Approximate reading time: 10 minutes
Chefs care. It’s a profession marked out by passion. By love of food. By kitchen teams forged in challenging conditions. By quests to redefine what and how we eat. With new fine dining dishes often taking six months or more to develop. Recently this care has extended beyond the restaurant and into the social and environmental domain.
But what to do, if you are a chef that cares? Couldn’t it be incongruous, or even hypocritical, to declare virtue in an elite fine-dining restaurant? Sustainability is about solving social and environmental problems. To engage in a meaningful way, it is helpful to understand what the problems are, rather than just jumping on the sustainability bandwagon.
Earlier this year a group of chefs, commentators, and experts gathered to discuss this topic in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy, at an annual event hosted by Michelin 3-Starred chef Norbert Niederkofler and an organisation he co-founded called CARE’s. There were 28 Michelin stars held among the chefs at the event, as well as up-and-coming chefs at all levels down to college students, journalists, commentators, and sustainability experts. The food was sublime. But most people at this event eat awesome food every week. What drew them from North and South America, Australia, Asia and Europe was a question: what can we do?
One theme that emerged in discussions was that sustainability is now a ‘fashion’. But while chef after chef will talk about sustainability at events like Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, there was a question about how many understand what sustainability actually means in food. If you go to a sustainable transport event you hear about electric vehicles, fuel efficiency, routing, smart cities and logistics... It has a defined agenda. People know what is needed most and what the solutions are. This article is an attempt to outline such an agenda for chefs.
What can a chef do? A lot, as it turns out. And a lot more than the superficial ‘sustainability’ you see everywhere, like serving tap water, reducing food waste and excess packaging, and energy-efficient lighting. These are visible to guests, so you could argue that they help make sustainable lifestyles more fashionable. But if you really want to make a difference, you have to go beyond that. There are seven current global challenges where restaurants can make much more of a ‘live or die’ impact. And in the process you can also make a great restaurant even more amazing, the conference demonstrated.
We Need to Cook Within Limits
Norbert Niederkoflerhas won global recognition for his restaurant St Hubertus, achieving his 3rd Michelin star in 2018. He told me that St Hubertus is the only 3-starred restaurant in the world not to sell any dishes containing French ingredients – France is too far away. In 2011, St Hubertus decided only to use local ingredients sourced directly from farmers. No foie gras. No finger potatoes from Australia. Not even tomatoes, as these don’t grow locally in South Tyrol. Their dishes gain their acidity through substitutes like fermented plums.
When they introduced the concept, however, Niederkofler received an email from someone high up at Michelin, saying what he was up to was a “disgrace”. That they could lose their stars. Niederkofler called his chefs together and gave them a printout of this email to think about overnight. The next day they unanimously agreed to press ahead, whatever the consequences. Two years later, far from being stripped of their honours, they got their third star.
Eating local food in season is a global trend, led by those who really care about food. What Neiderkofler and other leading chefs at the CAREs event do is confer authority and aspiration. They give it the ‘Royal Wedding factor’. This is vital in persuading less adventurous consumers and restaurants to follow step. And there is a broader global movement to reduce food miles. The average item on an American dinner plate (according to Walmart) travelled 1500 miles. It’s a tragic waste to grow food one place, ship it to another to be washed, another to be packaged. It’s also terrible for its taste and condition.
Healthy Soil Can Avert Climate Change
Speaking of San Francisco, Dominique Crenn is an amazing chef who puts her art and soul into food. Hearing Crenn talk at the event was inspiring. Watching her cook with her partner was magical, almost like watching a ballet. Atalier Crenn, the French-born chef’s Michelin 3-starred restaurant reflects passion in every detail – from a menu containing poetry to activist-themed dishes commenting on Trump’s Mexican Wall.
Perhaps the most significant cause Crenn has supported, from a sustainability point of view, is Healthy Soil. According to scientists, healthy soil may be our main chance of averting catastrophic climate change, and one of the few solutions with wholly positive economic and social impacts. Crenn teamed up with other legendary American chefs, like Dan Barber and Corey Lee, to promote the Chefs for Soil initiative Crenn explained: “Food is the core of society. But we have to really understand where that core is. The core of it is having healthy soil”.
