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Gourmets are egotists and pleasure is a right

Over the last two decades, journalist and political activist Carlo Petrini has led the grassroots Slow Food movement - which began as a critique of fast food fast life - and watched it grow into a global phenomenon with nearly 100,000 members in 150 countries around the world. This past weekend, Mr. Petrini was in Toronto to receive an Eco-Hero award from the Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival. He also met with Slow Food leaders from across Canada who had gathered in Toronto to incorporate Slow Food Canada.

The Globe and Mail spoke to him on his first visit to English-speaking Canada.

Never before has food been such a popular topic in newspapers, magazines and on television. Does this mean progress?

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We are in the presence of many paradoxes. We have never talked so much about food, and yet we have never had so much soil that is infertile, or a water table so polluted.

We have never talked so much about food, and yet farmers are disappearing. We have never talked so much about food, and yet it has never been less tasty. Everywhere, all over the world, at every hour of the day, there is always someone on television with a frying pan. You get the recipe, the aesthetic vision of food, but not the history or where it comes from. It risks becoming food pornography. We need instead a new gastronomy, a fuller vision of gastronomy.

What kind of food should we be eating?

Food must be good to eat, because it must be pleasurable. It must be clean, because the production must respect the environment. It must be fair because it must respect those who work the land. If one of those things is not present, quality is not there.

There must be a fair price for the people who produce our food, and a fair price for the co-producer. A fair price does not mean a low price.

How can we afford to pay more for our food when our budgets are shrinking with the economic recession?

Why don't we look at what we waste, instead of what we spend? In Italy, we throw away 4,000 tones of food everyday. If we waste less, we can afford to consume better.

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You prefer to call consumers "co-producers." Why?

Because we can decide what we consume - this is where our power lies. We are all accomplices of the current system. When you go home, open your refrigerator and see what a family tomb it is! The parsley is dying, little jars are filled with mould. The refrigerator was invented to preserve food, not to bury it.

What do you say to people who call Slow Food elitist and see it as a gourmet tasting club rather than a political movement?

The day we become elitist, we have lost our mission. I think we are called elitist because society has a bad relationship with food and pleasure. Slow Food wants to reconcile pleasure with duty. Pleasure is a universal right. And responsibility is a universal duty.

What are your impressions of Canada?

There's so much biodiversity. You have such a lively, vital society - a country where so many cultures intersect. It's a great workshop. And you have many chefs with a lot of creativity. What makes me passionate about this new generation of chefs is that they are very attentive to local products and local farmers.

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Still, we don't come from a strong food culture and heritage like yours in Italy.

But you're creating it, you're constructing it.

What's unique about Canada's Slow Food movement?

Canada and the U.S. are pretty much similar. You are creating a new historical heritage in North America. Farmers' markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) - these are North American concepts that we are now adopting in Europe. And microbreweries. When I first visited the United States, there were only two kinds of beer available. Now there are more than 4,000.

You have written that pleasure is not just sensual but also intellectual, and that the gourmet takes a sensual pleasure in food while a gastronome also takes in intellectual pleasure in it.

A gastronome has a vision that is more holistic, interdisciplinary and complex. A gourmet just focuses on the pleasure of the dish. He is an egotist. I think a gastronome must be an environmentalist. A gastronome who is not an environmentalist is stupid. And an environmentalist who is not a gastronome is sad.

For many people, you are the spirit and embodiment of the Slow Food movement. What will happen to the organization when you are no longer around to lead it?

It will continue - no one is indispensable. Slow Food is a movement that is austerely anarchic.

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