Top Chef Sparks Food Responsibility Debate
With international favor and great fame, do the world’s best chefs have a responsibility to the world at large?
Since the birth of international restaurant rankings, a new set of chefs has risen with their names looming large in the international spotlight. But with such a large title as “World’s Best Chef” served up on a platter comes a sense of responsibility that seems to push these chefs beyond just their occupation, into acts of altruism. The current top title holder of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, is one such crusader.
“We have a high profile and visibility in the public eye” Roca said in a phone interview with the AFP from Bangkok. “We have to accept that responsibility and do something positive.”
Recently, Roca returned from Thailand where he participated in the Royal Project – an initiative started by the Thai King in 1969 to eradicate drug production and replace opium poppies with agricultural crops. Farmers turned to such illegal exploits because the drug crops were yielding higher incomes for them, obviously. Roca and another top Thai chef toured Northern Thailand to support the program.
Besides such humanitarian activities, many chefs have also helped to strengthen the pillars of international cuisine through various means, from writing the culinary equivalent of Wikipedia (Adrià) and building major R&D centers on high gastronomy (Adrià and Roca) to hosting international summits that treat food as philosophy (Redzepi).
Roca and his brothers, Josep and Jordi, who form the El Celler de Can Roca team in Girona, Spain were named UN Goodwill Ambassadors earlier this year where they will work with the Fund for Sustainable Development Goals to make food, nutrition and employment accessible within 21 countries.
SOME MEN JUST WANT TO WATCH THE WORLD BURN
On the opposing side of these gastronomic do-gooders are those who may think the chefs, who mainly cater to rich people, have puffed up too much for their own good with visions of grandeur.
One of such person includes Guardian writer Jay Rayner. In 2011, when a group of chefs headlined by Adrià and Redzepi among others, called themselves the G9 and signed a manifesto pledging to save humanity through food, Rayner published a piece denouncing them entitled “Chefs’ manifesto: reality check, please”.
“Yes, of course good chefs ought to be serious about their ingredients,” he wrote. “Yes, they have a responsibility to source stuff ethically. But they also need to remember that they aren’t secular saints. They are chefs cooking dinner for very, very rich people.”
Rayner felt a smudge of hypocrisy at the fact that not only were these chefs harping on goodwill while serving exclusively to well-heeled guests, but he pointed out the irony that “A single meal at one of these restaurants will leave a carbon footprint an elephant could sleep in”. He pessimistically noted too that “what these chefs do is unlikely to have a real impact on the terrifyingly vast food security challenges the planet faces”.
The pragmatist stance that Rayner exemplifies comes from an anxiety towards real problems in a world with a population that may be growing faster than it can handle. He published a book on this issue in 2013 entitled A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, aimed at, among other things, dissolving the ‘myth’ of buying locally (one of the stances that Noma’s René Redzepi is dedicated to) and supporting Farmer’s Markets. Rayner seems to be most afraid of a Malthusian Catastrophe occurring, especially with a projected 9 billion people to feed by the time 2050 comes along. Are these chef-heroes the villains all along when they draw attention away from what’s important?
Perhaps Rayner may feel a bit miffed at what appears to be small scale altruism done solely for marketing purposes while an apocalyptic scenario seems to be looming on the horizon, and it probably seems to him especially irritating when they do it in such a grandiose self-congratulatory way (we all get a bit suspicious whenever a large profitable company doles out a huge charity initiative – overcompensating much?). Striking out against these chefs in a biting sarcastic way may set up too easily a dichotomy of a ‘good vs evil battle’, especially when the world itself is the issue at stake. Greater discussion and deliberation in a rational and calm way seems to be most productive.
In a world where the bad guys are future global crises wrapped up in nature itself, you have to admit that everyone plays the part of the villain together. In this case, we all need to have a bit of the will and ambition to be a superhero, no matter how arrogantly self-serving it seems.
Images are courtesy of The Royal Project