Many of the farming methods this involves were known to our grandfathers; perennial grasses that restore soil carbon, cover cropping, rotation, and composting. The result is loamy, rich soil, packed with micro-organisms, that grows better tasting produce. What’s not to love?
According to the French initiative 4 pour 1000, if 0.4% more carbon was stored in soil annually across the world, this action alone would be sufficient to halt the growth in carbon emissions. Healthy soil also grows more food, and could help meet the expected 60% increase in global food demand by 2050, as well as tackling local problems of food security. It is hence crucially important that celebrity chefs like Crenn highlight this issue. Brands are waking up to this, too, and a recent soil-supporting initiative is the Regenerative Organic Certification. Scientists currently say we have around 12 years left to tackle climate change – if chefs and brands are successful in promoting healthy soil, it could literally ‘save the world’.
Make Healthy Options Desirable
Cooking just across from Crenn and her team on the final night of CARE’s, David Kinch – another legendary Michelin 3-starred chef from California – produced what my table felt was the other standout dish of the week; beetroot with pickled black truffle. Kinch gave a talk earlier that day sharing his approach to foodwith an audience of chefs including students at the local culinary college. GQ described Kinch as a ‘Culinary Mad Hatter’, yet he warned the audience never to stray too far in the search for ‘interesting’ from serving simply delicious food.
Kinch’s restaurant Manresa is known for making fruit and vegetable the star of the plate, rather than the garnish. He does cook with animal protein, but takes care, for instance, to avoid serving fish out of season. Moving to a more plant-based diet is important in battling the growing global epidemic of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and immunity disorders. Celebrity chefs like Kinch and Crenn play a huge role in inspiring new generations of foodies to eat healthily. The meat-heavy diet spreading from the West to the developing world puts an unbearable weight on the planet’s resources and is a significant driver of carbon emissions. Meanwhile the monocrop industrial agriculture responsible for the corn in the syrup in every supermarket pasta sauce, bread, and soft drink is impoverishing the soil. Changing the way that animals are kept and grazed can also make a huge difference, which is why chefs who source directly and understand farming can be so influential.
Save Food Traditions from Extinction
For all the benefits of our global melting pot culture, there is a significant danger of losing diversity, our cultural roots, and bounties of nature. When we lose this connection, we lose everything. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict once reported in a poignant way:
‘A chief talked to me a great deal about the ways of his people in the old days. “In the beginning,” he said, "God gave to every people a cup, a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life. They all dipped in the water, but their cups were different. Our cup is broken now. It has passed away."’
-- Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture (1959)
In the case of food culture, losing these traditions would mean losing millennia of transmitted knowledge on health, taste, and techniques related to thousands of wild and cultivated ingredients. This threat of food knowledge extinction is something Scottish-born Jock Zonfrillo – chef at Orana, Australia’s best restaurant in 2019 – is tackling by working with indigenous people.
Zonfrillo presented Orana Foundation at the CARE’s event, its database having catalogued 1500 ingredients. For instance, some roots are nutritious and delicious but only if made digestible by being salted for several days first. Orana also co-designed a building that can easily be assembled, used and maintained in remote areas for processing and storing foods, and launched a wild honey project. It was conducted with the utmost cultural sensitivity, so that some elements of the database are only available to members of the tribe who contributed them or to groups that their traditions specify. And all are owned by Indigenous people, rather than being open to exploitation by the first major food company to come across them.
Preserving biodiversity in natural environments requires integrating them into economic systems, ensuring that biodiversity is valued more than land clearance. The discovery of beneficial foods, treatments, techniques, and medicines from traditional wisdom is one way to further this.
Projects like Orana’s are urgent. The generations who hold the knowledge are getting older. Within 20 years, the knowledge could die with them. Jock talked about how the honey project had been a great hook to get kids ‘who just love honey’ involved, the bigger win being that the grandmothers who ran the scheme could pass on information about the old ways to them.
