Gemma Walsh and Katie Kerr, a conversation.

 
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On the release of GLORIA’s latest publication, editor/designer Katie Kerr and chef Gemma Walsh dish the dirt on Dirt.

K I thought I’d start this conversation by talking about process. We have discussed in the past (often over lunch) how process an integral part of our practices—for you, as a chef, and for me, as a book-maker. It seems to be a good place to begin, as in some ways, our approach to process is something that links our otherwise disparate disciplines. Working with you over the last six months, I’ve come to realise that we both deem the experience of creation to be as important as the end result, if not more so.

For three months, over the winter of 2018, we hosted a series of dinners and lunches at your shared villa on Ariki Street. We invited a writer or poet to join us for a meal—each plant-based recipe was concocted and cooked by you. The occasion was sometimes the first time we’d met our guest, which sparked a few Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? jokes to break the ice. During the meals, which were held at the dining table or outside in the weak winter sun, our conversations traversed across many topics—from art to food to work to whether periods could sync. After our farewells, with hugs and Instagram accounts exchanged, the writer was asked to respond to the experience with a piece of writing. Then we waited. The brief was open, so when the contribution arrived in our inbox, there was a sense of anticipation as we read the work for the first time.

When I attempt to frame the development of Dirt, I see it as having three stages in the process; the food, the experience and the book. Our individual work on the project flanked the meals that we shared with the writer. Your part of the project was at the forefront of the experience—the creation of recipes and the cooking and serving of meals—and mine came at the end of the project—editing the content and designing the publication.

As a chef who produces dishes and writes recipes, how do you define your process and why is it so important to recognise and champion it?

G Unsurprisingly, my process developed when I started cooking purely plant-based food. I studied commercial cookery in Melbourne, where we learnt mostly French techniques. This meant following a strict and almost holy set of rules, which were not to be tampered with. The practical tests were like being in an episode of Masterchef. We had four hours to produce a set of dishes and take them up to the teacher who would taste and mark accordingly. It was terribly stressful and time went by with cruel speed. In hindsight though, that immense pressure taught me discipline, organisation and adaptability.

As much as I adored the process of cooking at that stage, it wasn’t my own. Meat was often the sole focus of a dish and vegetables were a mere afterthought. Once I had finished studying, I stopped eating meat and that’s when the process of cooking changed for me.

When something as seemingly integral as meat and dairy is removed, the chef is forced to become more creative. As far as coming up with recipes, my process is usually based around two things—a particular vegetable/fruit or a certain craving. I cook as seasonally as possible, which means vegetables and fruit already shine bright, so my job is to come up with ways to enhance their beauty and flavour. I don’t like to be heavy-handed and I am obsessed with slow processes—an obsession which possibly sprung from a fierce desire to rebel against fast food. Everything is so horrifically instant nowadays, to the point where nothing feels mulled over or cared for. So it’s important to me to take my time and to respect ingredients. I don’t think my cooking is over-complicated by any means, it just should not be rushed.

Generally, I believe that nourishing our bodies and pleasuring our cravings aren’t mutually exclusive—it’s possible to be health conscious while simultaneously eating double chocolate brownies. Eating food should make you feel good for a long period of time, rather than give instant gratification.

K I understand that determination to rebel against fast processes. My transition into independent publishing has a similar narrative. Disenchanted with the hyper-paced, client-led practice of commercial design, I started searching for a way of designing which could, by nature, be slower and more philosophical. GLORIA gave me an outlet to create work that incorporated research and critical analysis without the time constraints of commercial design. When producing a book, I’ve been known to spend months on both editorial and design research. But, as you say, perhaps the time taken to critique and develop your process—to let things simmer—is what allows you to enhance your output, whether that is food or books. I was lucky enough to spend time at Enjoy Public Art Gallery conducting some of the research for this project as part of a residency programme, A Working Week, in 2018.

In a roundabout way, I can also relate your obsession with the vegetable to my ongoing relationship with the book as a format. Like your self-imposed restrictions around only making plant-based food, I have active limitations for only producing books in paperback format. I’m obsessed with the paperback book. I focus deeply on this single, standardised format, and I do it in hope of gaining some form of tacit knowledge through designing in repetition.

To some, it could seem counterintuitive to make a cookbook in paperback format. Most cookbooks we see and use today are glossy, hardcover mammoths. Decadently, recipes are given a whole page, coupled with a highly stylised photograph of the artfully finished dish. The food and the book are intended to be seductive. But our recipe books weren’t always like this. Before the 1980s, New Zealand cookbooks were smaller affairs—spiral-bound, instructional pamphlets with three or more recipes per page—the Edmund’s Cookbook is an example that endures. Community cookbooks produced by various local bodies like sports clubs and women’s groups were an example of collective self-publishing, almost zine-like in nature. Dirt as a design project is somewhat speculative—it imagines an alternative future for cookbooks, one that is closer to that history.

It’s interesting to see how veganism has also developed since this era. It has recently been repackaged as ‘plant-based’, with an associated lifestyle. Plant-based food is increasingly popular with vegans and non-vegans alike—only one of the writers you cooked for was vegan, but they all enjoyed the food. How you do navigate the context of vegan/plant-based culture? What’s your view on the rebranding of veganism?

