(Con) Fusion cooking

An award-winning US foodwriter recommends that celebrity chefs develop a taste for food biotechnology.

Irena Chalmers

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Environmental campaigners’ implacable opposition to food and agricultural biotechnology has found sympathetic friends among a bunch of celebrity chefs in the USA, who operate some of the grandest and most glorious eateries in the universe. Though their numbers are small, their influence is considerable, particularly since they took up televangelism.

‘Food gives us the entrée to effect social change’, proclaimed one of their leaders. Another big-name chef (not the Naked One) solemnly pontificates, ‘Sustainable cuisine is an ethic that guides chefs to recognise that their food choices have a major impact on the integrity of the world’s cultures and environment. This ethos leads chefs to buy local, seasonal food whenever possible, and to cook it in ways that celebrate the vitality and excitement of the traditional culinary legacies of the world’s peoples’.

In response to this incandescent banality, freelance writer Richard Bermans observes in the weekly trade magazine for the restaurant industry, Nation’s Restaurant News: ‘Not coincidentally, the chef’s anti-biotech cause is promoted by an “under the radar” coalition of organic food manufacturers and retailers. Guess who gains market share if the celebrity chefs can sow enough nervousness among consumers about advances in food technology?’

What is wonderfully invigorating about these kinds of saints v sinners debates is how uplifted both sides become, as they practise the art of listening by talking louder and proclaiming their invincible rectitude to consumers – who are largely indifferent to the issues at hand. Consumers generally prefer to concentrate their energies on food that is fast, cheap, safe and convenient – these being the same four components that have led us to embrace indoor plumbing.

There’s no denying a farmer in bib overalls is wonderfully more scenic than a scientist in a white coat – and almost as exciting as a celebrity chef who wafts through his privileged domain anointing his guests like a butterfly bestowing nectar from one eager uplifted face to another.

Eric Ripert is the chef/owner of the four-star Le Bernardin. He is lavishly adored for operating America’s premier seafood restaurant. His palace of gastronomy has glowed ever more brightly in the super supper galaxy since he was anointed ‘Best Chef in New York’. When Eric spoke, he revealed to a wondering world: ‘I don’t want a cow gene in my cabbage. I don’t know exactly what they are doing, but at least everyone has the right to know and then they can decide if they want to eat the food.’

Of course, he is quite right (about the right to know part). He might not have fully understood the bit about the genes. And we can all sympathise. It’s awfully hard for a book-writing big-name, philanthropic, truly brilliant chef who contributes time and money and energy to dozens of worthy causes, many of them hunger-related, and who must prepare hundreds of dinners every night and make sure none of the staff is pilfering the caviar, to find enough time to study microbiology.

The owner of a steakhouse would be mightily cheesed off to discover that a vegetarian had reviewed his restaurant and awarded it no stars – yet this chef and his merry band of followers see little similarity between this analogy and their right and privilege to review science through the prism of a kitchen cabinet. It is awfully puzzling, too, to follow the logic behind chefs’ opposition to splicing two daffodil genes into golden rice while happily stirring crocus stamens (also known as saffron) into a bowl of golden risotto.

I cannot understand why chefs are so emphatically opposed to transferring a gene from a safe-to-eat flounder into a safe-to-eat strawberry (an idea that was a briefly contemplated with the hope of preventing strawberries from disintegrating into a mush when struck by frost). It was a nice try, but didn’t work and so never happened – despite persistent rumours to the contrary.

But supposing it had? How much more awful would it have been than eating fish and chips followed by strawberries and cream? Or, for that matter, tucking into a Mousseline Of Seafood With Champagne Sauerkraut & Sevruga Caviar Served With A Poached Quail Egg Surrounded With Langoustines, Oysters, Squid Tentacles, Lobster And Shrimp And Drizzled With Beurre Blanc Sauce (this being, I kid you not, an actual recent offering on the menu of an upscale restaurant). One can only marvel at the philosophical underpinning that went into that enterprise.

Tony Trewavas, of the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology in Edinburgh, dryly observes: ‘The sheer absurdity of protesting the presence of a single extra gene while contentedly paying the equivalent of three times the monthly utility bill to munch on trillions of genes is – well – tosh!’ If we are to get deeply concerned about mixing up genes, we will almost certainly need to give some serious thought to the idea of two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun.

An inescapable truth is that human DNA hasn’t changed a jot in all the years men and women have inhabited the earth. This remarkable finding holds true whether we hunted and gathered a loin of lion or the eye of newt, or whether our dinner was kippers in the kitchen, or whether we dined in tax-deductible splendour on four kinds of salmon reclining in three different sauces, garnished with two kinds of caviar, topped with a lone crawfish, pirouetting on a single sublime pea.

A study by the product testing organisation Consumers Union found no consistent differences in appearance, flavour, or texture between organically and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The nutritional value and flavour of a carrot has less to do with whether it was fertilised with warm animal manure or something out of a plastic sack, than it has to do with the variety of carrot, how long ago and where it was dug up, how it was stored, and the prevailing weather conditions while it was growing.

And in a small attempt to keep these things in perspective, the late, great restaurateur, Joe Baum reminded us: ‘People don’t come to a restaurant because they¹re hungry. They come for fun and for the pleasure of being together.’


Irena Chalmers has sold over 18million cookbooks. Her latest, The Great Food Almanac, won Chalmers her twelfth award of excellence. She is currently writing Food Matters: The Collision Between Tradition and Technology.

Irena Chalmers will be speaking on ‘Folklore vs. Scientific Lore – Food Biotechnology’ at the Institute of Ideas’ ‘Science, knowledge and humanity – debating the future of progress’, 26 to 28 October, New York City. See here for full details.


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