Chefs : Big Business or Beacons of New Food Systems?

Carol Choi, FLF student


“The Gods of Food” (2013).  It wasn’t the first time Rene Redzepi, chef of then world’s best restaurant Noma, appeared on a Time magazine cover.  The subtitle, “the people who influence what (and how) you eat” captures perfectly the changing roles of a chef, now that they’ve infiltrated the spotlight.


As fewer people cook at home, they’ve come to rely on chefs to know about food.  Food, essential as it is, has become a field for professionals.  The responsibility of creating that lack of confidence in the first place can be, of course, placed on big food industry with their lab coats, health codes, and marketing.  And yet, even well-meaning chefs may be contributing to this phenomenon.


In a moment where the food sovereignty movement is gaining a lot of traction, chefs have been promoting some of its terms, perhaps without ever even having heard of it.  (You can read on the six pillars of food sovereignty here.)


When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, she didn’t have a political agenda.  What set out as a desire to create a place her friends would enjoy, became one of America’s iconic restaurants championing fresh, seasonal and local produce.  She had a tremendous impact during a time when fine dining meant eating global luxuries, such as caviar from Russia, wines and foie gras from France.


By 2000, the concept of seasonal and local were already well underway in New York, with chefs toting produce from local farmers at Union Square’s Greenmarket.  Yet seasonal and local were often used as supplementals on menus.  Dan Barber changed this concept slightly, but bravely, to have the farm dictate his menu at Blue Hill.  He later opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns, bringing the restaurant directly to the farm, emphasizing the complete dependency of his menu to the land.


In Europe, Rene from Denmark championed the idea of culturally local, with his new nordic cuisine of Noma.  The local, seasonal movement transformed to one that celebrated cultural heritage, often looking past the dominant trends of the time in search of traditions past as inspiration for something new.


Kobe Desramaults of Belgium promoted nature inspired cuisine at In De Wulf.  Part of the day’s work for cooks would be to forage wild edibles.  Magnus Nilsson of Favïken in Sweden also brings the concept of wild into local, serving game birds shot by the on-grounds gameskeeper, or scallops hand-dived in the nearby arctic coast of Norway.  While all these restaurants have strongly supported locals who produce sustainably, perhaps their most important impact on food culture is that they’ve looked outside the dominant systems of not only industrial food, but even of farmed food.  It opened up the concept of from where we can get our food.


In the global south, the local and cultural movement turned to one that honored traditional knowledge.  Alex Atala at D.O.M. in Brazil championed foods of the Amazon, bringing ants onto a menu of fine dining.  Francis Mallman has highlighted the cooking techniques indigenous to Patagonia.  Jock Zonfrillo of Orana in Australia looks to the knowledge of the Aborigines.  As we look towards traditional knowledge in our restaurants, we not only respect culture, traditions, and social networks, we celebrate diversity.


However, restaurants don’t exist solely for altruistic reasons.  They are, above all, for profit.  As chefs made the jump to entrepreneurs, they’ve increasingly looked to rather corporate models of business.


Horizontal integration amongst the culinary elite is now rampant.  Nowadays, chef-owners who open to great success will ride on publicity to open a whole slew of restaurants in short-succession.  David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants span over 11 locations from the US to Canada and even Australia.  Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske opened Wildair, just over a year after they opened their first venture, Contra.


There’s also a growing trend of increasing vertical integration.  Dan Barber supplies his own menu from his own farm.  Matt Orlando of Amass grows an urban garden, feeding his vermicompost with all his kitchen scraps.  Christian Puglisi, who went on to open six businesses in the course of six years, added a farm to his list.  He not only imports wines for the restaurants through his own import company, he also supplies many of his own vegetables, as well as the raw milk for his in-restaurant cheese making. Funnily enough, he also plans to create a workshop and school to promote his links from farm to restaurant—slightly similar to how the pomegranate industry funded research on the benefits of pomegranates.


Most of these chefs have also spread their brand as authors/publishers—of cookbooks, magazines, food history, and cultural musings.  Often published in multiple languages, books are a great way to keep their media presence alive.  And in a situation where they can’t bring their restaurants around the world (that is, if you’re not Noma), it makes them accessible.


And in these forms of growth, they don’t necessarily open networks of the same small producers who provide for them.  And a nordic cook book you read in either Denmark or Australia, will make the food seem irrelevant to your own kitchen as the ingredients would be inaccessible.  It further imparts the message that this food is only for the professionals.


In the spread of chefs as entrepreneurs, farmers, authors, public speakers, and even research consultants, we reinforce the idea of chefs as the experts on food.  Their wide-spanning presence feeds into people’s lack of confidence.  It creates a system that makes profit on the idea that they know, and you don’t.


And along the way, I can’t help thinking of the local farmers, now relegated to the side-lines, or the homogenization of the culinary elite as they spread their brands.  In ways, their celebrity gives chefs a strong platform to deliver a message of the need for and suggestions for change in our food culture.  Yet, in the changing business model of chef as brand, I often find the key message of food sovereignty as empowering community is dangerously missing.  They can effectively create change, only if they give access and ownership of food systems to the public.







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