Chefs of the world: get over yourselves

Some of the world’s top chefs have made a high-profile plea for local, sustainable, ‘authentic’ food. Yuk.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Some of the best chefs in the world have been getting together in Lima as members of the International Advisory Board of the Basque Culinary Center. At the event, they produced an open letter which sets out their views on cooking and its relationship to the world.

The signatories included: Ferran Adriá (formerly of El Bulli in Spain, perhaps the best restaurant of recent years); René Redzepi (of Noma in Copenhagen, current holder of the World’s Best Restaurant title); Gastón Acurio (a Peruvian restaurateur who is ‘a combination of a Che Guevara and a Bono’, according to one of his fellow chefs); Alex Atala (of DOM in São Paulo, Brazil) and Dan Barber (of Blue Hill in New York City). Sadly absent was Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck at Bray, near London, who had to miss the gathering for ‘personal reasons’.

This is a collection of famous chefs who certainly seem to be at the cutting edge of their craft. But their letter shows the way that the pursuit of culinary pleasure and excellence has been corrupted by the reactionary fads of our times. In the spirit of their open letter, I offer one of my own.

Dear chefs,

I would like to be a great admirer of your collective works. However, I’ve never had enough money to eat in your elite restaurants, so I’ll just have to trust that you really are the best in the business. I read with interest your recent Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow. It clearly expresses your views on the way you think cooking should be done and how the restaurant business can interact with the rest of the world. But what you are suggesting is just nonsense. You should stop talking to your well-off customers and the food industry’s dreadful hangers on, and get a sense of perspective.

You write: ‘Our work depends on nature’s gifts.’

Well, only in the sense that we produce food by eating plants and animals. You note the existence of agriculture, created about 10,000 years ago, but we are not in a ‘dialogue’ with nature – we’re trying to control and exploit nature so as to produce the food we want. We now eat plants and animals that could not exist but for human intervention in breeding, and those plants and animals are in turn nurtured by numerous artificial inputs including machinery, irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides, weather forecasts, GPS satellite positioning, and a host of techniques honed over centuries. Your existence at the high end of the restaurant trade is predicated on the ability of people to feed themselves cheaply and reliably the rest of the time. Food is humanity’s bounty, not nature’s.

If we are still part of an ‘ecological system’, it is only because of our failure to completely overcome nature. Food production should be ‘sustainable’, it is true, in the sense that it would be moronic to produce food in a manner that rapidly destroyed soil fertility or that was poisonous. But despite claims to the contrary, our soils are generating more food than at any time in human history. Your worship of nature would actually lead us to produce less food, more expensively: what’s sustainable about that?

‘As chefs, we are the product of our culture.’

Again, sort of. But while every national culinary tradition has something to applaud, such traditions are the product of limits. They come about because different foods work best in different climates and circumstances. While much of the pleasure of eating out or travelling is in discovering new foods, combinations and methods, chefs should never be beholden to tradition any more than national and regional cultures should be preserved in aspic. While you rightly say that chefs can ‘serve as an important bridge with other cultures’, ultimately there should just be one great body of culinary practice and ingredients – the world – from which everyone can share, and mix-and-match to find pleasurable new experiences.

When it comes to the obsession with ‘local’, you write ‘by collaborating with local producers and employing fair economic practices, we can generate sustainable local wealth and financially strengthen our communities’. Doesn’t that really just mean you will promote the notion of ‘local’ and ‘authentic’ as a way of charging people more (even if some of that money is going to farmers) rather than producing and preparing food in the most efficient way?

‘Although a primary goal of our profession is to provide happiness and stir emotions, through our own work and by working with experts in the fields of health and education, we have a unique opportunity to transmit our knowledge to members of the public, helping them, for example, to acquire good cooking habits, and to learn to make healthy choices about the foods they eat.’

Please, stop now. St Jamie of Oliver is doing quite enough on behalf of chefs to scare us about what we eat without you lot joining in. Authoritarian busybodies have spent the past two or three decades lecturing us about our eating habits. They now want to exploit your reputations as chefs to justify their prescriptions. You may be flattered by the attention, but those miserable puritans have nothing in common with you.

Good food – especially restaurant food – is about pleasure and excess. It’s about oodles of butter, oil, salt and vino. It’s about staggering away from the table stuffed but happy. The petty puritans of the health lobby want low-fat, low-salt and no booze, in mean and miserable portions. If you go along with that health agenda, it will only prove you’re not the sharpest knives in the cutlery drawer.

You say that ‘just as we have each benefited from the teaching of others, we have a responsibility, in turn, to share our learning’. That’s a very positive attitude. But please don’t bother trying to educate us with your various prejudices about the world and just concentrate on passing on your experience on the only question you have genuine expertise in: how to produce tasty food.

‘We live in a time in which cooking can be a beautiful form of self-expression. Cooking today is a field in constant evolution that includes many different disciplines. For that reason, it’s important to carry out our quests and fulfill our dreams with authenticity, humility, and above all, passion.’

Well, that’s a bit more like it. The idea that cooking is somehow on a par with art is, I think, rather self-aggrandising – as I think you’re hinting at with the ‘self-expression’ idea – but the popularity of cookery on TV and through books shows that people do enjoy it and take pleasure from it. And one appreciates really good cooks all the more when you have some experience of cooking yourself. That said, I don’t have much time for ‘authenticity’ – it seems, in fact, rather contradictory next to the notion of ‘constant evolution’ and suggests an unhealthy bowing down to fixed ideas of what food should be and how it should be done. Chefs should be learning the ‘rules’ about how food is traditionally done, but only with an eye to finding creative ways to break them and improve upon them.

Face it, guys. What you do isn’t about food at all. You’re an expensive and exclusive branch of the entertainment industry; you have more in common with high opera than family dinners. And in that respect, I wouldn’t want you to change a thing (except, perhaps, those prices). But please don’t use your success and reputation to parrot the sickly prejudices of the foodie crowd.



Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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