Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dear Jay

Dear Jay Rayner:
               You don’t know me. In fact, I am sure you don’t know me. And probably you will never read this- after all you are Mr. Important Food Critic at the Guardian and I am Ms. Lowly Blogger of nothing fame, but because I am one of those loathed internet trollers I thought I should write.
            Let me explain. In your Word of Mouth Blog[1] on September 13, 2011 you wrote an essay regarding the G-9 Chefs Summit[2] in Lima, Peru and the manifesto they produced out of that meeting.[3] And if you don’t mind me saying so, it was not very salubrious. To put it in your own words:

“The decision by eight big name chefs (or, to be honest, three really huge names and a bunch of other guys who were thrilled to be in the same company) to convene the so-called G9 summit in Lima, Peru at the end of which they issued a communiqué bigging up their contribution to saving humanity from itself is an act of such self-importance, such ludicrous self-regard you'd need an oxygen tank to help you get
your breath back.”
Well, I think in the spirit of debate in our very civilized society, I think you deserve a proper retort to your accusations.
            For a man who claims to “adore” chefs, I don’t see a lot of love going on here. I guess your main beef with these chefs is their arrogance in thinking that they were the culinary version of Band-Aid, Farm-Aid, We Are the World, Bob Gedolf and Bono at once. But my dear friend, aren’t you the brown-nosed man who placed these chefs at the pinnacle of gastronomic power? Your reviews drive the hype that you so loathe.
            But I digress. What I really want to do is discuss the substance of your missive: Chefs are neither qualified nor influential enough to make a difference with regards to a just and sustainable food system. Beyond your grudging acceptance of René Redzepi and his ultra-locavore mission at Noma[4], you seem happier ridiculing the genuine and sincere efforts of some people to try to make change a food system that is riddled with holes.
            Of course the problems are large. We live in a world in which one population eats too much and other not enough. Big Food is more interested in selling us a bunch of chemicals instead of food that resembles food. Agribusiness is determined to destroy the environment in the name of “food security.” And all the while, the earth is getting hotter and more populous by the minute.
            But my dear Jay, if I may call you that, at least these chefs are making a stab at making the world a better place. Maybe you are one of those defeatists that thought Barack Obama was making a fool of himself to tackle the problems of the Bush administration with all this “hopey” “changey” talk. Or maybe you are one of those class-entrenched Brits who believe "What is wrong with people nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their capabilities?"[5]  Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. just said, “I’m just a black man. I can’t do anything to make the world better. No one is going to listen to me anyhow. Whitey won’t care. I’m just going to keep to myself and let whitey run all over me.”
When was the last time you did something to make the world a better place?

And you, of all people, should know the power of food. For God’s sakes, you are a food critic. Food has the power to comfort, anger, inspire, depress, enthrall, disappoint and whole other range of emotions. Food is about taste but it is also about our selves. Those demonstrations in Cairo against Mubarak? The need to eat ice cream after a bad breakup? Scandals over melamine in milk? The welfare of chickens? E. coli in beef? Scarcity of cod? They all have food in common and if it’s anything that chefs know, it’s the power of food.
And yes, it’s true – all the G9 chefs make very expensive food for very, very rich people. But that is not all they do. Each one of these restaurants support an entire ecosystem of foragers, scientists, anthropologists, ranchers, farmers – people that try to feed the world in a just and sustainable manner. Gastón Acurio runs a cooking school in the slums of Peru. Alex Atala (whose restaurant, DOM, was just named by the Wall Street Journal as the next big place in dining) sources his restaurant from products and people in the Amazonian rain forest. Ferran Adrirà just published a book of 3 course dinners that can be made fewer than 5 Euros a person. René Redzepi doesn’t use olive oil in his cooking because olives are not native to Scandinavia. After Thomas Keller took care of his ailing father, he wrote an entire book of recipes for the home chef.
You may think all these things that these chefs do are just good PR moves to justify their cushy existences as top chefs. But if you ask any of these chefs, when they first started their restaurants, everyone thought they were NUTS. I mean who eats ants? Raw moose heart? Lichen?  But they got people to pay some serious dollars for the experience and maybe, just maybe, think more critically about how they eat and how it affects the world around them. Marx always said that the revolution would start with the bourgeoisie – fine dining is just the start of hopefully a food revolution that ensures just and fair food for all.
So my dear friend, before you start casting stones against those that feed you, I suggest you take a serious look at yourself and ask the questions that these chefs have: How can I make the world a better place? You might find yourself being able to put down all those antacids you’ve been probably chewing on. Dyspepsia doesn’t suit you.

