Seasonal food only? F*** off
Toilet-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has suggested we should only eat food ‘in season’. That would mean letting Nature tell us what to do.
‘Chefs should be fined if they haven’t got ingredients in season on their menu. I don’t want to see asparagus in the middle of December, I don’t want to see strawberries from Kenya in the middle of March.’ Gordon Ramsay, the world’s sweariest chef, believes we should be eating local, seasonal food. What the fuck?
‘I want to see it homegrown. There should be stringent laws, fines and licensing laws to make sure produce is only used in season. If we get this legislation pushed through parliament then the more unique this country will become’, added Ramsay, suggesting that we should be concerned with creating a distinctive national food culture and cutting down on food miles (1).
There have been plenty of people lining up to point out the hypocrisy of Ramsay’s position. Food critic Jay Rayner, writing in the Observer, was reduced to nausea: ‘His declaration… that chefs who use ingredients that are neither local nor seasonal ought to be fined did make the bile rise. This is a man who operates a restaurant in Dubai, for God’s sake, where absolutely nothing is local or seasonal. Everything arrives there from somewhere else, according to whatever season happens to be in progress in whichever hemisphere happens to be the most convenient at the time.’ (2)
Even in his London restaurants, there are plenty of ingredients on Ramsay’s menus that are far from seasonal and local. TV chef Anthony Worrall Thompson told the Telegraph: ‘I trawled through his menus from Claridges and Maze and there were at least 15 items that would have warranted a fine.’ (3)
Strangely, while there were plenty of people willing to point out Ramsay’s hypocrisy or question the practicality of criminalising the importation of food when the UK cannot grow enough food to meet its needs, most commentators seemed to think Ramsay had a point. His co-presenter on Channel 4’s The F-Word, and fellow member of the rent-a-gob union, Janet Street-Porter, was quick to defend Ramsay from his critics: ‘He has a point, only slightly undermined by his driving a gas-guzzling vehicle and spending most of his time jetting around the globe to oversee his rapidly expanding restaurant empire. Eating out should mean we have a chance to enjoy great food created with local produce, rather than fish, meat and exotic veg flown in from the other side of the planet.’ (4)
The fact that such an approach to ‘strawberries from Kenya’ might have a negative impact on producers in the developing world has been widely ignored. It took Duncan Green from the charity Oxfam – an organisation with a dubious attachment to ‘sustainable development’ – to point this out: ‘I’m sure the million farmers in East Africa who rely on exporting their goods to scrape a living would see Gordon Ramsay’s assertions as a recipe for disaster.’ (5)
This latest furore is typical of the confused discussion of food today. This was made clear to me recently during a debate I took part in at London’s Real Food Festival. Ecologist publisher and Conservative Party environment adviser, Zac Goldsmith, told the gathered audience that local food was crucial – perhaps even more important for green foodies than organic food. But when a member of the audience who lived in inner-city London asked the panel how she could eat ‘local’ food, Goldsmith was a bit stuck. It depends, said the billionaire’s son, offering that ‘local’ might mean the Caribbean if you were talking about bananas. So, ‘local’ means anywhere within 4,500 miles?
In truth, the Real Food Festival illustrated the importance of going beyond local food for the sake of the kind of small, quirky producers so beloved of foodies and greens. While pottering around the stalls before the debate, I tried three-year-matured parmesan cheese from Italy, fruit-flavoured wine from Scotland and ready-made stews and soups from Yorkshire. One Shropshire pig farmer – sick of selling to the supermarkets for little or no profit – was selling direct to customers in London, roughly 200 miles away. Good for him – but it’s hardly local, is it?
As for seasonal food, why shouldn’t we aim to have all foods available to us all-year-round? In this respect, we should follow what Ramsay practises, not what we preaches. Why should we only be able to enjoy strawberries in the summer and autumn, or asparagus during the narrow northern season? Ramsay does have one slight point: sometimes this out-of-season produce isn’t quite as tasty as the domestic, in-season equivalent. But that is a minor point. Far better to make these things available and allow us to choose than bow down before Mother Nature and put up with what she deigns to give us.
If eating such food has negative consequences for the planet – and it is far from clear that it does – then surely the right approach is to figure out how to get the benefits of a global food market without the negative side effects. But this problem-solving approach doesn’t fit into the moralising and often authoritarian approach to consumption so typical today, exemplified by Ramsay’s demand to criminalise chefs.
Even worse was Ramsay’s less-reported comment about TV food goddess Delia Smith’s new book, How to Cheat at Cooking. Smith has endeavoured to get as much of the benefit of made-from-scratch cooking while finding ways to cut a few corners. Trying to find a halfway house between the slog of ‘proper’ cooking and the takeaway should have received the approval of Ramsay, who has campaigned in the past to get people cooking more. No chance. ‘I would expect students struggling on £15 a week to survive eating from a can but the nation’s favourite, all-time icon reducing us down to using frozen, canned food – it’s an insult’, he said (6). As I can testify from personal experience, Smith’s new recipes are, by and large, excellent. Of course, Ramsay isn’t going to use tinned meat in his cooking (though it is surprising how many top restaurants buy their chips from McCain’s). But to seek to impose his snobbery on the rest of us really is an insult.
In the past, Ramsay was the TV chef who stood for excellence and took little interest in politically-correct concerns about food miles and sustainability. But in recent times, perhaps because he’s been spending too much time in the company of campaigning cooks like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, he’s started to come out with just the same junk ideas that they promote. As the vulgar-tongued Ramsay might put it, this more-ethical-than-thou approach to food is just fucking shit.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Rob Lyons showed that there’s no mileage in food miles and argued that cheaper chicken was a slap in the face for food snobs. Justine Brian defended Delia Smith. Mick Hume examined the way the authorities hide behind celebrity experts. Or read more at spiked issue Food.
(1) Ramsay’s war on out-of-season produce, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2008
(2) Ramsay’s bad case of pots and kettles, Observer, 11 May 2008
(3) Ramsay’s war on out-of-season produce, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2008
(4) We’ve put the wrong Gordon in charge, Independent on Sunday, 11 May 2008
(5) Bloggers grill Ramsay’s seasonal food call, Guardian, 10 May 2008
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