What I Wish I Knew Before I Wanted To Be A Chef
A question was posed to me during my introduction interview for culinary school: “Do you consider food to be art on a plate?” I was exposed to fine dining, after all, through artful documentaries that glorified the plight and plunder of chefs across the world, fervently elevating them to celebrity status. Sure, their food looked beautiful. However, I didn’t venture into the food business because I wanted to be an artist. In fact, it was my desire to be an artist — a musician and audio engineer, to be exact— that backfired, presently placing me in the financially precarious position of going back to school in my mid twenties. My fumbled diatribe enveloped the phrases often heard from T.V. and celebrity chefs; I espoused fast food as below “art,” I glorified local ingredients as the bastion of good food and good character, I delivered the gospel of farm-to-table and sustainability. I got in.
The late Anthony Bourdain once wrote:
“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman — not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them.”
The problem with the food system and all its interlocking components is that its relationship with the people who participate in it is often exclusive, extractive, and at times violent. The dominant voices in the food industry are the ones who perpetuate these behaviors and ultimately design the systems in which we get our food, which are almost always top-down, market-driven solutions that don’t fix systemic problems. These voices are amplified to the point that it becomes the status quo, without ever addressing democracy in the food world, the pitfalls of unsustainable capitalistic food enterprises, or getting input from people who most need the benefits of an equitable food system. Somewhere down the line, being a chef became more about the exclusive privilege of enjoying their “art” and less about actually feeding people.
Our food system has faced continual systemic problems for a very long time, and although many private and public organizations recognize this and claim to be an agent of change, their rhetoric is rarely any more than lip service and their business models often glean over or downright neglect structural problems in the name of celebrity, reflexive identity, and returns on investments. Exacerbating these issues are deep rooted racial and social prejudices in both agriculture and the food business at large stretching all the way back to European colonization of the Americas, on through to the dispossession of black farmers during the Civil Rights era, and whose modern incantations include the possessive investment in whiteness, passive nullification from government institutions, and the “Manifest Destiny” philosophies that fill the portfolios of agribusiness and agrigovernment in the ever-advancing late stage of capitalism.
The supply chain itself — from producer down to consumer — contains many fallacies. Rampant individualism of a large majority of small and large farmers leads to smaller economies of scale than are needed to truly make a difference in their communities and often neglect the endemic issue of poverty, ultimately creating a very uniform group of chefs, advocates, and educators where diversity and representation are paramount. Consumers’ reflexive identity with the foods they eat — a prevailing mentality of saving the world by “buying local” or by “eating this thing and not that thing” — causes corporations to push more products into the market and create new markets for commodities under the illusion of consumer choice while employing environmentally deleterious methods of production that undermine the values which they claim to oppose.
Chefs not only perpetuate this paradigm, they utilize the toolbox of colonialism to create these markets, form exclusive business networks, and invalidate their workforce — all without ever challenging the sustainability of their business models within and beyond their kitchens. The speed at which our food economy operates far exceeds the speed at which food is grown and, afterward, at which soil is regenerated, creating myriad man-made ecological disasters and financial crises ranging from aquifer depletion to crop subsidies. Even the very concepts of “producer” and “consumer” constantly erode as long as money accelerates around the planet, divorced from where we live.
All of these things add up to what socio-economists call “opportunity cost.” More symbolic than an empirical dollar amount (although it can be), it represents the cost of embracing a solution to an economic problem in proportion to what may have been saved using an alternative solution. When seeking to levy positive social change with investments believed to be both socially and environmentally beneficial (while also, importantly, bringing positive financial returns), investment firms utilize Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) strategies. However, there is little in the nature of fundamental systemic change that can be accomplished via broadly diversified portfolios of mature public companies managed by SRI brokers and advisors who compete with the financial returns and performance benchmarks defined by the extractive or destructive economic activities that are the objects of SRI reform. The core issue that the SRI industry is not confronting is the macro problem of economic growth, which manifests itself at the micro level of individual portfolios and investments as the problem of competitive returns. Professional managers are measured on their financial performance, and it is no different for those who incorporate social and environmental criteria.
The same can be said about opportunity cost as it relates to agriculture and, subsequently, the food industry. The evidence shows that racism has been backfiring on the very people set up to benefit from its enactment. It makes our economy worse, and not just in ways that disadvantage people of color. The consequences are not zero sum; the idea that what’s good for one group has to come at another’s expense has led to an insurmountable loss of indigenous knowledge about land stewardship, biodiversity, and actual human lives. Put another way, what we’ve lost in the way of soil fertility, arable farmland, and human health comes at the cost of hundreds of years of oppression and a government sanctioned perception of supremacy to minorities.
This loss manifests in the food system in ways I’ll describe in the future posts, and it is the work of food justice organizations like Crescendo Cuisine to reverse those effects. In examining a host of concepts and topics related to food justice, many systemic problems delineate shortcomings and inefficiencies in achieving its primary goals. Learning from these errors can help draw a road-map to an equitable food system that prioritizes food sovereignty, provides equitable meals with fresh ingredients, is an agent of change in food insecurity, brings land stewardship and thus equitable access to farmland back into focus, teaches a new school of education about the food industry (one that is informed by agriculture and slow money instead of buzz foods and fractured business models), and promotes a food system where the food that’s grown and sold is a byproduct of a network of large and small farms under restorative land management as opposed to commodities in forced markets that are the product of late-stage capitalism and systemic oppression. We must break free from our complacency in the status quo to achieve this because, in so doing, we’re liberated from our blindness to the shortsightedness and injustices that still surround us.