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Nick Nairn: 'We need an empathetic government to tackle poor Scottish diet'

Nick Nairn: 'We need an empathetic government to tackle poor Scottish diet'

"Do you know the difference between taste and flavour?”

I am sitting opposite one of Scotland’s most famous chefs, one who is notorious for his angry outbursts and strong opinions, sheepishly wondering whether or not this is a trick question.

“Um…no…probably not,” I reply, tentatively, scared my ignorance is going to irritate him.

His eyes light up; clearly, I’ve answered correctly. I breathe an internal sigh of relief, as getting on the wrong side of Nick Nairn is not part of my plan for the interview.

“Right, well, taste comes from your tongue – all your tongue can do is hot, sweet, salty, sour and a thing called umami, and bitter, so six things,” he tells me. “Your olfactory canal does everything else, all the edgy stuff – herbs, garlic, ginger, freshness, inherent goodness.”

I nod politely as he then goes into minute detail about the emulsification of olive oil and balsamic vinegar simply by using mustard, and make a mental note that I need to do this the next time I make a salad dressing to stop the oil and vinegar separating.

The passion coming from Nairn, even as he talks about the most basic of cooking techniques, is striking, and it’s this passion that has brought me here to his new restaurant in Bridge of Allan on a snowy January day.

It became clear to me that diet had a massive impact on how well you lived, how long you lived, how healthy you were

But I’m not here to talk about his new venture, or his cook school, or what it was like to become the youngest chef to receive a Michelin star, or his string of industry awards, or his impressive TV career which has spanned several decades.

It is his insights into the Scottish diet that I’m interested in; insights which lent him the ear of successive first ministers, dating back to the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Donald Dewar.

Nairn recounts the story of his first meeting with Dewar, whom he stumbled upon while he was out for dinner with Professor Mike Lean, a specialist in nutrition at Glasgow University.

“He was sitting there on his own in a restaurant and Mike and I went down and plonked ourselves next to him and said, ‘Right, Donald’,” Nairn recalls. “He was a top man, really lovely man, clever. He was a very rare thing in politicians, he was clever and he had a heart. He cared, he really did care. He understood that if you wanted to change Scotland’s diet, Scotland’s relationship towards food, this won’t happen straight away.”

Nairn had been inspired by Lean who, he says, was “passionate to a degree I had never encountered before about this timebomb of our diet”, and started to think more about the impact a poor diet can have on quality of life.

Government has to make the big hard decisions and say this is wrong, we have to change this

“I was shocked and horrified when I started thinking about it,” he says. “Why is that happening in modern society? We are supposed to be a developed society where we care about ourselves, but if you’ve got money and you’ve got access to food, you eat pretty well, and at the lower end, it’s just really bad.

“It became clear to me that diet had a massive impact on how well you lived, how long you lived, how healthy you were, how productive you were, how important you were to the workforce.”

Their chance encounter with Dewar led to further meetings with the First Minister, and Nairn was full of hope that he could work with the new parliament to bring about real change in Scotland.

“We had some ideas about things that could be done at government level. And that was the point, talking to Donald, that I realised that the solution lay at government level.

“Government cannot become the nanny state and legislate to change everything – it has to bring people with them – but it has to start somewhere. Government has to make the big hard decisions and say this is wrong, we have to change this.”

With his new-found faith that the Scottish Parliament could instigate a shift in thinking, Nairn used his profile to attract publicity for the cause and got involved with a major healthy eating advertising campaign launched by the then Scottish Executive.

“It was bollocks,” he says. “Glossy, expensive, condescending. I was part of that as well. I got a lot of flack from people saying, ‘It’s alright for you, mate, you’re a restaurateur, you’ve got access to all this, you’re not on benefits.’ And they were absolutely right to level that criticism at me because I was in a bit of an ivory tower, and I probably said a few things that didn’t win me a lot of friends.

The smoking ban is probably the best thing the Scottish Parliament has ever done. Big, brave, brilliant thing to do

“And it did come to a point in early 2000s where I thought, maybe I should just shut up. Maybe I’m being hypocritical. I really got upset about it. I lost my way for a while in that because I really did feel bad about it. Then I had an epiphany and thought, fuck it, you only get one chance at this, I’m not going to be famous forever and I really should do everything I can to cast light on it.”

Nairn pinpointed several key areas which need to be regulated in order to implement a change in diet, including school meals, salt, saturated fat, food advertising, big corporations and supermarkets, food procurement, and catering within the NHS.

“We’ve done it with the sugar,” he says. “It’s early days yet to see if the sugar tax has actually been the right way to do it, but I believe it is the right way,” he says. “Can you imagine the conversations behind closed doors on the sugar tax? ‘Over my dead body!’ So, good on the Scottish Government for sticking to that.

“I also believe minimum pricing for alcohol is a good thing. The smoking ban is probably the best thing the Scottish Parliament has ever done. Big, brave, brilliant thing to do. But they need to do more big, brave, brilliant things, it’s just not enough to do those ones in isolation.”

