Timo Santala takes over the lead of Helsinki’s food culture strategy

Timo Santala will head the food culture strategy from November onwards. He is known as the driving force of the Restaurant Day movement, director of We Love Helsinki, a specialist in communal events, as well as a food, travel and wine journalist-photographer, and a passionate food lover. His task is to coach, inspire and help city offices in reaching set goals and to promote food culture development in Helsinki.

You are known to take an active and outspoken part in discussions. How does it feel to start working in an organisation like the City of Helsinki?

Highly interesting and inspiring. This is a great opportunity to get to develop the City together with citizens, food professionals and city employees.

I believe that the city belongs to us and that we are the city. We all have responsibility for our shared living environment. Together. Furthermore, the will to participate in and influence the city is built on trust. On a feeling that it is possible and something that we want.

It is important that the City is able to create an environment of functions and attitudes that make it easy and motivating to work together. There is plenty of creativity, potential and enthusiasm in Helsinki, and it is important to let that all flourish. So we don’t get caught up in just running on our everyday tracks, but also make it possible to fulfill the dreams of citizens.

This is why it is so encouraging to see how the City has opened up more space for ideas and actions. City officials also now work with bolder minds and less prejudice.

Nothing will ever be fully completed, and a perfect solution is not worth aiming for. But it is always worth going forward and if we can all do our part for the city, everything will surely get better.

An active civil society is built on open discussion. It is great that there are people with insight and courage working at the City, such as Tommi Laitio, Stuba Nikula and, of course, Pekka Sauri. These people are willing to open the discussions even further.

On my own behalf, I wish that I can use my personality and workload to participate in transforming Helsinki into an even greater city. Together we can do more.

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The City of Helsinki’s food culture strategy includes, for example, developing the markets, market halls and the Abattoir area, as well as promoting local food and urban farming, and an organic food programme for children. What sides of the strategy are close to your heart?

All of them. It is impossible to choose just one or two. The whole strategy aims to make Helsinki into a better and better functioning food city for us citizens. These are clear aims that influence the life of everyone.

Due to its size, the City of Helsinki could set an example for others by promoting sustainable development and local food production, as well as using more organic food and Fair Trade products in city offices, schools and kindergartens. Especially in the case of kids and young people, ethical and ecological choices are seen as extremely important because they create the base for future habits and food culture. If Helsinki is able to become a role model as a city that appreciates food, it will be seen and heard. In the future, these lines of thought will become self-evident.

When I travel to a new city, I always go straight to the local market hall or markets, because they are full of life and bustle. Food is the best gateway to a new culture, and it is an easy and natural way to get to know new people.

In Helsinki, I regularly head to the Hakaniemi Market Hall. I love the atmosphere and high quality selection. Usually I take home some pike fillets, chicken hearts and cheeses.

In Helsinki, the markets and market halls – and today also the Abattoir area – can also be meeting points where food really connects people. One of my biggest dreams is to see the markets and halls full of life and people.

A lot of work has already been done. In addition to established vendors and entrepreneurs, markets also have drop-in stalls that anyone can use to sell products for a day. The Hietalahti market has an easy access pop up space for vendors, and the Abattoir has an open-for-all barbecue area and a possibility to build your own event. There is still potential left unfilled at the market squares and halls and the Abattoir. I find it inspiring to jump in and help push these spaces to become central points of life in Helsinki.

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 The developing of food culture includes a whole lot. If you had to name one concrete dream, what would it be?

Street food is naturally close to my heart. Street food options have exploded through events like Restaurant Day and Streat Helsinki, and through new entrepreneurs. Food trucks and café bikes are making their rounds through the city, food trucks have become more ambitious through events, and even top chefs have started to invest in street food.

One of the most inspiring street food models is found in Singapore where dozens, or possibly hundreds, of street food entrepreneurs are packed under the same roof in small stalls with basic facilities and very low rents. To the customers, these street food centres are food heavens, with an enormous selection and the possibility to compile your own dream meal from different stalls. Entrepreneurs find synergy when the whole city rolls into these centres, especially at lunchtime, to share meals. When concentrated, these areas are also easy to monitor by the City.

When strolling through such places, I always dream of having something similar in Helsinki. And if I can contribute to securing even a fraction of what is offered around the city on Restaurant Day, then the Helsinki of my dreams is again one step closer.

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 Food is one of the most concrete tools to promote wellbeing, and food culture has a strong meaning for citizens both in everyday life and in times of celebration. Does promoting food culture also serve a higher purpose for Helsinki? 

Absolutely. Food culture has an immense impact on the city’s sense of self-worth, reputation and attraction. A lively and interesting food culture is a major factor in pulling in travellers and new citizens, and is also a reason for young professionals to stay here. For them, a city of good food is a good city in general.

The Helsinki food scene is based on active people getting busy with great things. We have many creative and ambitious people working with food, and all of this is direct input into our food culture. Great things happen all the time, and there is plenty more bubbling under. The whole atmosphere is excited, festive and communal.

Several great development paths are about to unfold, and following these is certainly a key to an even greater food city. That is why it is important that promoting food culture has been placed in the strategic core of city development in Helsinki.

In the future, we will surely see more urban farming, rooftop gardens, edible parks, food circles and coproduction schemes. We will also see interesting, high-quality restaurants, Michelin stars, top chefs, new food products and bold entrepreneurs. The role of food at events and special food events will certainly not lessen. Not to even mention the communality, love and passion surrounding food.

Now is the perfect time to focus on these things as Helsinki is currently sparking a lot of international interest and admiration. We have the chance to develop into one of Europe’s most fascinating food destinations.

Even now, Helsinki is already unique, interesting and positively quirky food-wise. It is easy to be proud. I am very glad that I get to work towards Helsinki food culture with different types of peoples, bringing it forward together.

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Helsinki foodism video

Helsinki food culture is in full bloom. Restaurant variety is more abundant than ever before on the streets of the stone city. Market halls and market squares are bustling with customers in search of fresh, local food. Urban gardening has turned grey spots of asphalt and concrete into colourful vegetable patches. But this is just the beginning. This video is an introduction to the Helsinki Food Culture Report, which portrays both success stories and lessons learned in the past year. The report also critically examines the role of the city as an enabler of food culture, or at times a killjoy. The shared goal is an even tastier city. A source of pride for residents and an experience for visitors.

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