Right now Dan Barber, chef of the Blue Hill restaurants and one of the most renowned exponents of local, sustainable, and ecologically aware cuisine in the U.S., is in Lima, Peru. There, he attended the Mistura Gastronomic Festival and helped write an "Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow" with colleagues that include Ferran Adrià, René Redzepi, Michel Bras, and the Peruvian giant Gastón Acurio (the full text of the letter appears at the end of the interview).
I had a chance to talk to Barber about what's going in Lima, the document they've put together, and the changing role of the chef in society.
This is the craziest thing. Over 100,000 people surrounding us — the most unbelievable walk into this place. 150 security guards for these chefs. Gastón is a real powerhouse of a figure here.
What is the story behind this conference and the document you are putting together?
Ferran put together a group of chefs in Spain last year to help launch the Basque Culinary Council. What came out of the meeting was the realization that we should be doing this more often, maybe once a year, and that we should perhaps create a document that discusses mutual beliefs about food and the future of cooking.
So, that's why we're here, to create this declaration or document in light of what's happening in Peru, which is the single most exciting social movement I have ever seen. There are hundreds of thousands of people at this cooking conference, and I just walked through a part of it with the chef Gastón, who is a combination of a Che Guevara and a Bono — people crying, security pulling fans off of him. I was standing in between Ferran Adrià and René Redzepi, and it was like no one noticed us. It was very inspiring to see the Peruvians respond to a chef and his message, which is about social change through cuisine.
And the declaration?
The declaration is almost written. We've been working all day today and yesterday. It's a letter to young chefs about some of our shared ideas about food and its relationship to culture, ecology, health, and the environment — issues that are synthesized or touched on in good cooking. That's the best synopsis I can give at this point.
Can you talk a bit more about it? What are some of the more salient aspects?
It's a recognition that the role of the chef is changing, and that as the chef increasingly becomes someone who is representing much more than cooking in their kitchen, he or she plays a role in effecting a variety of aspects of food.
The nine chefs around the table look at food in very different ways, and what we've tried to do is find the commonalities. There's Alex Atala, who is looking at it through an anthropological perspective. There's Massimo Bottura, who is looking at it through a cultural perspective. There's Ferran, who looks at things from a technological perspective. There's Gastón, who looks at food as a synthesizing occupation for great social change.
And how do you look at it?
I talked about ecological health and the perspective of how chefs are probably going to become more invested and attuned to issues of agriculture — that there isn't going to be much of a separation between farmers and chefs as time goes on. We're all going to have to work together to produce good tasting food.
The synthesizing theme is that it's a great time to be a chef, and there is potential to effect the kind of change that we're all interested in effecting in our small ways. But some, like Gastón, are making an enormous impact of social change and national and cultural pride through cuisine. That's his life's work.
What happens after this conference? Is there a plan, a goal to implement anything?
I say "declaration," but I should say that it's an open letter. Whether the word "declaration" is used was debated for hours. That's the question all of us had, and I think our meeting this afternoon might answer that. Ferran's idea is that this is a living document, posted on a site, that we continually update and make more specific. This is sort of a first effort to synthesize our opinions and agree about the role of cooking and the future. What does that translate to in terms of action? I don't know yet, but it's a continuous process of getting more specific as we move on.
Let's go back to what you said about Lima. Why do you think it's so exciting, and why choose a South American city as opposed to somewhere in Europe or the U.S.?
That's an important question, and the answer is right outside my window. There's a social movement happening here around traditional cuisine. We're not in France, we're not in Europe, we're not in the United States. Yet we're talking about the future of food, which is quite promising. There are 80,000 culinary students here, which is more than any other place in the world. More than China. And that's because of Gastón's twenty-five years of work. He has been able to connect with people who want to recapture who they are through cuisine, and move it forward.
So "why here?" is a big question, and I didn't know why last year in Spain. But now I do. You don't have to look to Europe — not exactly a brand new thought — but it has a whole new meaning when you're surrounded by 100,000 cheering foodies in Lima. The center of cooking is no longer in Europe. It's all over the world.