G To be completely honest I don’t really like the word ‘veganism’. It has an air of elitism and exclusivity about it which leaves an icky taste in my mouth. I think for some people too, it automatically brings the concept of restriction to mind—or even some form of perfectionism. There is a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude around veganism, which I can’t get behind.

Don’t get me wrong though, when I first became plant-based I had my own period of stubborn self-righteousness. It is incredibly easy to be lured into a world fuelled by social media, where words like ‘clean eating’ and ‘wellness’ are tossed around with careless abandon. There is a dangerous sense of competitiveness to be the most ‘well’, and as a young woman I felt that burden with a heaviness. It would be irresponsible of me to pretend that my journey through veganism has been one of abundance from day one because it hasn’t. However, the process was necessary in order to find my place with food, to fall in love with it all over again and to be genuine in my approach to cooking. Now I can say that being plant-based has made me a better cook, a conscious consumer and far more aware of the state of this earth we live so comfortably on. Omitting animals products from your diet doesn’t mean deprivation—in fact, my diet now has never been more colourful, vibrant, textural and nutritionally complex.

The increase in popularity and accessibility of plant-based food is hugely important. There’s a sense of boldness in the vegan food you can buy now—an approach of ‘anything you can eat, I can eat vegan’, whether that’s a ‘chicken’ burger or a ‘mince’ pie. Whereas only a year or so ago, eating out as a vegan meant superfood powders and activated nuts. As for me, I think my cooking sits somewhere in the middle. I hate mock meat and I need more than limp lettuce leaves—so instead I create dishes based around whole foods that are robust, inclusive and thoughtful, because they allow people to thrive and feel good.

K It was interesting to see how our guests reacted to the food, and the experience, in their written responses. No one contributed a piece about the ‘vegan’ aspect of the meal. Instead, many of the contributions are nostalgic. It seems that, like particular smells, food can evoke strong memories, most often around childhood and family. Sam Walsh tells a story of his (and your) charismatic grandfather and Amy Weng recounts childhood days of road-side foraging and her father’s doufu. Lana Lopesi and Rosabel Tan discuss and critique their cultural histories around food. For some, it was the place itself—your shared villa in Grey Lynn—that sparked recollections of a certain time and place. Courtney Sina Meredith and Natasha Matila-Smith both spent formative years in Grey Lynn, and the experience of arriving at your house reminded them of past lives.

The responses aren’t all about memory though—other writers offered responses through multiple avenues and formats. What excites me is the range of contributions that we received. I guess some people may consider the collection to be a little ‘uneven’ in that sense. I tend to echo the approach of David Blamey, who takes a similar editorial approach to his imprint, Occasional Table, in which he produces arts-based publications from a range of contributors. In the introduction to his book, Distributed (2018), he responds to this criticism by saying, “it’s a better challenge to engage a diversity of perspectives, even if the resulting mix is too expansive for some tastes”.

Because of this, I tend to describe my approach to editing as ‘hands-off’. I see self-publishing as a space for uncensored expression between writer and audience, and therefore I prefer to let my contributors put forward their words in a way they feel comfortable with. With GLORIA, I see my role as editor of contributor-based publications as similar to a curator of a group exhibition—I bring together the finished work and frame it accordingly.

But, of course, it goes further than that. Those in arts publishing often talk about how ‘books make friends’ (I believe the phrase originally came from Christoph Keller). And it’s true. In the same text, Blamey says:

“When I meet contributors to talk about their interests and how they might play a part in giving birth to a new book, I kind of fall in love a bit. Does that sound extreme? The meeting of minds, exchange of viewpoints and development of a plan to bring a new piece of work into the world forms a bond.”

The experience of meeting our contributors, sharing food communally, and creating this publication together creates a kind of magical, holistic synergy that is hard to describe, but will hopefully be apparent in the book.

Another thing that is difficult to describe is the photography. We haven’t talked about that yet, and I think is an integral part of the book.

G I adore the photography in this book. Firstly because the process of capturing the images was such a beautiful experience, and secondly because the resulting images are quite weird in this context. I remember the conversations we had around how we would approach the photography, and I was finding it difficult to detach myself from the usual ‘food porn’ photography you see in most cookbooks. It wasn’t until we sat down with Sam Craigie—a dear friend and wickedly talented photographer—that the concept fell seamlessly into place. This is not a traditional cookbook, and the photography needed to mirror that.

Visually, vegetables are both stunning and strange, so they had be the focus of the photographs. In a nod to my fashion background, we framed the vegetables as they themselves were the models. The shoot took place at my parents rather incredible home in Tamahere—they live in an old monastery surrounded by lush greenery and eccentricity, which was a magic fit. The photographs were shot on film since, aesthetically, nothing compares and we are all about slow processes. Admittedly, it was quite a risky decision, however the results were well worth the anxiety.

K The whole book felt like a bit of a risky decision. We kept pushing ourselves to detach from what we were expected to do when making a cookbook, and attempt to see the format from an alternative perspective. Now we can only hope that others will see what we saw—the age-old wonder of plants and books, and the beautiful act of sharing food and words together.

Purchase a copy of Dirt by Gemma Walsh and Katie Kerr.