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Should great chefs also be environmental spokespeople?

May 30, 2012 |  4:34 pm

Thomas KellerThomas Keller set off a firestorm (well, how about an Internet tempest?) the other day when he was quoted in a New York Times story saying something that sounded to some people like a denigration of the sustainability movement. Sparks flew.

Now he’s addressed the topic more fully on the Facebook page for his Finesse magazine. But after reading it, I’m not sure it’s going to fully satisfy his critics.

First, the original statement, which came in a piece on the debut of a new cookbook by Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz:

"With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?" Mr. Keller asked. "The world’s governments should be worrying about carbon footprint."

A little later, he added: "What restaurant isn’t farm to table? I think about quality, not geography."

And then: "Is global food policy truly our responsibility, or in our control? I don’t think so."

In the new statement, he explained: 

Yes, we must all have sensitivity to expending resources in a finite world. Of course the resources required to ship products to a restaurant are a piece of this puzzle. Denying this is foolhardy. But true sustainability has multiple dimensions. 

For example, one of the precepts of any sustaining business is quality. It’s a foundational element -- have it and you can weather most economic conditions, not have it or lose it and you eventually die. The only variable is the end date. Equally true is the higher the level of product or service offered, the higher the quality demanded. Just as it should be. We take pride in the level of quality at all of our restaurants.... And we know this attention to quality had been a sustaining element for us to successfully make our way through the recent economic downturn and continue to provide good jobs to our employees.

 A critical piece of this quality story is our broad network of suppliers, gardeners, farmers, fishermen and foragers. We believe we have chosen the best, and when we do we establish long-term relationships. That’s allowed them to set up their own sustaining networks that help provide jobs and contributions to their local communities -- either in geographic area or particular type of business.

Now, I should say that Thomas Keller is a regular contributor to the Food section as well as an old friend. There are few people in the food world that I respect more. So maybe I’m biased (no, actually, there’s no maybe about it). But it seems to me that what he said is sensible.

Sustainability is a complex subject, with lots of unexpected twists (who would have thought it would be more energy-efficient for the British to import New Zealand sheep than rely on home-grown?).  Often what seems to be perfectly obvious is actually far from that. Sustainability seems to be one of those subjects that becomes more complex the more you study it rather than less. It’s a serious topic with even more serious ramifications and it's one that does take some expertise to sort out. Espousing what seem to be easy, black-and-white answers without having done adequate homework is simplistic and superficial.

Chefs certainly should do everything they can in their restaurants to operate as efficiently and sustainably as possible. Indeed, that should be part of the basics of good business. (And along those lines, Keller was honored last year as the chef of the year at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions sustainability conference.)

But I don't necessarily think chefs need to take on the responsibility of going beyond that. I mean, they’re cooks, right? Not climate scientists. Shouldn't concentrating on the piece of this complex puzzle they can actually control be enough? Isn't it enough to be sustainable in your own kitchen and support people who are doing the same?

Admittedly, this seems to be a minority point of view these days. Chefs, by dint of their celebrity status, are assumed to be qualified to address any topic relating to food. There are those who have eagerly picked up this challenge, and there are even some who seem to think past bumper sticker slogans and actually contribute to the conversation.

But does that need to be part of the responsibilities of a chef? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d no more expect a cook to be able to expound on the intricacies of carbon footprint than I would expect a scientist to prepare a 12-course tasting menu.

Let’s let each do what they do best and, hopefully, learn from each other.


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Photo: Thomas Keller. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times