America’s “food-revolution” has always been driven by the media and its power to disseminate information—Craig Claiborne via journalism, James Beard through books, Julia Child through television and books, MFK Fisher through food literature, to name a few of the early heavy hitters. For most of that time, a primary source of information and inspiration has been chefs. They were so good at what they did, and the field of their expertise became so popular, a handful became celebrified, embalmed by spotlight.
The danger for all of us and chefs, as with all celebrity, is that celebrity becomes the subject itself, not the result valuable work. And so food media, now heavily dominated by television, gives us chefs, not in the form of Pierre Franey or Jacques Pepin, but rather in the form of Colicchio and Ramsay and the Food Networks Iron Chefs, while the most watched food educators are non-chefs. This is by no means criticism of Colicchio or Ramsay or the Iron Chefs, who got to where they are through extraordinary work as chefs, managers and businessmen. Nor is there anything wrong with cooking as entertainment—indeed, it’s lead many at home into the kitchen to cook for themselves. Nor is this a condemnation of America’s celebrity culture or celebrity chefs—Mario still runs thriving businesses, Thomas Keller continues to produce both restaurants and products of extraordinary refinement, each of them employing increasing numbers of people who are themselves thriving within these growing businesses.
But the chef as inspiration, the one who points the way to the cool new stuff, the important stuff—once the only kind of visible chef we knew—that chef is getting harder to hear in an increasingly cacophonous food world.
There are many chefs out there who are doing this, and good magazines and newspapers are covering them and writing about them, even publishing them and spreading their ideas and the knowledge they’ve accrued in the course of their work of feeding people—Daniel Patterson of Coi and of Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune (finish that memoir, please!), for instance, two chef writers I admire.
The chef who inspired these thoughts today is Dan Barber (pictured above), chef of the Blue Hill restaurants, and his excellent op-ed essay in the NYTimes on Sunday. It’s about our moving into a post-industrial agricultural age, one in which small farmers proliferate not just in the United States but around the world. You may want to argue with him. In some email back and forth about this, my friend Russ Parsons author and LATimes reporter who covers farmers markets, worries that too many will view this as a call to replace industrial agricultural, which for all its harm has made food very inexpensive—a salient point with the cost even of industrial food skyrocketing.
But Barber, whose foie gras experience I wrote about a few weeks ago, is proving to be one of the most important voices in the chef world, and I think we need to listen to him. And we need to listen to other chefs who are actively promoting a better way of living simply by caring about our food and the way we grow it and distribute it and eat it.
I hope that soon we can allow chefs to step out of the spotlight and reclaim their position not as vaunted moguls, untouchable in their starched white jackets, not as greedy sellouts to be derided for leaving their kitchens to open multiple restaurants or host TV entertainment, but rather as accessible spreaders of information and inspiration about some of the most important issues we face today.