Planting Thoughts: How Chefs Can (Help) Save the World

At a recent symposium in Copenhagen, a group of recognized guests argued that haute cuisine can support a sustainable food system

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Though lacking a grand theme, a common thread ran through Planting Thoughts, a food symposium held in Copenhagen in late August that promised serious thinking and discussion about food. Good food, the diverse crowd of speakers (chefs, food scientists, farmers, biologists, foragers, and more) argued, takes time and effort from everyone involved in making it: There are no short-cuts. The symposium also showed how haute cuisine -- often derided as elitist -- can support efforts towards building a system that can make enough good, sustainably grown food for everyone and make it accessible to all.

Most obviously, haute cuisine can extend and reinvigorate local food culture and history, the context of people, places, stories, and traditions that surrounds food in a given place. Fine dining restaurants can afford to pay a premium for what we now think of as artisanal ingredients, keeping them in production and their producers in business. Less obviously but more importantly, many chefs use culture and history when creating new dishes in their restaurants. Japan's Yoshihiro Narisawa, Italy's Massimo Bottura, Spain's Andoni Aduriz, Australia's Ben Shewry, Daniel Patterson from the United States -- they all use the historical and cultural context in which they work to help them answer the question: "This was what came before, what should we cook next?"

Patterson's food is an example of how culture and history can point chefs in the right direction. He often researches how particular ingredients have historically been cooked, then bases novel interpretations on what he finds. At the symposium, he showed three beet dishes in which he took the familiar texture of the roasted beet (from the roasted beet and goat cheese salad that was introduced in the 1970s and is now ubiquitous) and transformed it into something new but -- crucially -- not forbidding. Here's one: roasted beets on a rose-scented snow with yogurt, a novel pairing of flowers and earth, united by the familiar combinations of floral/milky and earthy/milky flavors. Chefs like Patterson create new and delicious things by returning to what we already know. For them good food is anchored in context, and requires investigation of place, time, and history.

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Clearly, the labor-intensive food these chefs make will never be the food of the people. This is why haute cuisine seldom participates in discussions about how to feed many people sustainably and healthfully. This is a false divide. Even if the food itself does not scale up from the fine dining restaurant, the approach -- examining context more closely -- could be part of the solution.

Looking to history and culture helps us understand why we eat the way we do today. Thousand of years of food choices have led us to eat mostly starches from a few cultivated plants instead of the diverse set of foods that we used to eat. This modern, developed-country way of growing food and eating has expanded dramatically in the last half-century. Accelerating urbanization and changing work patterns during this time have made it less likely that families cook and eat together. It's no longer the rule rather than the exception to eat good food made with care, that originates in a place and with people that you know, part of a culture and history that you share. "You would think that at the end of thousands of years of development, it would take a long time to destroy these memories of good food," Patterson said, "but industrial agriculture took that all away in a generation, wiped it all out."

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Vaughn Tan is a student at Harvard's Business School and Sociology Department. More

Vaughn Tan lives in Cambridge, Mass., where he is a student at Harvard's Business School and Sociology Department. His interests are assorted and apparently unconnected; he writes about them sporadically at www.vaughntan.com.

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