shops and budget supermarkets it’s only going to get worse.

It strikes me that community gardening is often about community and gardening but it’s not about food.

Tom [Kirby, at Granton Community Gardeners] says community gardening is 60% chat. But there’s a massive Lidl and they’re growing heritage wheat varieties outside it. I think the community aspects, community development aspects are a big thing. Maybe not the main thing. I think it is all rooted in growing food. You said it the other day: you don’t have to have an issue – as soon as you start growing food, the issues take care of themselves. As soon as you plant the seeds and someone helps you, you’ve started to affect everything. The council is willing to hand over [land] if there are people who want to use it for their own benefit. The benefit of whatever the community sees fit. If that’s growing food and handing it out to the elderly, then fine; if it’s to bring people together then fine; if it’s to bring people out of their homes then fine.

But I don’t think you’re going to address the issues top down with legislation; I think it has to come bottom up, it has to grow. Then it’ll become so big you can’t ignore it. If you start feeding down from the top, you’re in a position where you can’t understand. We have to find a way to encourage people.

Is that the middle ground? It can’t come from the top exclusively but where’s the energy for it to come bottom up?

Encouragement. To use unused corners of land, if gates are opened and people are let in. It’s not illegal to play ball games in these areas [in Granton, now used for growing]. It’s just a sign, nothing can happen to you. As long as there are no complaints, it’s yours. Think about that. How do you encourage people to step forward to start using it? Especially if they’ve no skills.

Or time, confidence.

Confidence, yeah. A lot of communities around where I grew up people would leave their doors open. People don’t do that anymore. People are scared of their neighbours now more than anything. Areas with urban agriculture are definitely the most resilient. Granton has no specific aim, no funding but it is bringing people in the community together. Some community gardens develop a community but not the community.

You talk a lot about community. What do you see community as? 

In my dissertation community was geographical but… the internet that could be a community.

But is that how you see it? TRJFP’s community is not exactly geographical but you talk about your cafe’s community, a geographical community, in a way most cafe managers would not.

You can’t really define community as one thing. I tried – there’s the world community, there’s the online community. With information online, in one way you can say all the information is there but you’re saturated with information it’s difficult to know what’s what. That information is not necessarily accessible by everyone as well, not everyone has that. But I think people want to know more about where their food comes from. I notice it with the cafe. We just need to keep diluting, see if we can get somewhere. Maybe.

But developing a grassroots community to address issues of food security, that’s not online presumably?

No. The one that I want through the cafe… I don’t even want to force any issues on anyone. I just put the books in the window and let them do their own thing. If someone says that bread tastes delicious I’ll tell them why. I don’t want to attract a specific type of people either. It’s really hard.

I’ll force one more impossible definition on you: TRJFP wants to encourage people to value food as a resource differently. How do you value food as a resource?

(Long pause) Yeah. As a way to bring people together, as a way to communicate. It can be used for anything. Look at your sort of communal dining. How wonderful is it to get 30 people most of whom have never met one another to come together and the food becomes the resource for their communication? Then it kind of transcends the meal itself into something more. But we have to find that connection again, and then we can feel connected to each other. It’s pretty hard to pinpoint one thing – you know that yourself. To sit and have a meal and communicate, it’s such an important thing and we don’t really do that anymore. We don’t really sit together anymore.

It’s hard – it can do so much, it can do everything if we can somehow reconnect to it, it opens up everything for us. It makes people happy as well. It can heal us. It can bring us together. I just think it’s everything. 

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