Indigenous people are at the frontline of protecting biodiversity. They often stand against developers and industries at personal risk. A report by the MacArthur Foundation acknowledged that Indigenous people are ‘key conservation actors’ and ‘their territories overlap with all the biodiverse regions of the world’. And yet they ‘make up one third of the world ́s poor’. As Zonfrillo’s talk illustrated, Indigenous people know a lot about how to live with nature, within nature’s bounds. If we lose touch with their wisdom and way of life, we will all lose a big chunk of our humanity.
Communities with Food at Heart
Food for Soul is a non-profit founded by chef Massimo Bottura and his wife Lara Gilmore. It enables communities to turn food waste into social inclusion. Their Refettorio offer free meals for the local homeless, creating spaces where people feel welcomed and valued, where guests are encouraged to sit together and talk, bringing a wonderful sense of community that extends to the volunteers who learn to cook and serve amazing food.
Lara Gilmore presented Food & Soul at CARE’s. She also interviewed Dominique Crenn, who has cooked in Food for Soul’sRefettorio. The cuisine has to be imaginative in using whatever turns up that day as ingredients, uncompromising in quality, this standard extending to the architecture, lighting and tables, the art, the silverware and crockery. The idea started in Milan, where the couple set out to tackle the mountain of food waste created by Expo. In their first year they used 15 tonnes of perfectly good leftover food. To make the best use of these ingredients, the chefs at Refettorio researched ways that their grandparents’ generation would avoid waste, whether that be vegetable peel or hard bread. The next Refettorio opened in Rio during the Olympics, and two more in Paris and London, with further planned for the USA and Mexico.
Food waste is a key sustainability issue. Over one third of food produced globally goes to waste – a capacity valuing one trillion dollars. Food for Soul is one of many initiatives helping the public see this as a creative challenge we can readily solve. But, perhaps, its biggest impact is in building community and restoring humanity, as expressed eloquently by a poem written by one of their guests:
on the napkin
on the table
It's all for me"
- Rita, February 2019 (RefettorioGastromotiva)
Creating Secure, Satisfying Work
One of the newest food ventures at CARE’s was a company started by Norbert Niederkofler’s pastry chef, Andrea Tortora. Their main product is an artisanal panettone, which takes 72 hours to ferment. The original panettone recipe was a lucky accident of a chef called Tony. Dough had fermented of its own accord, and he added orange peel to mask this. Hence ‘Tony’s bread’ or pane Toni.
Tortora’s panettone is made with the finest vanilla and almonds. He has elevated a simple classic into something luxuriously soft, rich, and comforting. From a social sustainability point of view, the key ingredient might be his company. Two years ago, Tortora sold 1,000 panettone. Last year, they sold 10,000. It’s just one example of new authentic artisanal food businesses across the world making a great living growing, making, and cooking what they love.
The next ten years could see what the former CEO of Deutschebank called ‘a bonfire of jobs’. The Bank of England warned that half of all current jobs are at risk of being replaced by AI software which can complete repetitive tasks faster, cheaper, and more accurately than humans. Professions in the frontline include banking, insurance, law, and sales. So where can people find more satisfying work? Quite possibly in craft food. In artisanal companies, where food is grown, made, and served with care, people can benefit from secure employment and do something they actually love. Like making Tortora’s panettone.
The aim is to make young people aware of these satisfying and secure careers. Artisanal farming, food, and drink are struggling to keep skills alive and to grow their workforce. Rural regions are tending towards depopulation as younger generations move into cities expecting to find work there. Camilla Lunelli, communications director of Ferrari Wines (a CARE’s sponsor) said they were supporting initiatives to bring young people into viniculture. Not just because it’s a great way to put something back, but because their industry is struggling with a growing skills gap.
Make Future Cities More Liveable
Manoella Buffara is single-handedly putting her city on the map. Curitiba, capital of the southern state of Parana, is not well known outside of Brazil. It’s a different kind of city to Rio or Sao Paulo. More affluent thanks to industry started by a post WWII boom in immigration from Europe, and close to the bountiful Atlantic forest where she sources many of her ingredients. Curitiba is becoming known today for Buffara’s restaurant Manu, named the ‘face to watch’ in Latin America by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
Buffara has more for Curitiba than just bringing it to the world’s attention. For instance, Manu helped bring 4000 beehives to the city, as well as creating 89 new urban gardens, so that communities in abandoned parts of the city can feed themselves. Through her projects, Buffara teaches families about nutrition, about making delicious food out of ingredients like edible flowers, reducing waste, using banana skins in cooking. She draws inspiration from her grandparents who taught her about farming, fermentation, and frugality – a philosophy that extends to the fastidiously local ingredients in her kitchen. Everything at Manu is kind, human, and considered, from vegan options to the strict ‘no shouting’ rule in the kitchen.
