Off topic: Simon Bryant
Off Topic and on the record, as we let South Australian identities talk about whatever they want... as long as it’s not their day job. Celebrity chef Simon Bryant is a well-known animal and dog lover and is an Animals Asia ambassador. This role has taken him to China where he witnessed events that would compel him to act.
As an owner of a two-and-half-year-old doberman, Sid, Bryant grew up with many different breeds of dogs. As the Hilton’s Executive Chef he was often seen walking around Gouger and Grote Streets with his former doberman, Iggy. Locally, Bryant is an ambassador for the Animal Welfare League.
“That’s about responsible pet ownership. I always say the second biggest responsibility you will ever have is raising a child but a dog is the biggest because they never grow up and leave home. You’re stuck with it forever. You’re responsible for its every emotional and physical need. It’s a huge issue – abandoned pets. It’s a symptom of our inability to take responsibility for our impulse purchases and actions. For me, pet ownership is a huge issue; it’s not just a token thing. You need to really look at your life and say, ‘Wow, I need to change a lot of the ways I live in order to provide for this animal’.”
Bryant was approached by Animals Asia around seven years ago in respect to the issue of moon bears and bile farming. But Animals Asia’s Jill Robinson and Anne Lloyd-Jones mentioned dog farming when he travelled to China with them four years ago.
“I was a bit scared of the cultural and moral relativism and a bit confused by it all. They said, ‘Why don’t you come to China and have a look?’ So I went. I had no idea of what I was in for and they are very clever ladies, because they took me to see things and once you’ve seen these things you’re compelled to act. It cleared up any uncertainty in my mind about the moral implications of whether it should or should not carry on.
“When we got there they said, ‘We aren’t going to hold back, you’ve come all this way you might as well see what we are fighting and frankly it will be a little shop of horrors’. I saw a white tiger used for tiger bone; I saw so many circuses that I lost count. Circuses featuring everything: bears, elephants and dogs, you name it. But what really got me were the dog farms, dog abattoirs and dog markets. I have a vivid memory of standing in an abattoir in a dog market and being undecided about the moral implications. I mean, I’m a bloody chef; we’re responsible for mass destruction on a daily basis by the choices we make when we write menus. As far back as I remember I’ve tried to support ethical food production. And my line was maybe they can farm dogs a bit better but there are two fundamental problems and one of them is we do not farm carnivorous pack animals, we never have, we farm herd animals, usually vegetarian herd animals.
“My stance has always been about relativism; there is no universal right or wrong. You can agree to disagree. Live or let live. That’s where I had trouble with all of this, really, because here I am saying I don’t know how I feel about dog eating yet here in Australia we’ve got some despicable farming practices that I do not support and I’m very vocal about those.”
Bryant says there is a groundswell of activity in China to stop the dog trade.
“Especially with younger people. They’re stopping trucks on highways and demanding to see papers, because you need papers to transport them. They’re confronting people in abattoirs and markets, which may be illegal. We found an illegal abattoir on our own and by we I mean I was with Chinese people, mainly the Chinese urban youth and the organisation Animals Asia, which is a Hong Kong-based foundation to end bear farming and dog and cat eating. It supports Chinese people who want to oppose these practices with legal resources and funds.”
As a former vegetarian Bryant had to eat meat when he moved from Asian cooking to classic French cuisine and he admits he is a “mass of inconsistencies”.
“I do not eat meat at home. But professionally it’s my job. I’ve got mates who are vego, who have known me for years, and they just think I’m a hypocrite. I don’t have an answer for that. I am a hypocrite. I serve people meat. It’s my job. The most important thing for me is that I know the backstory’s sound with the meat I buy. I know it got a knife chucked into it or a bolt gun. I accept that it was brutal but it had a good life.
“I’d rather be a complete vegetarian chef if you want the truth. I’ve got to be honest, the commercial reality for me is that if people liked my menu last night and then I explain to them about the meat, where it came from and how you get it, if they change their purchasing habits then I’m happy. If I make them all eat vegetarian and they don’t really want to and they walk away and buy another factory farm pig the next night, I haven’t affected any change. I know to most people that’s like sleeping with the enemy or being a hypocrite. The whole world isn’t going to turn vegetarian overnight. Let’s look at our existing situations. Let’s demand better treatment within those farms and let’s improve the lives of the existing animals. Sure in 50 years if we’re all wearing white jumpsuits like Logan’s Run and eating vegan diets and there’s no war, that’s fine, but that’s not going to happen tomorrow.”