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Chefs Weigh In: Has The Role of the Chef Changed?

Welcome to Hot Topics, in which chefs chime in on a recent issue in food.

Members of the "G9" in Lima last week [Photo: Ines Menacho]

A few months ago, in the announcement for the Planting Thoughts Symposium in Copenhagen, Noma chef Rene Redzepi wrote, "The role of the chef is evolving and developing into a position of influence — one that impacts the manner in which people and food professionals consume and connect with food." The event, which was held last month, included celebrated food thinkers and chefs and inspired an array of responses from attendees and those observing from the outside. The same could be said about the "Open Letter to Young Chefs" that figures like Redzepi, Ferran Adrià, Gastón Acurio, and Michel Bras recently drafted in Lima, Peru.

It would not be unreasonable to say that the chef's evolving role is the issue of the moment. Therefore, we asked five chefs working in the United States to share their thoughts on if and how their role has changed and how they view the recent activities of some of the world's most prominent chefs. Here, now, Marc Vetri (Vetri, Philadelphia), George Mendes (Aldea, NYC), Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat, Chicago), Russell Moore (Camino, Oakland, CA), and Andrew Little (Sheppard Mansion, Hanover, PA) take on the issue.


Marc Vetri

Restaurant: Vetri, Philadelphia

When I started in the industry over twenty years ago, you worked the line and tried to just make a living; owning your own place was a dream. Now it's a whole different world for chefs.

At the same time, years ago it felt like everything was about family — the milk man, the local farmers market, and a generally slower pace. Then, it evolved, and everything started to get mass produced and fast food started popping up everywhere. We started getting sicker. Health care went up. We started living our lives in a generally unhealthy way. We need to try to get back to those simple, healthy things.

For us, the goal is to make a difference and to do our share. With health issues like the obesity epidemic and the lunches that we are feeding our kids, it's our duty to do something about it. We need to start to change the way people think about food.

As for criticisms that suggest that chefs who serve high-end food shouldn't be talking about big change, I simply disagree. We have worked hard and have been able to have some success, so why shouldn't we want to give back? Is Bill Gates wrong because he tries to effect great, positive change? He makes a lot of money and caters to the people that can buy his products, but that shouldn't prevent him from making those efforts.


Russell Moore

Restaurant: Camino, Oakland

My take here may differ slightly from the sentiments of most chefs right now. To put it simply: I'm somewhat ambivalent.

It's definitely a positive thing that chefs and corporations that make a lot of money and that are successful can effect serious change through their actions and statements. But we just have to be cautious about reaching the point of obnoxiousness. I remember being in New York recently at a restaurant that listed all of the wonderful things they do on the back of the menu — composting, sourcing locally, recycling. Do they also only cross the street when the light is green?

I read the Lima letter, and to be honest, it comes off as a little light and a little late. I worked forever in Chez Panisse, and that restaurant always had an agenda that wasn't based on PR or anything of that nature; I work in an area where the community is very forward-thinking in terms of issues of ecology and sustainability and health; I've always strived to do the right things in my restaurant without waving them in people's faces. My central point is that I'm more interested in people just doing it instead of talking about it. Or at the very least, doing it first before making declarations.

Another thing that comes to mind that complicates matters is the idea that this might be just a trend. I mean that in the sense that everyone is looking to natural cuisine, to places like Noma, which are very much aligned with this kind of thinking, because they are number one right now. On many, many levels, they espouse great ideas, but chefs also risk stylistic monotony by looking at just one place too intensely.


George Mendes

Restaurant: Aldea, NYC

Twenty or thirty years ago, the maitre d's were the stars, but now chefs have reached a position of major influence, and it's a great opportunity to raise awareness. I honestly don't think there are any pitfalls to it. We are nourishing and educating the public through what we do.

I think that what happened in Copenhagen and Lima, for example, is about raising awareness for a great cause. It's about practicing sustainability and teaching the public about good cooking, good ingredients, good farming, and establishing beneficial relationships. Gathering a group of chefs and focusing on something like plants and vegetables — an area that is still overlooked — is important; bringing people closer to the product and to nature is vital. I wasn't at either of the events, but it says something that I'm interested in it and talking about it with many of my colleagues.

At the same time, it's still not enough. We're dealing with a small group (though without question these are the best chefs in the world), and what really needs to happen is for that spirit to spread into areas like fast food and the mass market. This is an important step in that direction.


Stephanie Izard

Restaurant: Girl and the Goat, Chicago

We chefs try to give back to the community as much as we can. Because we do something with food, with sharing, for a career, it's very fitting that we give back. More and more, chefs are working with a lot of local farms to create awareness and working with organizations that are feeding people that are hungry, and it just makes sense.

I've been talking to culinary schools, and one of the things that keeps coming up is potentially having a requirement whereby students have to perform volunteer work and educate themselves on giving back before they can graduate. It's a major part of what we do. And it's a fun part of what we do.

Chefs should still go into the kitchen often and ensure that their restaurants are performing at a high level, but there is a way of balancing.


Andrew Little

Restaurant: The Sheppard Mansion, Hanover, PA

For chefs to take a stand, to take the responsibly to try to influence how people eat and how they cook is a great thing. I don't really see a negative there. Although, to really achieve something and really have an influence, it needs to touch a lot of people; it can't just affect those who are tuned into fine dining.

I'll speak from my experience: we have a fine dining restaurant, but behind it we have a market where people can come in and buy the products we use and ask questions. Over the years, in the restaurant and in the market and through demos that we do in different venues, we've been able to spread ideas in what I believe is an effective way.

I read the Lima letter and discussed it with some colleagues. To be honest, some said, "I'm just a chef." But I don't think I'm just a chef. Yes, I cook, but I also maintain a garden and develop relationships with people and talk to them about food — because they are interested in what I might be able to share. I'm confident that they can then come away with something positive and helpful that they can apply to their lives.

Sure, the goals are lofty and it may come off as lacking specificity, but you need to have big ideas and you need to be reaching for something. Eventually there will be a trickle down. You just need to aim high.

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