Food culture is essential to creating liveable cities in future. Just look at how the street food in New York adds to quality of life. Every city needs chefs willing to look beyond their four walls and think about life in the surrounding area. Sustainability is easier to ‘sell’ when it makes life better and is delicious.
Going beyond the restaurant to its broader impacts and benefits means looking at the social dimension of food – what is a restaurant, after all, but a community? It is a place where people eat together, cook together, meet and co-operate and exchange. A place with a whole network of suppliers and collaborators. The social dimension of food is about networks of cooperation. And about people doing things with a common purpose.
Reducing all of this to the word ‘sustainability’ can be unhelpful. In its original contexts, sustainability concerns curbing and tracking the activities of large machine-like corporations or public bodies. What might be more relevant is to look at the recent history of social ventures – entrepreneurial innovators acting with a social purpose. This approach to business is booming. A 2018 report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that one third of all new businesses in the world were social ventures. Classic examples include Grameen (banking for the world’s poor) and Tom’s shoes (‘buy a pair, give a pair’). There are many innovative social ventures in food – farmers markets, boxed veg delivery, street food, pop-up dining, veganism, guerrilla gardening, urban bees, unpackaged stores, and so on.
Historian Lewis Mumford described human history as a struggle between two ideas; the Village and the Megamachine. The Village gave us ancient Greek democracy, the medieval guild and the co-operative movement. The Megamachine gave us pyramids, the Pentagon and Walmart. Three decades ago, Lewis Mumford glumly declared the Village had lost this contest and was now consigned to the margins of history. But then came the Internet, giving new kinds of Village the means to organise at scale. Wikipedia, Linux, eBay, Kickstarter, AirBnB, City Car Clubs... Their model – social production – uses digital networks to organise things efficiently without mechanistic corporate structures. Thrive Market, for example, launched a membership model offering “wholesome food at wholesale prices”. Today, nearly half a million members benefit from prices 25-50% lower for natural, organic, non-GMO foods. At the same time, their farmers enjoy a 15-20% premium over what other retailers pay.
That kind of platform and network model is important because a truly sustainable future of food will be smaller scale, local, and more diverse. A Turkish study showed that farms under one hectare produce twenty times more food than farms over ten hectares. Diversity of crops also increases yields. As do organic farms and those that rotate crops and look after their soil. Better farming, looking after the soil, agro-ecology and growing more diverse crops and varieties all lead to better, healthier, tastier food. Which is welcome news for chefs. And this future of artisanal farming, along with cooking, craft foods, and so on will provide a greater proportion of tomorrow’s jobs. What was needed was innovation to make these small scale farms economic, such as Twiga that helps Kenyan farmers sell their bananas directly to kiosks, using mobile payments and a delivery network. Before Twiga, a banana cost more in Nairobi than it did in London. Farmers struggled to scratch a living. We need food systems like Twiga that support both consumers and farmers across the world.
David Kinch’s point was that food should ‘tell an interesting story about being delicious’, rather than just being interesting. One of the key trends discussed was making ingredients – fresh, seasonal, local, organic and sourced with personal involvement and expert discernment – the heroes of every dish. Robin Gill chef of London’s The Dairy talked about ‘letting the produce dictate the menu’ adding that ‘the work starts at least ten stages before reaching our kitchen back door’.
What chefs like Gill do is take the boring and technical subject of sustainability and make it appetising and aspirational. They help to create a vision of a future where we live in balance with nature and enjoy better diets, better communities, meaningful jobs, and fulfilling lives. In that sense, the CARE’s event was more than a conference. It was a preview of a better world that chefs can help create.
Photographs by John Grant.