In the international world of food intelligentsia, the question of the week is this: Do chefs have any obligation to be political? And indeed, should they be, if they have the inclination? Or should they shut up and stay in the kitchen?
The argument has been playing out on the MADfeed website, first with an essay by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, which encourages chefs to get politically involved. And then, British restaurant critic Jay Rayner offered his own opinion: that "being a chef doesn't make you an agent of social change."
Rayner is generally one of the most acerbic, entertaining, intelligent critics writing today anywhere in the world, and this essay is no different. And while the urge to dismiss his argument as silly — of course chefs should be agents of social change! — is tempting, he makes some very valid points. But what's more interesting to me is the assumptions Rayner makes about chefs and restaurant patrons, assumptions that seem barely relevant from an American vantage point.
The main valid point Rayner makes seems a little out of date: that chefs seized onto the idea of locavorism and trumpeted it to death, while misunderstanding its actual import and impact. Which, he argues, is small. But his argument can also be encapsulated in this way:
The impulse to act is not the issue. It’s the belief that there is something specific about cooking in luxury kitchens, in taking massively extravagant ingredients and processing them into finely honed dishes for people with big bank balances, that provides a unique skill set with a wider application.
It really doesn’t.
Here's where I have to wonder if Rayner's European viewpoint is clouding his perception. Are high-end chefs still the only prominent voices in Britain? Even I get slightly annoyed by chefs preaching to the rest of us about the importance of a circle-of-life food system, all the while serving up $175 tasting menus. That is, in its own way, luxury peddled as political virtue. But many of America's most important chefs, and certainly the ones heavily involved in real political and social movements, are not operating at the super high-end, or not exclusively so.
I wonder what Rayner would think of the example of Roy Choi, who came to prominence as the operator of a food truck, and who is now spinning that prominence into advocacy on a number of fronts: confronting food deserts in Los Angeles, partnering with Daniel Patterson on a fast food restaurant that will serve cheap, healthful delicious food, challenging other chefs to think about issues of hunger and social injustice.
The other point that Rayner seems to miss is the simple equation of visibility and impact. I'm sure Emma Watson doesn't think her work as Hermione Granger gives her, as Rayner puts it, "a unique skill set with a wider application" as it relates to the plight of women worldwide. It's her visibility as an actress paired with her passion for an issue that makes her qualified to be a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. Call it the George Clooney model.
And the same thing is happening with chefs. As their celebrity status grows, why not use that visibility for good? Many of them are already doing so, with real success, and beyond the realm of farm-to-table that Rayner so easily shrugs off.
Just one example: CARE, one of the largest and oldest humanitarian organizations fighting global poverty, now parters with chefs as ambassadors on issues of sustainability, hunger, and food supply. This is not a bunch of chefs selling coddled carrots to rich people; it's a group of food professionals bringing awareness to major issues on a global level.
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"It’s nice that a chef skilled in knocking out twelve-course tasting menus wants to be a part of the solution," Rayner says, "In the sense that every individual has a role to play through their consumer choices, they can be. But their status as a chef isn’t a part of it, however much they might wish otherwise."
20 years ago, that may have been true. But today, food trucks can build an empire and someone's "status as a chef" means way more than being able to cook for rich people. Or it can mean way more if they want it to. Why on earth we'd want to discourage that I don't know.