In my first post about My Responsibilities as a Chef Part One, I talked about the history of the culinary arts. My training in culinary school gave me the foundation to respect the history of this art. I learned to make everything delicious. I learned to waste nothing and to respect season and location. This has been at the core of my cooking. But there is more… The Role of Chef is Evolving
My Responsibilities as a Chef Part Two:
Respecting Nutrition, Environment, Budget
Fourth Responsibility: Respect Nutrition
It’s amazing how meaty cauliflower can be.
— Chef Alex Guarnaschelli
Change has been coming. The past few decades have seen a huge shift in the focus of food. Rather than just flavor, nutrition has entered the picture. There has been fights over macronutrients and complex carbs. While classic French cooking had us making confit pork shoulder in vats of rendered pork fat, now we know more. As chefs, we have a new responsibility to our diners. We return to the question: If these people ate our food every night, how would their health be impacted?
Chefs can’t force people to eat kale, but on a menu of 20 beef and chicken entrees, they can at least offer a quinoa salad. They can train their wait staff and cooks to cater to requests for “something lighter…steamed vegetables…plant-based”. Building on the notion that we have a responsibility to share local, seasonal produce, chefs also have a responsibility to explore healthier options. We don’t have to agree on whether grass-fed bison is healthier than beef, but we can all agree to be mindful of the amount of butter, oil, and cream we use. Some chefs will laugh at lines like “Bacon makes everything better”, but is that really true? Why not discover a new ingredient, explore a new flavor, try a new smoking technique?
My Mission: Strive For Nutrition
Yes, chefs have a responsibility to create delicious food. We also have a duty to push ourselves and our creativity. We have a responsibility to create food that we would feed to our families, night after night. Food needs to nourish and sustain. While it may seem a challenge to balance flavor and nutrition, true chefs accept the responsibility and are willing to take on that challenge.
Second Responsibility: Honor the Environment
I feel that good food should be a right and not a privilege, and it needs to be without pesticides and herbicides. And everybody deserves this food. And that’s not elitist.
During my studies at Kendall College, we were required to take a class about Sustainability. The required reading for the class, Menu for the Future, was a simple collection of articles designed to spark discussion. The topics included GMO’s, global food injustice, overfishing the cod industry, and saving seeds. Of all the topics, the one that made the biggest impact on me was an article about banana plantations in Brazil. I knew all about the Dirty Dozen and why it was important for my own health to opt for organic berries. However, this was the first time I had ever considered the roll of conventional farming practices on the workers, local residents, and environment around these plantations.
Conventional banana farming uses tons of pesticides. The wet tropical environment best-suited for banana farms is full of pests. For bananas, one particular pest, Black Sigatoka can reduce yields by 35-50%. This can be devastating to banana companies. These companies are trying to grow massive quantities of bananas so that they can be sold for a competitive price like 69 cents a pound. The laws in Brazil don’t do much to protect the workers and land exposed to these heavy pesticide sprays.
Workers on these farms are given minimal protective gear and are exposed to high amounts of toxic chemicals. The land and soil are harmed by the toxic runoff from these sprays. Residents suffer by drinking the water and growing other foods nearby. This trend is common for many countries in the tropical climate zone. Crops like coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, and coconut all grow in areas using intense chemical pesticides, with only minimal safety protection.
I think of this every time I buy a banana. Do I grab a quick conventional banana at Starbucks? Or do I make a point to buy extra organics so that I can carry a few with me for snacks? Is it worth paying an extra 30 cents a pound to buy organic? Even if I’m peeling the fruit and there’s no chance I’ll be ingesting pesticides, what I choose makes a bigger impact on the health of a larger ecosystem.
This same concept carries over into the fishing industry – where the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is now as large as New Jersey.
The cattle and dairy industry are responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all the cars on the road.
The demand for fish oil supplements has now started to damage ocean ecosystems. Small pelagic fish (the ones that turn phytoplankton into energy for bigger fish) are being over-harvested, leaving a gap to feed the larger fish.
My Mission: More Plants, Consider Organics
As a chef, the environmental impact of my recipes has strongly pushes me to create plant-based dishes. I strive to promote seasonal produce that can be grown organically. I encourage you to support food establishments that seek out sustainable farms. I encourage you to limit the amount of meat, fish, and dairy, considering the role these industries are playing in destroying our precious Mother Earth. Every recipe, every meal is a choice. We can choose to disregard the environmental impact of our diet. Or we can choose to eat in a way that sustains the future of this planet.
Sixth Responsibility: Respect Your Budget
I think my cooking these days is a lot more relaxed from when I was working in professional kitchens… People want to eat healthy meals that are easy to prepare, with minimal ingredients that can be made on a budget.
One of the hardest hurdles for me to tackle when working in a fine-dining kitchen was the cost of raw ingredients. At such a high level of cooking, there was no weight given to price when selecting what dishes would be featured on a menu. For good reason, taste always came first. When heirloom tomatoes are bursting with ridiculous sweetness, as a chef, your first mission is always to share that beautiful flavor. You worry later about costing out the recipe, deciding whether to charge $13 or $18 for that bruschetta.
That is how fine-dining kitchens operate, but that doesn’t work for most home cooks. In the home kitchen, entire dinners are sometimes based on the fact that zucchini was only 79 cents/pound and whole grain pasta was 2 for 1. Thursdays and Fridays are often fridge-cleanout days when food scraps and leftovers are somehow re-imagined to create a big pot of soup or toppings for a pizza.
The hairs on my neck still rise when I see recipes for home cooks that call for pricey ingredients. Sure, fancy Acai Chia bowls look beautiful on Instagram, but Acai powder is about $24/pound and Chia seeds can run $13/pound. Top it with some bee pollen, crush macadamia nuts, and chopped pistachios. That simple, healthy bowl can quickly become a $30 snack.
There is a time and place for beautiful, exotic ingredients. It’s fun to try new things and explore foods from all over the world. However, day-to-day recipes call for items you can easily find and easily afford. One of the advantages of going plant-based is that it saves you money. When you’re buying organic brown rice instead of organic meats, your grocery bill will naturally drop about 30%. Skipping expensive seafood to splurge on cans of cooked beans means you’ll save money while shopping.
My Mission: Always respect your food budget
I will be grounded in the daily concerns of a household trying to stay financially healthy. When I do play with more expensive, exotic ingredients, I will offer budget-friendly alternatives to help you make the best investment with your money.