Op-Ed: A Fork in the Road: Sustainability and the Politics of Pleasure (Neil B. Miller, Farmshed CNY )

Posted May 24, 2012 by Lenn Thompson in News & Events
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As the owner of a technology start-up dedicated to promoting local foods, I suppose I should have been offended by the remarks made last week by chefs Thomas Keller and Adoni Luis Aduriz in their New York Times interview with Julia Moskin. In the interview, which is excerpted in Moskin’s article, Keller and Aduriz, the award-winning executive chefs, respectively, of The French Laundry in Yountville, California and Mugaritz in northern Spain, disclaim any responsibility for supporting local farming or sustainable agriculture. In one passage, Keller questions whether it is his responsibility, given the small number of people he feeds, “to worry about carbon footprint?” In another, Aduriz’s opines that to align oneself “entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

Oddly enough, I found myself only mildly irritated by Keller and Aduriz’s statements. At least as excerpted in Moskin’s article, Keller and Aduriz glibly dismiss doctrinaire locavorism, but the everyday praxis of these chefs so closely parallels core values of the local food and sustainability movements – the New York Times once named Keller “Napa’s most celebrated devotee of local produce” – that I can only assume that the chefs had their reasons. Perhaps, as I suspect, they were playing the media to promote the release of Aduriz’s first English-language cookbook, Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking.

If that was their intent they clearly succeeded, because the Twittersphere has been lit up for the past week with a firestorm of histrionic outrage, authoritarian cultural politics, and middlebrow anti-intellectualism. Sadly, despite the fact that Keller and Aduriz’s critics are colleagues and allies in the local food movement, I believe they get just about everything wrong in their responses to Keller and Aduriz’s comments.

Moskin, whose article is provocatively titled “For Them, a Great Meal Tops Good Intentions,” sets the stage for later rhetorical excesses. Supporting local agriculture, she asserts, is “too narrow a goal” for these highly acclaimed chefs, while helping save the planet is at odds with their priority of creating “great, brilliant food.” Keep in mind that these are Moskin’s words, not Keller or Aduriz’s. Later, Moskin sarcastically concludes that Keller and Aduriz “are united in their belief that their responsibility as chefs is primarily to produce breathtakingly delicious and beautiful food – not as some of their colleagues think, to provide a livelihood for farmers living near their restaurants, to preserve traditional culinary art or to stop the spread of global warming.”

Paula Crossfield, managing editor of Civil Eats, ups this gamesmanship another notch by characterizing Keller and Aduriz as “dinosaurs” in comparison to younger chefs (Aduriz is all of 41), who take a “local, values-driven approach” to their cooking. Keller and Aduriz’s “antiquated remarks,” especially Keller’s commitment to “quality above values” (since when is “quality” not a “value?”), are, in Crossfield’s estimation, “staler than the day-old bread at Bouchon Bakery.”

Elsewhere, Twilight Greenaway, writing for Grist.org, describes Keller and Aduriz as chefs who do not feel “any obligation to the environment,” and who “opt out of caring for the impact the producers of your food have on the soil, water and the atmosphere.” In quick succession, Greenway then goes on to characterize their statements as “irresponsible,” “destructive,” and – quoting Laurie David, the producer of An Inconvenient Truth – “shocking.”

The litany of crimes for which these chefs have been charged and found guilty continues on for many more articles and tweets – one writer even compares Keller to Marie Antoinette! – but you get the idea. These are bad, bad men, whose actions and attitudes are apparently as morally indefensible and environmentally destructive as those of Monsanto, the Koch Brothers and supporters of the XL Pipeline.

And yet, if we set aside the statements quoted in Moskin’s article, and examine what these chefs actually do in their daily practice: how and from where they source their products; how and why their relationship with suppliers necessarily supports sustainable farming and responsible stewardship of the world’s finest and in some cases rarest foodstuffs; why the true cost of their ingredients, including the cost of their carbon footprint, is in all likelihood passed along to their patrons – unlike nearly all commercial food products – a very different picture emerges of who these men are and what they truly believe.

The French Laundry’s Culinary Garden, for example, a three-acre farm that provides the restaurant with most of their specialty crops – including all the products featured in their daily vegetable tasting menu – is almost as famous as the restaurant itself. It is also, in addition to being fully organic, open to the public, so that Tucker Taylor, the garden’s resident farmer, can educate home gardeners as well as kitchen staff on unusual heirloom varieties and sustainable farming practices like crop rotation and organic composting.

Then there is Keller’s relationship with his outside suppliers, who appear mostly to be small, artisanal producers for whom Keller has such high regard that he features them prominently on his website. This ironically also seems to be where Keller earns the greatest scorn from his critics, because several of these suppliers, such as Keith Martin’s Elysian Fields Farm in Waynesburg, PA, which supplies The French Laundry with “holistic” lamb raised without hormones, antibiotics or exposure to pesticides, are out-of-state producers rather than local farms.

