Why Thomas Keller Is Wrong About Chefs’ Social Responsibility

Whether He Likes It or Not, Global Warming Is Changing the Taste of Food

In its May 15 “Dining & Wine” section, The New York Times broke the seal on a simmering controversy in the world of fine dining: What responsibility, if any, do chefs have to promote sustainable food systems? In a discussion with celebrated restaurateurs Thomas Keller (of California’s French Laundry and the New York restaurant Per Se) and Luis Aduriz (of Spain’s famed Mugaritz), reporter Julia Moskin asked how these top chefs view their obligations to protecting the environment. The article headline said it all: “For Them, a Great Meal Tops Good Intentions.” As it turns out, these guys would rather keep it simple and not worry about the complicated stuff: where food comes from, what makes great food great, and the reality that we are facing the loss not only of great food, but the culture, ecology, and social fabric that creates it.

Photo by Flickr user MaighThe idea of promoting more environmentally sound agriculture, which is the driving force behind the
“farm-to-table” philosophy, seems to be an afterthought at the most rarefied levels of cuisine.

“With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” Mr. Keller said. “The world’s governments should be worrying about carbon footprint.”

Both Keller and Aduriz view haute cuisine as a seamless fusion of pleasure and art. They are united in the belief that their responsibility as chefs is primarily to create breathtakingly delicious and beautiful food — not, as some of their colleagues (like, most prominently, NYT food writer Mark Bittman) think, to provide a livelihood for farmers who practice more sustainable practices, to preserve traditional culinary arts, or to help check global climate change by reducing food miles. The idea of promoting more environmentally sound agriculture is the driving force behind the “farm-to-table” philosophy that many high-end restaurants have adopted. But it seems that such ideals are an afterthought at the most rarefied levels of cuisine.

Over at Grist, Twilight Greenway offers a muscular critique of why Keller’s and Aduriz’s cavalier attitude is short-sighted. “If we lived in the 19th century … then you could just focus on making your brilliant food (it would probably be served to royalty) and someone else would do the driving, someone else the laundry, and so forth.” But in the era of climate change and global resource depletion, the it’s-not-my-problem mindset is “not just irresponsible — [it is] destructive.”

Even if Keller and Aduriz feel entitled to dismiss the moral responsibility to care about the farmer behind the ingredients that sustain their art, there is one simple reason why they should care about the environment in the twenty-first century: global warming is changing the way food tastes.

Whether it’s the distinctive briny tang of sourdough bread in San Francisco, the subtle florality of a raw cheese, or the complexity of a great coffee, climate creates flavor. And when the climate changes, so will the tastes we have come to expect — and not for the better.

Take coffee, the crop that’s been the source of my livelihood as the Director of Coffee at Thanksgiving Coffee Company for nearly 10 years. As temperatures warm, coffee fruit ripens more quickly, producing a less complex flavor. The articulation of flavors becomes muddled, and the essential balance between juicy citric acidity, body, and flavor loses dimension. After harvesting, and during processing, the yeast that predominate in a particular growing region (much like the yeast that gives San Francisco sourdough its distinctive flavor) interact with the fruit’s sugar, and transform flavor in the same way that yeast develop the flavors of great bread, cheese, wine, and beer. These yeasts, dominant in particular regions because of their suitability to that climate, are out-competed by rival strains more adapted to the new norms of humidity and temperature. As temperatures warm and climate shifts, the delicate choreography of factors that combine to produce great coffee changes. We are losing the distinctive flavors that we associate with the micro-origins and appellations that coffee lovers cherish. A look at the menu of Keller’s Per Se (warning: sticker shock may occur) reveals a long list of ingredients — cacao, cheese, wine, bread, fruit, vegetables, and, well, pretty much everything — whose flavor, like coffee, is changing because of our changing climate. 

As Neelima Mahajan described in the Spring 2012 edition of Earth Island Journal, for coffee farmers in Uganda climate change isn’t some kind of academic concern. It’s happening now, and it’s threatening coffee crops, farmers’ livelihoods, and the area’s ecology. I’d like to invite Keller and Aduriz to visit the farmers of Peace Kawomera, a Ugandan Cooperative I work with on the Mount Elgon region featured in Mahajan’s article. There they would see coffee in the flesh and the efforts, led by the 560 family farmers of Peace Kawomera and supported by Thanksgiving Coffee Company and The Resilience Fund (a project of Earth Island Institute), to develop front-line buffers against the dislocations of climate change. Through simple initiatives such as tree-planting and watershed restoration we are boosting farmers’ resilience to shifting weather.

Photo courtesy The Resilience FundNathan Watadena, a member of the Ugandan Coffee cooperative Peace Kawomera shows future site
of coffee farm reforestation and watershed restoration. For farmers like him, climate change is a brutal
reality.

For the farmers of Peace Kawomera, and others like them, the almost-clinical phrase climate change doesn’t begin to describe the brutal reality they are facing. My friend  and Peace Kawomera founder JJ Keki speaks of the climate crisis as a threat to his whole way of life. Perhaps a visit to Keki’s farm would awaken Keller and Aduriz to the responsibilities they possess as persons of influence.

As leaders of the culinary world, these chefs need to remember that their skill in the kitchen depends on their relationships with farmers, ranchers, fisherpeople, and all other agricultural producers. Honoring those relationships is not only key to a sustainable food system, but in fact is the only path to the subtle gifts of flavor that make a great meal.

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