At a time when society is rapidly changing, our profession must actively respond to new challenges.
The culinary profession of today offers a wide variety of opportunities and trajectories. We chefs remain united by a passion for cooking and share the belief that our work is also a way of life.
For us, cooking offers a world of possibilities, allowing us to freely express ourselves, pursue our interests, and fulfill our dreams.
Indeed, we believe that cooking is not only a response to the basic human need of feeding ourselves; it is also more than the search for happiness. Cooking is a powerful, transformative tool that, through the joint effort of co-producers—whether we be chefs, producers or consumers — can change the way the world nourishes itself.
We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a fair and sustainable society.
As members of the International Advisory Board of the Basque Culinary Center, with a broad range of experiences, we keep dreaming about and reflecting upon the challenges to our profession. It is our hope that these reflections will serve as a reference and inspiration for the young people who will become tomorrow’s chefs.
To all of you, we direct this reflection, entitled ‘An Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow’ and signed in Lima on September 10, 2011.
Ferran Adriá, Yukkio Hattori, Massimo Bottura, Michel Bras, René Redzepi, Gastón Acurio, Alex Atala and Dan Barber.

Dear chef,
In relation with nature
1. Our work depends on nature’s gifts. As a result we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature, to use our cooking and our voices as a tool for recovering heirloom and endangered varieties and species, and promoting new ones. In this way we can help protect the earth’s biodiversity, as well as preserve and create flavours and to elaborate culinary methods.
2. Over the course of thousands of years, the dialogue between humans and nature has created agriculture. We are all, in other words, part of an ecological system. To ensure that this ecology is as healthy as possible, let’s encourage and practice sustainable production in the field and in the kitchen. In this way, we can create authentic flavour.
In relation with society
3. As chefs, we are the product of our culture. Each of us is heir to a legacy of flavours, dining customs and cooking techniques. Yet we don’t have to be passive. Through our cooking, our ethics, and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country. We can also serve as an important bridge with other cultures.
4. We practice a profession that has the power to affect the socio-economic development of others. We can have a significant economic impact by encouraging the exportation of our own culinary culture and fomenting others’ interest in it. At the same time, by collaborating with local producers and employing fair economic practices, we can generate sustainable local wealth and financially strengthen our communities.
In relation with knowledge
5. 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.
6. Through our profession, we have the opportunity to generate new knowledge, whether it be something so simple as the development of a recipe or as complicated as an in-depth research project. And just as we have each benefited from the teaching of others, we have a responsibility, in turn, to share our learning.
In relation with values
7. 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. Ultimately, we are each guided by our own ethics and values.

[1] For a link of the essay, click here.
[2] The G9 chefs summit was a meeting held in Lima, Peru on September 10, 2011 to encourage chefs to think ethically and responsibly regarding the types of practices they have in their kitchens and restaurants.
[3] A copy of the Lima Declaration written by the G-9 chefs is at the end of this letter.
[4] Despite your scathing criticism of Redzepi, you write an absolutely sycophantic piece raving about his skills just one week after your commentary was published (click here for the link).
[5] Just in case this line isn’t familiar to you, it’s the line Prince Charles wrote in a memorandum regarding the job promotions in the British Royal household.
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