The effects of poor diets and wasteful food systems are becoming impossible to ignore, spurring more people to consider how the ways we produce and harvest food affect the planet and how the foods we eat affect our bodies. In theory, many people share the goal of eating in a way that is healthier and more sustainable, but in practice, diners’ decisions are driven by what tastes good.
The importance of making sure healthy and sustainable food choices are also delicious is a constant refrain at the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change conference. At the sixth annual conference last week, author Michael Ruhlman spoke to attendees about the important role chefs play in the future of food.
Doctors and scientists can tell us all the reasons that eating a certain diet is better for our health and the environment, but chefs’ knowledge of flavor and ability to transform ingredients into memorable meals is key to making sure consumers make the right choice. A recent CIA survey found that the majority of students enrolled at the school are interested in food ethics. By cooking with a focus on nutrition and sustainable sourcing in addition to flavor, these chefs have the power to change the food landscape.
“Dan Barber, through his stories, has changed the way we think about food and need to think about food,” said Ruhlman, who has authored both cookbooks and books on the culinary profession, including “The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America.”
Ruhlman said Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., wrote to him that one of the best things US chefs can do is combat the Western ideal of a plate anchored by animal protein. “We need to reverse that, and make proteins supporting actors because the carrying capacity of the land won’t allow us to eat that way for very long, but more because it isn’t all that delicious,” he said. “We should look to ethnic cuisines that…allow lowly vegetables to take center stage. Very tasty, very sustainable.”
Another way chefs can spearhead positive change is by fighting food waste. “We’re worried about waste and we should be. We’re throwing food away and we can’t afford to do that anymore,” Ruhlman said. He lauded a forthcoming cookbook by Joel Gamoran called “Cooking Scrappy” that includes recipes for cooking with parts of ingredients that are normally thrown away. He also cheered the efforts of Corey Chow, executive chef at Per Se, who is finding ways to cook with carrot peels and other scraps in a way that elevates them to fine dining status.
Efforts such as these to change the way people think about and cook food are essential to building a better food future, but there are also many ways food can change the world outside of professional kitchens. Ruhlman praised the humanitarian work of Jose Andres in Puerto Rico, where he led an effort to feed people after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017. “More than 130,000 meals he fed to people…he changed those people’s lives through food,” he said.
In closing, he reminded the audience of a CIA alum who started his career as a chef but made a name for himself as a storyteller. Anthony Bourdain, who died tragically earlier this month, will long be remembered for opening the eyes of countless people to other cultures and customs by showing them the world through the lens of food.
“If you doubt that chefs can change things, I want you to look to him. He told stories, he shared stories of culture, of politics, stories of the world. And he changed that world,” Ruhlman said. “And I say to you cooks, you can do it too.”
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