For this unpardonable sin, Moskin, as already noted, derides Keller for his “radical” commitment to create “breathtakingly delicious and beautiful food” rather than to provide “a livelihood” for local farmers. Paula Crossfield, in turn, compares both chefs to Damien Hirst, implying, I assume, that their restaurants, like Hirst’s art, are unapologetically amoral and sensationalistic. “It’s about the experience,” Crossfield writes, “and whatever it takes to create radical and inspiring food is more important than the potential impact on the environment.” Twilight Greenaway, in turn, simply chides Keller for downplaying “the role of the local food economy your restaurant supports.”

It’s not entirely clear which local food economy Greenaway is referred to. Presumably, she intends Napa Valley, whose economic security apparently hangs in the balance depending on whether or not Keller sources his lamb from a local producer. And yet, the local food economy of Western PA, a decidedly less well situated and economically secure region of the country, undoubtedly has benefited from Keller’s patronage, so much so that Martin has enlisted several other farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio to raise lambs according to his exacting methods, and opened a mail-order business to direct-market fresh lamb to consumers.

Similar economic benefits presumably have been felt in the small community of Orwell, Vermont, where Animal Farm Dairy, an artisanal farmstead creamery that produces butter for Keller’s restaurants, is located, and in Petaluma, California, in Sonoma County, where Soyung Scanlan, the renowned cheesemaker at Andante Dairy, makes cheeses for, and drew her first inspiration from The French Laundry.

In truth, it’s unclear to me whether Moskin, Greenaway and other critics are arguing that upscale restaurants like The French Laundry and Mugaritz should source all their ingredients from local producers, regardless of their quality, simply because they are local, or that only leading celebrity chefs like Keller and Aduriz should do so, to set an example for younger, up-and-coming chefs. It’s also unclear whether they are suggesting that ordinary consumers, in addition to celebrity chefs, should limit themselves exclusively to what is locally and sustainably grown in their region.

While my confusion may be attributed in part to muddled thinking – possibly mine, more likely theirs – it is clear that these arguments strike dangerously close to an authoritarian cultural orthodoxy. For starters, were top chefs to source all their ingredients from local producers simply because they are local (let’s acknowledge here that the many top chefs already source much of their product locally), and regardless of their quality, the exacting, uncompromising standards that distinguish the world’s finest restaurants would disappear, and younger, up-and-coming chefs would lose the benchmark of excellence that top chefs pass along to their protégés. Artisanal farmers, meanwhile – especially here in the United States, where in many places local food cultures are just now developing – would lose the ability, gained through study and comparison, to produce the highest quality products, and possibly even the incentive to do so. The net result, as Aduriz observed, would be to make chefs, if not the entire gastronomic supply chain from producers on up, “complacent and limited.”

An ideologically rigid localist orthodoxy would be even more catastrophic for ordinary consumers and regional producers. Do these critics really believe that the world’s uniquely regional foodstuffs should be purchased only by local consumers? That only Fruilians should enjoy Prosciutto di San Danielle, or the Piedmontese white truffles, or the Bordelais Grand cru classés, or Bretons Fleur de Sel? Do they really believe, in the absence of foreign markets, that local demand will be sufficient for artisan producers to sell through annual inventories and earn a reasonable income to support their families? Do they feel the same for the lamb producers of Western Pennsylvania, or the winemakers of the Finger Lakes?

I very much hope they don’t believe these things. Because if they do, they’re either rank hypocrites whose pantries undoubtedly hide dozens of imported or non-local ingredients, or they’re ideologues whose see locavorism and sustainability as ends in-and-of-themselves, rather than the means for achieving a more just, humane and secure society.

The local food movement, consequently, as well as the movement for agricultural and socioeconomic sustainability, finds itself at a fork in the road. One road leads us in the direction of tolerance, inclusivity and engagement between chefs like Keller and Aduriz, for whom the politics of pleasure must remain an operative principle; the Slow Food movement, which shares a similarly political commitment to the pleasures of the table; and the locavores, environmentalists and sustainability advocates who are transitioning America away from its destructive, dehumanizing, industrialized past.

The other road takes us further down the path blazed in this week’s “food fight” between Keller and Aduriz, whose principles are clear, and their critics, whose own motives and principles are a good deal more uncertain. Monty Python once warned, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.” That may be, in part, because no one ever sees themselves and an Inquisitor, not even those who fan the flames of sectarian ideology and proclaim themselves the guardians of a new agro-gastronomical orthodoxy. If Moskin and other critics truly believe the cordwood should be piled around Keller and Aduriz’s feet, then locavorism and sustainability have become religious cults and should be condemned as such. Demons do exist, but we don’t need witch hunts or holier-than-thou-attitudes to fight them. Some of us simply want to live better lives, eat healthier food, and leave the world a better and more secure place than we found it.

Neil Miller is the founder of Farmshed CNY, the go-to local food resources for Central New York and the Finger Lakes. Search, browse, and locate 100s of farms, farmers markets and businesses in your area. The Farmshed CNY Directory lists 1,500+ regional food producers, and is now available on PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones – including iPhones, Androids and BlackBerrys! Buying local does a world of good: find local, buy local, grow local with Farmshed CNY![/quote]