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Should Chefs Care About Sustainability?

By Anthony Todd in Food on May 18, 2012 6:00PM

2012_5_18_Sustainability.jpg On Wednesday, the New York Times published a profile of Chefs Thomas Keller (of The French Laundry and Per Se) and Andoni Luis Aduriz. In this article, entitled "For Them, A Great Meal Tops Good Intentions," both addressed sustainability. How much responsibility do chefs have to try to save the world? Surprisingly (to some) they both came out for taste over environment. We asked some of Chicago's best chefs and sustainability experts to weigh in with their thoughts.

The Chefs' argument centered around two points. First, that the responsibility of a chef is to create great tasting food for customers, not save the world ("the priority is creating great, brilliant food"). Second, that their limited contribution couldn't possibly make any difference ("With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?"). What do our local experts have to say?

Paul Fehribach, Big Jones

"While no one can deny that Thomas Keller is a great chef ... I've never particularly admired his work, mostly because I personally don't like to eat like that, so the French Laundry has never been a place I've looked to as a role model. That said, Mr. Keller has every right to cook how he wants and to fulfill his own ambition, which may be to create spectacular dining experiences for people who can afford it.

I'd argue that in the end, however, his legacy will in time diminish until it is forgotten while the work of chefs such as Rene Redzepi and Sean Brock, who are working tirelessly to bring a sense of place and deep respect for heritage to cooking, will over time leave a much more lasting legacy. It's a shame when someone of Mr. Keller's rare talent completely ignores any hint of social or ecological responsibility in his cooking, but it's a direct reflection of the mindset of the upper echelons of society that he is serving - they get what they want when they want it, and the rest of us and future generations can deal with the consequences."

Melissa Trimmer, Le Cordon Bleu

"I am ashamed and saddened that a well-respected person in our culinary community would have an attitude such as this. It seems to me to be a really short-sighted and selfish response.

Later in the article, Mr. Aduriz goes on to say "But to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.” Is that really true? Possibly, but can't that also be looked at as a testament to a chef's skill? So I have to pickle and sweet pack cherries for the winter? Shouldn't that encourage me to get more creative with my winter menus knowing I have limited supplies? Shouldn't that make me want to stock up my larder, embracing age old techniques of pickling, preserving, and curing? Won't I know that my customers will feel better about purchasing my food knowing that I actually care about my local farming community? At the risk of sounding tacky and cliche, aren't we all in this together? Shouldn't we be aware of it?

As members of the global community, we need to actively participate in making our home a safe and healthy place. As members of the hospitality community, shouldn't we be invested in this completely? Yes, given our local fruit crop decimation this year, I probably won't have any sour cherries. But I'm not going to cry about it, nor am I going to ship them in from California. I'll adjust my menu accordingly and will just have to hope that won't come off as being complacent. When it's all said and done, and my kids ask why the planet has gone to crap, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say, 'I tried'."

Wendy Aeschlimann, Associate Editor of The Local Beet

"Call me cynical, but I see Keller's and Aduriz's comments as no more original than punk rock. By implying that farm-to-table chefs are guilt-ridden buzzkills who think too much, on the one hand, they're selling hedonism; on the other hand, they're ensuring their relevancy by distinguishing themselves from other chefs. It rings hollow to me.

I've eaten at French Laundry, and they pour local Napa wines and source food from their garden across the street. Aduriz's restaurant is located in San Sebastian, which has a fiercely nationalistic food culture. So they've both adhered, at least minimally and probably much more, to the philosophy that they now dismissively mock. Seriously, though, by avowing that his only responsibility to the world is taste and taste alone, Keller is invoking the old locavore straw man that doesn't exist - this time, it's the ideologue chef or restaurateur who dogmatically sucks all the pleasure out of eating and drinking.

Even if you buy Keller's precept that it's the government's job to reduce our carbon footprint, farm-to-table is about so much more, like saving heritage breeds from extinction, and making our food production safer. I genuinely believe that the restaurant scene in Chicago alone over the past decade has greatly improved as a result of farm-to-table. Restaurants benefit from a public that now demands nose-to-tail products. Chefs benefit from being able to stretch themselves; they now butcher meat, make charcuterie, and preserve foods. Eaters benefit from better quality and more varied products that, above all, taste better. Even Thomas Keller would approve."

Cleetus Friedman, City Provisions

"I tend to not stand on a soap box and say that everyone should do it this way because I believe it to be the right choice. I do what i can at my restaurant and events, and hope that my actions of working with local farmers and artisans can help inspire others to eat this way, and cook this way. I justify my work by my guests' responses and feedback. While it may not be my job to worry about a global carbon footprint, I do believe that sourcing food as close to us as possible makes for better, fresher food. Using less gas and such obviously plays into the carbon footprint, but i don't consider that to be the priority before fresh food."

Paul Virant, Perennial Virant/Vie

"I have a ton of respect for Keller and all other giants of haute cuisine! I feel like as an individual you need to stand for something, and what I stand for relates directly to my work! And I feel that this has enabled me to become the chef that I am, with my particular style.

Jim Javenkoski, Food Scientist, @localfoodwisdom

"Keller: “I think about quality, not geography.” Fair enough, and that is self-evident on his menu at The French Laundry (where I dined in April 2003). However, the quality of fresh ingredients is directly influenced by the distance and time required to transport it from its source to where it is prepared and consumed. Retaining desirable quality attributes (including nutrient density) in that food over longer distances and longer times requires more energy and materials (packaging, refrigerant, etc.) than a comparable ingredient which is sourced locally (or closer to the point of consumption). Consequently, ingredient sourcing decisions - when aggregated for a single restaurant over days/weeks/months/years - can have a significant impact on energy consumption, carbon emissions and overall food costs.

Aduriz: " align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited." Complacent? I'm not a chef but I doubt the intrinsic motivation in committing to sourcing more ingredients locally generates a sense of complacency. It's not about settling for a lesser ingredient, its about operating in a responsible manner that incrementally sustains the resource-constrained global ecosystem which must feed 9 billion people. Further, every chef who lives and toils among the 99% works within limitations and constraints in terms of budget, work space, suppliers, talent capital, etc. Every chef works within the limits of his or her pantry.

Aduriz: "If you are always thinking about the complexity of the relationship, you will not be able to cook anything." Uh, Chef... your new book includes the word 'Science' in the title, as a modifier of the verb 'Cooking.' So, clearly you have spent a considerable amount of time during your career experimenting with the complex effects of molecular-level transformations of ingredients to produce desirable sensory attributes in your food. That complexity hasn't impeded your ability to cook. Similarly, if you transferred some of your experiential learning from a molecular-level food system to a macro-level/global food system, then you might appreciate the interconnections to desirable sustainability attributes which affect all of us.

Phillip Foss, El Ideas

"I can understand it from this standpoint: The world's issues regarding the environment and carbon footprints are not going to be saved on account of the businesses of Per Se and the French Laundry. What people go to these restaurants for is to get the best possible ingredients whether they come from next door or across the ocean.

I don't believe that's to say he doesn't keep it local if he can, but if the caviar from Russia is better than the caviar here, he will imprint the carbon footprint to bring the best product he can. Thomas Keller grows his own produce and I'm sure recycles his recyclables. The purveyors he works with care about their ingredients a great deal. There are plenty of options and places that will stay 100% local, but he has never advertised this and it's kind of silly that anyone would simply expect him to. Just the same, he is very candid in this opinion, and I wonder if he wishes he could've had his words back."

What do you think? As diners, should we care whether or not chefs are cooking sustainably, or is Keller correct that taste, and only taste, should be the defining value in fine dining?