Chefs like Gaël Orieux are living by Wendell Berry's maxim, whether they've heard it or not, by turning eating into an agricultural act
Megrim is a flat fish that resembles a sole. But try and cook it like a sole, meunière, say, lightly coated in flour and pan fried in butter, and you won't end up with the delight described by Julia Child on her first meal just off the boat in Normandy. Instead, top a piece of its filet with a mint leaf, roll it in filo pastry, and deep fry it for less than a minute, and you'll pay tribute to its tender flesh, the crunch of the filo pastry, and the fresh mint that brings a pleasant contrast to the melting texture of the fish.
The creation is from Parisian chef Gaël Orieux. Whether or not Orieux ever heard of Wendell Berry's maxim "eating is an agricultural act," the way he works as a chef is a concrete illustration of it, and it is a reminder that changing our food system is not only about producers and consumers and how to reconnect them. It's also about chefs.
In his one-star Michelin restaurant, Auguste, in Paris, Orieux serves lesser-known fish alongside more common ones depending on the season and abundance. He wants his clients to experience that there is pleasure in eating fish beyond tuna, salmon, and sea bass. By reducing pressure on the handful of species usually served in restaurants, he adds, we'll help recover a healthier ecosystem in our oceans and seas. He is a spokesperson for Mr Goodfish, an awareness campaign on sustainable consumption of seafood, and was one of the many talented chefs cooking at Slow Fish, the Slow Food biennial conference on sustainable fishing held in Genoa.
As much as Orieux believes in a chefs role to educate his or her clients, he doesn't lose sight of why people go to restaurants. We don't go to restaurants to be given a lesson. Rather, we go to discover new flavors, tastes, and textures; to be surprised; or simply to spend nice time with friends. This is what Orieux proposes at Auguste, only he hopes the experience will be so memorable that his clients will want to ask for megrim, pouting or Pollock the next time they shop at their fishmonger. It is an education of a new kind -- one that gets the message across through our taste buds rather than our ears.
Such an approach reconnects producers or, in Orieux's case, fishermen, to chefs. Fishermen learn that some chefs are interested by the lesser-known fish they catch in their nets. That they can work directly with them, skipping intermediaries who don't propose these so-called less noble fish to chefs, assuming they won't be interested. In this respect, fishermen's work is that much richer, both literally and figuratively. The relationship between them and chefs goes further than an exchange of money against goods. There is exchange of knowledge, but also one of a more imperceptible kind, one that has to do with shared passion and humanity.
Perhaps the most striking example I ever encountered of this bond between a chef and his or her producers is Bernard Charret. Over the past 25 years, Charret has been patiently building a network of local producers to source his restaurant Les Chandelles Gourmandes, in Larçay. His goal was to be entirely local, and he is now close to getting there. Thanks to the collaboration, Charret cooks and serves more than 300 different vegetables, most of which are unknown to us, or game fish that were no longer cooked simply because the know-how was almost lost. He was also at some of his producers' sides when they were threatened with closing because their small-scale facility didn't have the regulatory analysis lab.
The word "restaurant" originally meant a place to restore clients' strength through food. With chefs like Charret or Orieux, it becomes a place to restore the strength of producers, chefs, and the environment.
Image: Pascale Brevet.