Thomas Keller is probably the greatest American chef ever. His French Laundry cookbook sits vaulted above the line as a benchmark for perfection in most serious restaurant kitchens. By any calculation, he is a culinary giant atop the world of American food. And he is a personal hero.
Which is why his remarks that were printed earlier this week in the New York Times in "For Them, A Great Meal Tops Good Intentions" that a chef's job ends at creating great meals, that a chef's aesthetic responsibility trumps any other responsibility was sorely disappointing.
Sure, it's not his responsibility to help save the planet (though many chefs have taken on this calling with great ambition). At the end of the day, he is in the business of selling food, not combating climate change, animal cruelty, or rural poverty. Keller understands full well that his restaurants are patronized by people hoping to signify important events in their lives and probably feels incredible responsibility to deliver -- which he almost always does.
Like most great chefs, I have no doubt that Mr. Keller's products are among the most pristine out there. I also agree with Mr. Keller (and other giants like David Chang) that the "farm to table" ethos has bred laziness and complacency in some chef's creative process. What restaurant isn't farm-to-table after all?
But focusing solely on the aesthetics and disclaiming any other responsibility altogether is a cop-out. He can't singlehandedly change food policy but a philosophy of abdication (deferring instead to the "world's governments") fails to acknowledge that change needs leaders.
We all learned from a young age the power of example. Mr. Keller has a captive audience, fleets of chefs that listen intently to his every word. He has a pulpit that spans the globe. And an audience that aspires to be like him. As Julia Moskin writes: "Chefs at top restaurants influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food -- not just the way they cook it."
So when Mr. Keller publicly shrugs off his responsibility for taking on more than just good food at his restaurants, he misses the point. His words reverberate across the globe. The chefs who have preached for humanity and sustainability have won victories and influenced diners far beyond their restaurants.
Dismissing the role of chefs to do anything but cook diminishes the power of the profession. Sure, restaurants just serve food. But a chef, translated literally from its French root, leads. Mr. Keller is within his rights to leave his "chef jacket" at the door of his kitchens, but the issues linked to how he makes his living are too important. As an essential building block of life, food is linked to national security, public health, economic development, environmental protection, cultural preservation. Read Michael Pollan's letter to the Farmer in Chief to see how inextricably linked food is to the fabric of this country. So for Mr. Keller to limit the role of chefs to just cooking great food marginalizes a profession he has vaulted to celebrity.
Chefs are at the forefront of food policy, whether they like it or not. Purchasing and serving food is not an isolated transaction. It is part of a much larger series of events that implicates countless people and places along the way. Allowing the "ends to justify the means" and ignoring our good intentions would make the world a much uglier place. As someone who has brought immeasurable pleasure to the world with his artful cooking, I trust Mr. Keller wants to leave the world a more prosperous place.
I hope Mr. Keller will revisit his powerful statements. Because the "entire global food community" is listening.
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