It was during Jack McConnell’s tenure as FM that the smoking ban was introduced and, like Dewar before him, McConnell had been keen to seek Nairn’s opinions on how to change Scotland’s diet. 

“Jack, I liked,” recalls Nairn. “Really good guy. But I fell out with the McConnells over a very stupid thing. It was about putting lobsters to sleep before you kill them, which was a bit of legislation and I thought the Scottish Government had better things to do, bigger things to do than legislate about putting lobsters to sleep before you kill them. We knew him socially as well, which was very embarrassing.”

In all this complexity, in all this difficulty trying to work out what the heck we’re going to do, we could make compulsory food education in schools

That fall out, together with Nairn’s withdrawal from the glaring limelight and his frustration at the lack of any measurable success, led him to step away from his unofficial role advising ministers on healthy eating.

At the start of our interview, Nairn tells me he used to be an “angry man” and he didn’t talk about “that stuff” anymore for the sake of his own health.

But my questions seem to have reawakened his passion, and as we sit in the back room of his new restaurant, ideas about what we need to do as a country come flooding out of him.

“I was quite happy not articulating any of this stuff, and once I start thinking about it, it eats away at me,” he tells me. “It’s just frustrating. If you saw into the future and you could see a car going round a corner about to crash into a train, you’d want to say, ‘no, don’t go round that corner’, and that’s how I see this. I can see that if we don’t do something, we’re going to hit a train.”

So, it’s a bit like climate change, I suggest, where we’ve finally accepted that it’s happening but still aren’t doing anything drastic enough to stop it.

“It’s a very good analogy, actually, is climate change, we know it’s going to happen, we’ve fucked up but we’re not going to do anything about it.

“And I do think for our kids we’ve got a responsibility to try and hand on something a bit better than what they’ve got.

“That’s why I’ve said this is not good for my health, I just get so frustrated when I could see how we could start. I don’t have the answer, but I know what the answer might look like and I know that to get to that answer we need to go further than we’ve gone before. The Good Food Nation and Hungry for Success and all the initiatives that they’ve done are all sticking plasters, they’re all just papering over the cracks.”

Education is key, according to Nairn, and teaching children how to cook from nursery age is the only way to instil lifelong healthy eating habits.

“What’s happened in high schools over the last 15 years in the provision of food education?” he asks. “It’s just fucking gone. Why has it gone? Because it’s expensive, because we need skilled staff, and we can’t pay enough to get good skilled staff who could go and work in another part of industry, so we have lost a massive chunk of home ec teachers.

“In all this complexity, in all this difficulty trying to work out what the heck we’re going to do, we could make compulsory food education in schools, and we could make it good. Let’s teach them how to make a really good pot of soup or stew. Education is the key to the future – not just in food, in everything.

They made Finland one of the healthiest countries in Europe from being the dead man of Europe

“It should start at weaning, at nursery school and lead into primary school and high school. By the time they leave high school, they should be able to cook for themselves.”

Nairn firmly believes that any change has to come from the top – “we need an empathetic government who really fucking care” – and points to the success of the Finnish government in the 1970s through the North Karelia Project.

Finland went from being one of the world’s unhealthiest nations, earning itself the dubious honour of world record-holder for heart disease, to being one of the fittest countries on earth, cutting cholesterol and blood pressure and reducing salt intake, smoking, and increasing physical activity.

“They got regions competing against other regions to see who could get the lowest blood pressure. That’s human nature, people get competitive. They changed the diet. They made Finland one of the healthiest countries in Europe from being the dead man of Europe.”

Surely, then, Scotland can do the same?

“It’s a holistic approach, I’ve said this for years, it’s a massive piece of work that’s going to require a lot of human resource and it’s going to require a shitload of money. So, I’d put tax up. I’d put a penny or two pennies on the tax, as long as I knew that every penny of that tax went to change our diet. And I think you could sell that to the Scottish people.

“There’s two parts to obesity, there’s food and there’s exercise. To have a dynamic lifestyle, we need to make Scotland a cycling-friendly country. I’ve always pointed to France and Italy and Spain for food cultures and lifestyle cultures as well, getting out there. Walking is brilliant and as you get older, we should all be walking miles every day.”

As the interview goes on, Nairn gets even more fired up, and I get the feeling he’s at the point of hitching a lift back to Edinburgh with us so he can bang on Nicola Sturgeon’s door and refuse to leave until she’s signed up to his healthy eating mission.

Then, he has a moment of inspiration. Or it could even be a moment of clarity.

“Maybe that’s the big national question. Maybe we go out and ask the people. And we ask them the right questions. On a scale of one to ten, how much do you care about food? Do you think it’s important to sit down and eat communally? How important do you think it is to eat food that’s been sourced in Scotland and grown and produced in Scotland? What importance do you give to salt content, to sugar content, to fat content? I like that idea. Let’s go out and see what people in Scotland really think. And let’s collate that by postcode.

“Who’s up for it?”

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