How much should chefs worry about the sustainability of the ingredients they use, or supporting local producers? Not much, two of the biggest names in cooking said in an interview with The New York Times last week.
“With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” Thomas Keller, the superstar chef behind The French Laundry, in Napa Valley, and New York’s Per Se ( called the world’s sixth best restaurant last week) asked writer Julia Moskin. “The world’s governments should be worrying about carbon footprint.”
And with 12 simple words that no doubt rang out around the world of elite restaurants, Mr. Keller, who is a pioneer of American haute cuisine, also dismissed the current fashion for “fresh and local” above all else. “What restaurant isn’t farm to table?” Mr. Keller asked. “I think about quality, not geography.”
Interviewed alongside Mr. Keller, Andoni Luis Aduriz, the influential chef at Mugaritz (named the world’s third best), near San Sebastian, Spain, said: “Of course I buy as many things as I can nearby. But to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”
You’d think those are fighting words these days.
The rush to fresh and local produce, fish and meat has been one of the most defining ideas in the past decade of cooking, not only here in North America, where it’s been the central (and in many cases, only) idea behind innumerable restaurants, but also in Europe, where foraging local plants and strictly refusing far-away ingredients is gospel in many circles.
Last fall, after a summit of eight of the world’s top chefs in Lima, Peru, a communiqué entitled “Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow,” advised, among other things: “ Our work depends on nature’s gifts As a result we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature.”
It continues: “We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society ... 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 to other cultures ... we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature.”
Yet the response to The New York Times article has been remarkably muted so far. Michael Pollan, the journalist who is an intellectual leader of the local food movement (but not a firebrand, exactly), tweeted: “Do chefs have a political role, or obligations? Not according to these two great ones. Aesthetics trumps all.”
The reason may be because neither chef is arguing against using local produce, or that long-haul ingredients are innately better somehow. (Indeed, both men have built their careers alongside local producers; Mr. Keller was one of the first American chefs to commission local farmers to grow particular produce varieties for him, and in his new cookbook, Mr. Aduriz waxes poetic about the cream from a cow that lives not far from Mugaritz.) The difference now is that the rigidity of the past few years has softened a bit: Use local produce wherever possible, but don’t deny your diners Parmesan cheese or olive oil, or other great international products because it wasn’t produced within 100 miles. Suddenly, it’s the farm-to-table true believers who are finding themselves unpopular these days.
In a memorable interview last year with Details magazine, Momofuku chef David Chang mocked the idea of farm-to-table restaurants. “How else are you supposed to cook? You’re supposed to get the best ingredients possible. Do you want a pat on the back?”
If a chef has a choice between a local, but mildly inferior product, or one shipped from afar, should the local product always win?