Sep 22, 2011

how chefs can (help) save the world

Though lacking a grand theme, a common thread ran through Planting Thoughts, a food symposium held in Copenhagen in late August that promised serious thinking and discussion about food. Good food, the diverse crowd of speakers (chefs, food scientists, farmers, biologists, foragers, and more) argued, takes time and effort from everyone involved in making it: There are no short-cuts. The symposium also showed how haute cuisine—often derided as elitist—can support efforts towards building a system that can make enough good, sustainably grown food for everyone and make it accessible to all.

Most obviously, haute cuisine can extend and reinvigorate local food culture and history, the context of people, places, stories, and traditions that surrounds food in a given place. Fine dining restaurants can afford to pay a premium for what we now think of as artisanal ingredients, keeping them in production and their producers in business. Less obviously but more importantly, many chefs use culture and history when creating new dishes in their restaurants. Japan's Yoshihiro Narisawa, Italy's Massimo Bottura, Spain's Andoni Aduriz, Australia's Ben Shewry, Daniel Patterson from the United States—they all use the historical and cultural context in which they work to help them answer the question: "This was what came before, what should we cook next?"

Patterson's food is an example of how culture and history can point chefs in the right direction. He often researches how particular ingredients have historically been cooked, then bases novel interpretations on what he finds. At the symposium, he showed three beet dishes in which he took the familiar texture of the roasted beet (from the roasted beet and goat cheese salad that was introduced in the late 1970s and is now ubiquitous) and transformed it into something new but—crucially—not forbidding. Here's one: roasted beets on a rose-scented snow with yogurt, a novel pairing of flowers and earth, united by the familiar combinations of floral/milky and earthy/milky flavors. Chefs like Patterson create new and delicious things by returning to what we already know. For them good food is anchored in context, and requires investigation of place, time, and history.

Clearly, the labor-intensive food these chefs make will never be the food of the people. This is why haute cuisine seldom participates in discussions about how to feed many people sustainably and healthfully. This is a false divide. Even if the food itself does not scale up from the fine dining restaurant, the approach—examining context more closely—could be part of the solution.

Looking to history and culture helps us understand why we eat the way we do today. Thousand of years of food choices have led us to eat mostly starches from a few cultivated plants instead of the diverse set of foods that we used to eat. This modern, developed-country way of growing food and eating has expanded dramatically in the last half-century. Accelerating urbanization and changing work patterns during this time have made it less likely that families cook and eat together. Now, it's the exception rather than the rule to eat good food made with care, that originates in a place and with people that you know, part of a culture and history that you share. "You would think that at the end of thousands of years of development, it would take a long time to destroy these memories of good food," Patterson said, "but industrial agriculture took that all away in a generation, wiped it all out."

Our food production and distribution system is a litany of connected problems. We grow more food per capita than we need, but we grow the wrong food, in the wrong places, in the wrong way. On average, we consume more calories than we require. Industrial agriculture produces trillions of calories but at tremendous and mostly hidden cost. The energy spent in manufacturing the fertilizers and pesticides, operating the machinery, and fueling the transport required for industrial agriculture is hidden in subsidies on agriculture, fuel, and transportation. Our starchy diet is associated with chronic health problems that we pay for indirectly with taxes and overloaded health-care systems. When cheap energy finally becomes too expensive and the chronic health crisis can no longer be ignored, what we choose to eat and how we we grow, process, transport, prepare, and sell it will have to change.

What, then, might the future of food look like? About the only certainty is that it will have to be built from a lot of smaller solutions rather than a single industrial mega-solution. Hans Herren, an author of the IAASTD (an international review of agricultural knowledge), noted that small-scale organic farming is as productive as the world average for agricultural production, and challenges the widely held assumption that mechanized, industrial agriculture is the only viable solution. While too many people live in urban areas for all agriculture to be local, Thomas Harttung, an urban agriculture advocate, suggested that urban agriculture can produce an enormous volume of food to supplement our food supply. The foragers who spoke at Planting Thoughts, Miles Irving and Francois Couplan, also argued that wild foods are diverse and plentiful enough to be as meaningful and delicious a part of our food supply in the future as they were in the past. Diversifying our food production systems is critical, and this means including elements based on old ways of doing things like foraging and local, organic production methods, but with the advantage of new knowledge.

Changing how we produce, distribute, and consume food will require us to unlearn what we take for granted now: apparently cheap food, reliance on starches, unnecessarily abundant calories, eating a lot of meat. Then we'll have to learn something new: spending time and effort to find and make real food, growing and eating closer to home, eating less but better, eating more plants. This will be tremendously difficult. A change in our food system won't happen if it isn't supported by an equally radical change in our food culture.

Change, though, is easier if it is delicious and pleasurable—and this is where haute cuisine comes back into the picture. Chefs are, as Michel Bras called them, "marchands de bonheur," their know-how employed in making delicious things. This knowledge gives chefs the ability to use pleasure to help change what people want to eat. "Poor choices lead to unsustainable foods," Ben Shewry said. "The responsibility of the chef is to know and to act." Activists for sustainable food and food access rightly emphasize how urgently we need to change our food system. Chefs can help make that change delicious and desirable, not just necessary and inevitable.

click here for other posts about Planting Thoughts, including session summaries.

[this post was cross-published in The Atlantic|Life]

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