Written by Abhati Tarkunde June 5, 2021
Photograph by Hellene Algie
Diego Bonetto has been a guest mentor for FoodLab Sydney since 2019 and has constantly enraptured us through his immense knowledge and passion for plants and food foraging. His work as an environmental educator goes well beyond imparting skills, it empowers people with a mind conscious of resources and our impact on the environment.
We are forever grateful to have such a fun, compassionate and responsible mentor in our community.
The bottom line? Chase your passion, no matter how crazy it may sound.
“Today, we need to rethink how we engage with our environment, we need to reconsider how we use resources. We need to relearn the processes and cycles of the food that we eat every day, so that we can better understand our impact.”
Diego Bonetto has been an environmental educator professionally for the past 15 years, but he has been teaching people about plants for the past 20-25 year. He is known by some as “the weedy one.”
He moved to Australia in the mid 90s at the age of 24. Now, he has been here longer than he lived in Italy.
He is renowned for his workshops and events of food foraging – the practice of collecting edible plants from the landscape. It can be along a busy street, at a park, at the beach, or even better, in your own backyard.
Food foraging is a way to connect directly with food sources from the place where they grow. So no middlemen, no harvesting, no distributors, no shopping centres– just you, the place, and the food.
Through Diego’s good food practices, he is an advocate for food sustainability.
“Foraging can be the most sustainable way to engage with food. Because it does not need any input– there is no need of water, there is no need of machinery, there is no need of labour. You just need to go out to harvest what you can get.”
Diego grew up in Northwest Italy, outside of Torino, on a dairy farm, where he was taught food foraging by his uncles, aunties and mum. In his locale, the kids were sent off in the fields to go and collect wild foods.
Recognising edible plants and looking after resources is a skill that all humans had up to three generations ago. “It’s what we all did, all over the world, for centuries. It anchors back to who we are as a species.”
It is now being rediscovered by a whole new generation, including the catering industry, as an excellent way to reconcile with food sustainability, seasonality, wild flavours and food that brings an interesting narrative to the plate.
Diego’s Career in Foraging
Photograph by Archie Rose
When I started my first foraging workshop 15 years ago, no one was interested. Everyone was just laughing “you’re doing weeds?” “Don't you have any money?” These days it’s a different story. Because now there's a better understanding that wild foods are not new and crazy, they are old, ancient and useful.
Diego believes his success stemmed from being vocal about his knowledge. When working in orchards and garden centres, he realised not many possessed the knowledge he did and ended up wasting good produce. And so, he made it his mission to teach.
“I surprise people, I empower people. And give people tools so they can walk themselves in the landscape with a superior awareness of the abundance and fragilities in our surroundings.”
All his workshops are hosted outdoors in the midst of nature… something that is becoming a rarity.
“I take people out to you know, the whole point is to take people out for walks.”
“I tell stories. I teach people how to connect with the place, how to remember plants, names, recipes; I also teach people taste so they can remember flavours and textures. I teach people by taking them out for a walk.”
How do novices start food foraging?
Photograph by Aimee Crouch
“You start by gaining knowledge, you start by comprehending what you have. The first step would be to just go and walk with someone to give you some information about what you are looking at.”
The process begins with learning how to recognise plants, learning how to name the plants in your backyard.
“Only if you have a name and a point of recognition for something, you can see it. It's called pattern recognition. If you don’t know what an apple tree looks like, you can be sitting in front of it with no clue.”
The second step is to observe further.
“Notice the patterns. You can notice how much there is, when it is there, whether it's a cycle, whether it comes out in one season, whether it dies off in another. And then you start to engage with the cycles.”
For novices, it is best to start with easier ones such as mulberries, apples, dragon fruit, bananas, and more.
“Learning these skills is empowering, because you can harvest fruit for yourself. It's a matter of creating, learning, cherishing knowledge and the slow accumulation of information. Soon enough, you understand the plant, and before you know it, you have enough knowledge to harvest plants all year round.”
How do businesses get involved?
The catering industry has been showing increased involvement in food foraging in the past decade. It is a great stepping stone for food businesses that are actively trying to get involved in good food practices.
It may also be financially beneficial. “It’s the easiest and the most cost effective way to engage with resources, because you don't need to put any input, you just harvest.”
Diego extensively collaborates with chefs, herbalists, environmentalists and cultural workers to promote new understandings of what the environment has to offer. He also runs a wild food marketplace called Wildfood Store, connecting farmers to chefs, to upcycle by-products of agricultural practices: weeds.
For a start, you can always go for a walk to learn about it all.
Mentoring at FoodLab
Photograph by John Causley
After all these years, Diego still perceives himself as a student because his journey has endless possibilities awaiting him. Mentoring at FoodLab Sydney is a way for him to inspire others who are on the threshold of their careers in food.
“FoodLab is dedicated to teaching skills and empowering people with training, so that they can create a difference in our local food community. It is a key learning facility because it provides a community through teaching.”
He is one of many mentors at FoodLab Sydney who nurture people aspiring to become food entrepreneurs.
“People are willing to make a difference in public communities by increasing food literacy. The students become self-reliant as well as create a system of sustainability that will reach well beyond that particular person. The reverberation is massive. All the effort that goes into this process is commendable."
Diego’s advice to other food businesses
Diego, as a mentor, shares his story as an example of someone who went through the challenging steps of creating a food business from scratch- “craft a crazy idea, believe hard in it, and keep pushing.”
“Everyone has different journeys, but in essence business is about storytelling and endurance. Just continue to believe in your stories, keep pushing. There's a lot to be said about consistency and stoicism- keep pushing, and eventually someone will notice.”
"What do I offer to FoodLab? I don't know. It's the story of a crazy guy who actually makes a living out of this!"
Otherwise, read more about FoodLab mentoring.