Several months ago, in an interview with The New York Times, master chef Thomas Keller took a disappointing stance. “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with reporter Julia Moskin.” I think about quality, not geography.” Above all other considerations like sustainability, seasonality and food miles, his priority, he said, is taste.
I’ve been lucky enough to eat at Keller’s restaurants — the French Laundry in northern California and Per Se in New York City — and can confirm that taste clearly is his priority. Keller is considered one of the best chefs in the country. Coveted reservations often warrant a year-long wait.
But if a leading chef doesn’t feel a responsibility to buy sustainably grown food, than what about the rest of us? Are we also off the hook when it comes to supporting local agriculture and a food system that is based around small business rather than giant corporations?
Chef Keller purchases the best food money can buy — whether it’s from the farm down the street or from purveyors across the Pacific Ocean. He is not alone. Many in the food industry – from high-end chefs to fast-food giants — are oblivious to the need to buy local and support sustainable practices. This is not just about doing business with boutique farms that produce precious tiny vegetables that make it onto $30 dinner entrées. This is about the need to rebuild our food system so we’ll be able to feed a growing population in the coming decades.
Keller’s remarks got me thinking about other chefs I know who have committed to buying sustainable, local foods. Sam Hayward, a James Beard Award-winning chef and part-owner of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, is one. Fore Street showcases Maine- and New England-grown ingredients — from seafood to meat, poultry, beans and wheat. Despite Maine’s tough climate and short growing season, Fore Street manages to serve 75 percent local food in season and an astonishing 60 percent during the winter months.
Hayward is philosophical when it comes to Keller’s remarks. “This is the prickly question of our time,” he says. “The local versus global and the ethical responsibility of chefs in their food sourcing.” Hayward, always the diplomat, goes on: “There’s plenty of room for a variety of positions and perspectives on the subject. However, the notion of quality and excellence in our craft has to expand to include the impact on communities, economies and ecology.”
How does buying local translate to the real world of agriculture? Dave Colson, director of agricultural services for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, says that during the mid-1980s, when buying and eating local wasn’t quite so much on the radar, just 22 farms in Maine applied for MOFGA certification. “Within the last 12 years,” he says by way of contrast, “we have over 400 farms applying for that very same program. We also have more young farmers applying for our apprenticeship program than we can handle. The sense that there is a thriving local economy for farmers is palpable.”
Keller certainly has the right to source his ingredients however he sees fit. But I find it disheartening that someone so financially and creatively successful would not use his influence to become a role model for all those interested in growing and cooking quality, local food.
For me, a satisfying dining experience is not only about superior food; it is also about food that I can feel good about. And as awareness grows, I’m hoping that chefs who value taste and responsible practices will be teaching the Thomas Kellers of the world a thing or two about what good food is all about.