What Makes an Ethical Chef?
What Makes an Ethical Chef?
As a chef today, by default, you are asked to be ethical. Which often is a lot easier said than done. For instance, how is it not the norm that you can simply walk into any shop or restaurant and be able to find out exactly where the ingredients have been sourced from? For me, transparency is an essential ingredient in my daily diet and one that I strive for in each recipe, ingredient and event that I publish, use and host. Without this transparency, chefs cannot even begin to work ethically.
But what exactly do we mean by an ethical chef? To me, an ethical chef is one that considers all points of sustainability in their cooking methods, produce used, partners to collaborate with as well as taking their private life and associated actions into account. Not to mention, being a force for good and building a community of ethically aware foodies.
Why Chefs Have A Responsibility To Be Ethical
All chefs - big and small; celebrity and domestic - are one link in the chain of people responsible for feeding the world. Alongside farmers, politicians, those in logistics and of course distribution. Although this may be one relatively small link when you look at the bigger picture, it certainly brings a lot of responsibility. It is the kind of responsibility that asks you to stop and consider your actions in the context of how they today will affect our ability to feed the population down the line. When we are 10 billion, 15 billion and so on.
What this responsibility, in the end, boils down to is choice. The choice of a chef to support both his community while supporting the environment. For example, Alice Waters, founder and executive chef of California’s legendary Chez Panisse, didn’t have to support local farmers 20 years ago. Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill farm, restaurant, and cafe, didn’t have to start his own farm and agricultural centre. And David Chang, executive chef and co-owner of Momofoku, doesn’t have to offer his employees health care and 50-hour workweeks. These are just a few examples of talented chefs who feel the responsibility to ethically support their community and their environment and so have made a choice to do so.
In today’s Instagram-mad world, the terms ‘organic’, ‘farm-to-table’, ‘seed-to-fork’ and the worst of them all ‘clean-eating’ are thrown about without real care to consider their meaning. As a result, they all seem to have been dismissed one by one as pretentious and idiotic sentiments redolent of smug city dwellers fawning over a tomato!* However, what they represent is where the real meaning lies; they represent a choice. Whether that’s a choice of seeking out provenance or not. A choice of supporting a balanced diet or not. A choice to support the most sustainable options or not. Or, probably most importantly, the choice to covert and pursue a biodiverse and nutritionally rich diet.
It is this final choice that is most threatened by unethical intensive farming as well as, ironically, those in direct opposition to it:
As Gizzie Erskine puts it, albeit rather crudely, it is a truth universally acknowledged that “one of the worst things to happen to the world is intensive farming.” This we definitely can all agree on. It is unethical and unsustainable. She goes on, “the easiest and clearest way for most of us to understand and practice this is to eat less meat and dairy bought from the supermarkets...and to try and incorporate more vegan foods and meals into our diets.” Surely that must be, right? Unfortunately, things are never that simple: “The best way though; is this [Regenerative Agriculture]. This is the future. Without this, we are all fucked.”** What she goes on to conclude is that veganism and an entirely plant-based diet won't save the world. Regenerative farming and agriculture will.
To summarise the unethical nature of intensive farming is simple. But to summarise the unethical nature of intensive farming’s most obvious protesters, vegans, is a little more complex. Look at it this way: if we were all to switch to a plant-based diet, its a brutal fact, but the majority of the native animals that have come to symbolise British countryside would cease to become a common sitting. This I because by switching to a plant-based diet en-masse, the demand on producers would also switch. Rather than intensely farming chickens, cows, pigs and sheep, we would be intensely farming crops to sustain this plant-based diet and the need and want for animal rearing would diminish.
Regenerative Agriculture as Gizzie pushes is all about naturally restoring soil health. Broadly speaking, this is by planting a variety of crops that store carbon and add nitrogen. More carbon is the basis of soil fertility, enabling the release of nutrients for plants to grow. More carbon in the earth also means less carbon in the atmosphere, which is better for climate change.
Nitrogen is also vital because it helps plants to photosynthesise and is important for plant growth and structure. When you prioritise soil health it forces you to farm more in tune with nature and this leads to more biodiversity and more nutritionally rich food.
The best way to do this is to use pasture-fed animals as part of the arable farming systems, growing grass and cover crops to feed to livestock that then fertilises the soils with their dung and help to regrow soil structure. As a result, if we were all to switch to a solely plant-based diet our soil health would heavily suffer. And without the option of systems such as regenerative agriculture, our food industry would collapse.
As one example, it is this level of understanding and consideration that must go into each and every menu choice that a chef makes.
So, for me, Being an ethical chef means taking responsibility for the change that needs to happen and not settling for the status quo. As an ethical chef, I believe in supporting ethical sourcing - that also means embracing and making the most of seasonal produce - both meat and plant based ingredients for a balanced and biodiverse diet.