Last week, I attended one of the best training I have taken part in, and I have participated some really good ones in Asia and Australia. It was called Better Development: Justice-Based Approach, and organized by a fairly new social enterprise called United Edge. The two co-founders and directors Daniel Bevan and Matthew Kletzing designed and facilitated all of the 35 training they have conducted in the last two years. Besides being a light-bulb moment training, it is something that I really admire because of its seamless delivery by Matt and Daniel, fun and practical activities, and most of all, walking the talk by being justice-based and ethical in all its aspects, including the food served, because justice should not only be exclusive to humans but to the environment, climate, and animals as well. Yes, the three-day training served an entirely vegan menu, a rare event in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
I took the opportunity to ask Daniel about how they managed to pull off a vegan training in Cambodia.
SRC: What are the reasons why you provide vegan food in your events?
DB: We aspire to live by what we believe. As an organisation working on social and environmental issues, based on compassion and love, we don’t believe that using any animal products can be conducive to living by those beliefs.
SRC: Have you clearly stated the United Edge food policy in your organizational policy, or was it an informal, unwritten policy?
DB: Great question! We have planned to write up a formal policy but haven’t quite found the time. So right now we simply write on our website that we are 100% vegan.
SRC: Since when have you been offering fully vegan menus in the JBA training events?
DB: Since our very first event at United Edge. Both Matt and I, the founders, have been vegan for 8 and 18 years respectively so we knew right from the start that it was important for us to work for an organisation that didn’t make us feel hypocritical.
SRC: How was organizing a vegan event in other countries as compared to Cambodia?
DB: It’s different in every country. Sometimes harder, sometimes easier. It always depends on the type of venue too. Some hotels that are a little stuck in their ways and used to holding large, fairly formal events often struggle. In Laos two weeks ago, the team went to a MASSIVE effort to make some incredible 5-star food that was both local and international food and included vegan cakes, croissants, and meat substitutes. One training in Malaysia was full of local dishes with vegan meat substitutes and everyone was very convinced that vegan food can be tasty! That’s always what we hope people will experience but it’s not always the case. In the Philippines we really struggled as the hotel really had no idea what to create, even with quite a lot of guidance from us. The first day in Papua New Guinea was quite awful but the hotel worked really hard with us in the evening to create more local vegan dishes. We always have to find a venue willing to make vegan food and then spend time going through the menu with them in detail.
SRC: What were the challenges you experienced in the seven training events conducted in Cambodia in terms of food?
DB: We’ve held the training in three different venues and this was the first time in Hotel Cambodiana. It was definitely the best food. The fist venue was a nice place but it was mostly western food which wasn’t so popular with our (mostly Khmer) participants. The second was good but they didn’t put too much creativity into it. Often people assume that vegans just eat salads and that we don’t need the food to be tasty… so that can be a real challenge. Communication can be a real struggle.
SRC: Can you share with me a bit more about the chef who prepared our food in Cambodiana Hotel? Was he the same one who catered the other six training here?
DB: As mentioned, this was the first time in the Cambodiana. The chef – Mr Song Teng – was fantastic and really took pride in creating the menu. He checked with us personally every day too. He has cooked for the Royal Family on numerous occasions including the day before our training started.
SRC: What is the general feedback of your almost 1,000 participants in terms of the food you have been serving during these events?
DB: Even though we always explain why we serve vegan food, there’s always one or two comments from people who say that we should serve meat for lunch. I think many people attend training for some time out of the office and for some good food!! However, one or two people ALWAYS comment on how good it is to have vegan food as a principle. Overall, although people may not be vegan themselves, they understand why we don’t serve animal products. Even when someone doesn’t, at least it’s the start of a conversation!
SRC: I have set up a Facebook group Vision: Vegan Cambodia in the hope of promoting veganism in Cambodia just before I came here in 2017. What do you think is the prospect of veganism being mainstream in Cambodia?
DB: I really think the whole world will become vegan in the not-too-distant-future. How long can we enslave and torture other species without the need to do so? Plus, with the climate emergency, it’s even more important. Cambodia has a lot of food that is either is already vegan or can be easily made vegan. Plus, there are high protein substitutes like tofu readily available. I think in cities there is little excuse for using animal products. However, in impoverished communities in rural areas, animal products can be an important part of the diet as it is so monotonous. It may take some more time in those circumstances. There are quite a lot of vegan/veggie restaurants that cater to both Cambodians, Chinese-Cambodians and foreigners, VIBE Cafe and Artillery for example.
I think serving vegan food in all events, especially those that advocate for social development and justice, should be the barest minimum. I also know that long before this is fully achieved, pioneering organizations such as United Edge will continue raising the bar, making even food in such events an expression of the principles of justice and sustainable development. Aside from being vegan, the food would be whole-food, organic, maybe oil and sugar free. Who knows, maybe even raw vegan!
The future is bright for most-affected communities, environment, climate, and animals when social development practitioners apply their principles of justice in every possible way. Makes me feel we are definitely on the right track. #SRC