A friend of mine sent back the duck confit we ordered the other night in a restaurant in Toronto. He told the maitre d' it wasn't salty enough. He's a serious and discerning foodie, and I admired his send-back cojones even as I cringed with embarrassment. Perhaps it was the fact that we'd begun the meal with an $18 plate of horse tartare, an excess on any number of embarrassing levels. (Not least of which was my habit of saying "Hi-ho, Silver!" after each bite.) I understand his right as a paying customer to return the brine-challenged duck. But it felt like too much privilege by half, and one more glaring example of self-indulgent foodism.
There has apparently been entirely too much of that lately. A vocal band of critics has declared open season on foodies, organics, localism, and sustainability. Two decades in, the movement that created a new global food consciousness is being slagged as the enemy not just of common sense, but of humanity. The attacks fall into two camps.
One is practical. Global food prices, comatose for years, hit record highs again in January and February, raising the spectre of global food supply. According to the food movement's critics, the sustainable, the local and the organic will never be able to satisfy the world's hunger. A 14-page special report in The Economist last week baldly declared, as only a magazine that has been partly owned by a Rothschild bank can, that "the reaction against intensive farming is a luxury of the rich...It cannot feed the world."
Then there are the aesthetic objectors to the food movement, a snippy bunch who claim foodies are elitest, cruel, economically fatuous and--according to their leader B. R. Myers, in a controversial diatribe entitled "The Moral Case Against Foodies," in last month's Atlantic Monthly--lousy writers to boot. Myers is a vegan (a detail he doesn't disclose in his essay), but his disdain is omniverous. "It has always been crucial to the gourmet's pleasure that he eat in ways the mainstream cannot afford," Myers writes in an opening salvo. Heaven only knows what he makes of the new breed of ultra-strict Manhattan restaurateurs who refuse to let customers drink espresso in paper cups or eat ketchup with their gourmet fries.
I have to admit, as someone whose culinary philosophy is summed up in the phrase yes, thank you, I will, that I too have qualms about foodies--or "food crazies," as they were once called. They can be judgmental about foods lots of people quite like (I'm not mentioning any names, but Kraft Dinner comes to mind), and they can display a tendency to wienerism . As a result I was slightly hesitant when I was invited to spend 10 days at Ontario's exclusive Stratford Chefs School. The Stratford Chefs School is a hotbed of elite foodie-ism, and teeming with people whose devotion to the pleasures of appetite is almost unseemly. The dangers were many. But someone had to make the sacrifice.
The first thing you learn hanging around chefs is that most of them disdain even the word "foodie."
This moment of clarity occurred to me in John Bex's pastry class. Seventy students enroll every year at the Stratford Chefs school, which over 27 years has developed a quiet but global reputation for producing high-end owner-chefs (as opposed to line cooks in hotel kitchens). The first-year students attend practicums in the kitchen and classes on everything from gastronomy to the esoterics of waiter movement (the hands of a server should never rise above his or her navel). The second years attend more classes, and then prepare 5 course meals for 40 diners every weeknight under the supervision of a string of master chefs visiting from around the world.
I decided to attend pastry class because I like to think I make quite a good pavlova. I didn't really begin to cook with any seriousness until I moved to Los Angeles in my thirties with my wife. California was a bountiful place. You could walk into the Hollywood branch of Whole Foods, breathe in mounds of fresh strawberries selling for 22 cents a pint, and come upon Roseanna Arquette, the actress, leaning into the dairy case in an orange velour catsuit. She gave new meaning to the word organic.