Friday, May 30, 2014

Can Chefs Change the World?

Yesterday I wrote up the book The Third Plate by Dan Barber. He presents an interesting argument that if chefs change their menus and use a wider range of foods, then home cooks will follow and this change can make a real difference. To summarize yesterday's post, Barber believes that chefs can by example improve the way people use resources. He states that consumption of all the products of organic farms and fisheries (including the less-popular rotation crops, the less-popular cuts of beef and chicken, and the less-desirable fish) instead of wasting them would lead to a more effective set of changes than he's seen result from "farm-to-table" dining and small-scale agriculture.

I didn't comment on why -- though I find his ideas compelling -- I don't think he's right. That's what I want to say now.

First, I am entirely unconvinced that the influence of chefs at upscale New York restaurants have any significant potential impact on the behavior of more than a few people outside their rich, self-absorbed, picky customers. I live in the midwest and I think I can say that New York chefs' impact extends at most to a very few chefs here, whose products don't influence what people buy or eat every day. I doubt that even the people who often eat in these refined places change their daily diet or home cooking (if they do any) as a result of eating there. It's way too much work!

Changing the overall American diet even a tiny bit is an incredible ambition. If you don't believe me, read the news of the debate in Congress this week about backing out the few changes that  have been made to the school lunch program! Try this: "The Campaign for Junk Food" by Michelle Obama or this: "The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday passed an agriculture budget bill that ... would allow schools to opt out of White House nutritional guidelines passed in 2012."

Second, I'm unconvinced that -- outside of trendy restaurants -- people are willing to eat food that's harder to cook, harder to chew, and harder to get used to. If you don't believe me, read one of the many books about how the food processing industry creates food that appeals to our primal tastes. For example, Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler, or one of many other books on that topic.

Finally, Barber seems really out-of-touch with the organic food industry as it presents itself to American consumers. He seems to think that the New York chefs are on the forefront. I think it's more likely that people are aware of (say) the Safeway house brand of organic food. Or with produce from Whole Foods Markets. Organic agriculture is already a mainstream trend; however, the label "organic" is defined by the government, and no longer represents small-scale agriculture anything like what Barber is talking about. This is a very complicated set of issues, which I don't want to belabor. I just feel  he's not in touch with any significant segment of consumers. He's out of touch with other things too, but I think I've made my point.

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