Jonathan Zearfoss is a professor of the culinary arts and the lead curriculum developer for the new culinary science program at The Culinary Institute of America, the World’s Premier Culinary College.
What food trends do you see on the horizon for 2013, and what trend from 2012 are you ready to see die?
Well, first, let me say that I feel like the guy in the contact lens commercial, now that my long-term love affair with pork has become almost ubiquitous and commonplace.
Seriously, though, I am concerned about the way the term “farm to table” is bandied about and used as for marketing by just about every restaurant in the country. Let me be clear, I — like many chefs — am and have been an ardent support[er] of purchasing locally from farms and artisans for all of my career and, in fact, when I was a child in the ’60s, my family went to the farmers market just about every Saturday. While acknowledging the sound bite as message world that we live in, I believe that the message becomes diluted and ultimately cheapened by its pervasiveness.
It’s not only OK but important, I think, for a restaurant to admit that they don’t buy their 50 pound units of carrots, onions and celery, or coffee and salt from a local producer and frankly, small, local, family-owned farms might not even be able to survive economically producing those items. That honesty will be an important step in our cultural evolution during which consumers are better able to understand the complexity of our food systems.
The charade on the other hand, that everybody’s buying everything from local sources, may well be equally counterproductive. As an aside, one should ask, if the food isn’t coming from the farm to the table, where is it coming from? That said, I hope small producers continue to thrive. Really, the obsession with quality (rather than quantity) might be the takeaway our culture really needs.
One trend I see moving forward is that we will find ourselves becoming less rigid about the historical authenticity of food and embrace the wide array of products available to us in less dogmatic way. Chefs like Danny Bowien, who don’t feel handcuffed by tradition, will continue to thrive.
Sustainability continues to be a hot topic in the food industry. Should sustainable food production and sourcing be a goal for every chef?
Given the importance of food in culture and as [it] relates to the overall health of both society and the planet, chefs and others with decision-making authority in food service need to carefully consider the ethics underlying, and the implications of, their decisions. It is not, however, the role of the chef, or even possible, for chefs to pedantically force or enforce consumer behaviors.
Issues such as feeding a growing population with decreasing resources such as arable land and potable water and additional considerations like health, climate change and viable food distribution systems are of such magnitude that all of us, globally, need to give them a great deal of attention. So, within that context, it is certainly not too much to ask that chefs take an active role in that discussion and make ethical issues a standard in their purchasing strategy.
Why is knowing the science of cooking important to today’s chefs, and in what new ways will chefs be using culinary science in the coming year?
We have entered the era of evidence-based cooking. Chefs today who better understand the mechanisms underlying the transformations of food during preparation and cooking will be far better prepared for success in the future than their counterparts. A science-based approach to food is an increasingly important part of the chef’s toolkit, which will both facilitate creativity and help the contemporary chef navigate the complexities of food safety, nutrition, energy conservation and consumption, yield, efficiency of production systems and current and evolving technologies. In addition, chefs will be able to make informed rather than emotional decisions about some of the ethical issues we’ve already discussed such as sustainability, safe and humane raising methods and purchasing.
Thanks to international conferences and the continuing evolution of social media, the culinary world is more diverse than ever. How are chefs benefiting from increased exposure to the cuisine and customs of other nations?
I don’t really tweet, but I think interesting things can, will and do happen when chefs and customers can engage directly with each other and customers can follow the movements of their favorite food trucks or learn about Twitter-only specials and so forth.
Both social media and international conferences have helped to eliminate the secrecy that was part of the food/chef culture years ago and have thereby helped to promote a culture of sharing and communication. Information sharing between chefs and chefs, chefs and scientists and chefs and consumers are just a few examples.
I think exposure breeds comfort, and the more familiar we are with various ingredients, cuisines and customs, the more accepting we become. This has implications for global understanding that go well beyond food. What was it M.F.K. Fisher said? “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk.”
What was your most memorable food experience in 2012, and where or what can you not wait to eat in 2013?
In terms of memorable food experiences in 2012, I have spent the last year deeply immersed in developing the new BPS in Culinary Science degree at the CIA and as a result have spent a good bit of time working with emerging technologies. I have become particularly interested in Controlled Vapor cooking technology and think we will be seeing it used a lot more in the future.
In terms of experiences that I didn’t have, I heard a woman on TV lamenting the apparent demise of Hostess/Twinkies and how her children will never know this iconic food. It made me wonder if the fact that I never got around to eating a Twinkie is something I will regret.
Seriously though, despite the fact that I laid in what I thought would be a good supply for the winter, I will be looking forward to the opening of my small, local farmers market because I have become quite the fan of the lamb, beef and chicken from Spring Wool Farm in Staatsburg, N.Y.
This question-and-answer session was produced as part of SmartBrief’s 2012 Best Of reports, which capture the year’s most important stories in each industry. Sign up now for ProChef SmartBrief to get tomorrow’s report on the top must-read stories from the world of culinary arts.
Image courtesy of Jonathan Zearfoss.