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Calling All Chefs (and Their Customers)

Paul's passion for truly good food, his interest in doing the right thing across the board and of course his incredible expertise as a chef/co-owner of multiple NYC eateries gives him the ability to know, firsthand, the many challenges chefs face today.
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Chefs have the great task of nourishing others. And hopefully that means caring about every ingredient they are using. Though just as consumers turn a blind eye to food choice, so do many culinary wizards. And while I realize and appreciate that everyone has a different starting point, it's time that we help these incredible women and men take on the role of agents of change, understanding the true value of quality ingredients.

Working with many accomplished chefs over the years, I realize no matter how beautiful or delicious, food will always miss the mark for me if using the purist most sustainable ingredients doesn't take center stage--if not 100% of the time, then most of the time.

As a chef trained at Natural Gourmet Institute I know firsthand that truly high quality ingredients can be used across the board to create delicious food. However many of the notables were taught that quality equals flavor (a top down approach) rather than quality means far more than just flavor--it starts with sourcing the purist ingredients with the highest level of integrity. Here's my "chef wish list":

  • Local organic ingredients if possible; if not, simply go local (best to support the local economy)
  • Animal foods of the highest humane welfare (versus those products boasting antibiotic and hormone-free, even organic)
  • Fish sourced using Seafood Watch as a guide (but chefs should really know the name of the fisherman who caught their fish)
  • Fair Trade ingredients like herbs and spices, cocoa, sugar, tea and coffee
  • Non-irradiated dried herbs and spices
  • No GMO ingredients (corn starch, corn syrup and other like products are favored among chefs)
  • No ingredients that use chemicals (rampant among sauces in any chef's pantry)
  • Perhaps this sounds ideal, so I recently caught up with Chef Paul Gerard to better understand if my ideas were too lofty--surely he would deliver it straight. Paul's passion for truly good food, his interest in doing the right thing across the board and of course his incredible expertise as a chef/co-owner of multiple NYC eateries gives him the ability to know, first hand, the many challenges chefs face today.

Stefanie: Noting my wish list from above, are my ideas unrealistic?

Paul: Well, if by unrealistic you mean impractical, then yes. What is entirely realistic is that we must move towards everything on your list. I personally believe that we, as consumers, need to have these edible aspirations. But there are a few different factors to consider. Chefs are not necessarily tasked with "nourishing". Nor are we responsible for saving the planet. We are charged with making peoples eyes roll in their head when they eat something. That's the bare bones of it. The craft of cooking is to provide a flavor experience, not to save the world. Also, the task of being a chef, a professional chef, is not only about culinary artistry but also about being a boss, running a team, keeping costs in line, and maintaining a small army that can "win the war" of the restaurant business.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't strive towards providing true nourishment through sustainable practices, but I want the "food illuminati" to understand the realities chefs face. No matter how well intentioned we may be, your ideal is not always feasible. Think of it this way--a mother of 4, or a single dad hopes to give the best food to their children but most families have a food budget to adhere to, and intention doesn't always align with knowledge, resources, availability and costs. I believe that your "wish list"--something that I strive for daily--is presently a luxury of the privileged. And there are few restaurant chefs that fall into that category, especially in NYC--margins are tighter than ever, overhead looms bigger than ever, and the clientele is more demanding than ever.

Stefanie: You say the chefs are striving for my ideal. So what do you believe are the biggest challenges chefs face in making healthier choices for themselves and their customers?

Paul: Know that every time you sit down in a pleasant atmosphere in a cool candlelit room to enjoy a perfectly executed meal (as 50 to 60 to 100 other diners amiably chat and sip wine around you) the reality is that there are a group of people in the back of the house making a series of "unhealthy" choices to execute your dining experience. Whether it's the hours they keep, the time with family they sacrifice, the lack of sleep, drinking, drugs, not eating properly (too much or too little), these are all realities of the restaurant business. Granted, the ethos of healthy work conditions in my business is far better than it was when I was coming up the ranks, and overall, chefs are taking better care of themselves. But just because some "generals" have changed doesn't mean the "war" has.

The restaurant business is tough. The public watches food TV where chefs are glorified but it's a rough life full of unhealthy demands. So when you talk about chefs taking charge of their customers' nourishment, how can we do so if we aren't truly healthy? And it's really not our job to tend to the guests health--we are not in the business of good FOR you; we are in the business of good TO you.

Don't get me wrong, I love many aspects of being a chef--it's a very satisfying life that has brought me great joy; and I truly feel blessed to be allowed to feed people, but I feel a responsibility to be completely honest about the realities we face. While your ideals are in alignment with where I think we all need to go, we have a long road ahead. When was the last time you read a restaurant review in the New York Times that focused on nutrition (like caloric content and sodium levels) and non-irradiated herbs? Now, I'm not saying these aren't important things, but the artful qualities of this craft are first and foremost in flavor.

So ultimately, cost, time, public perception of what they consider to be value, consistency in product availability and uniformity are all things that make it difficult to provide what you see as the truly healthy choices.

For example, I was buying from a small farmer in upstate NY and received a shipment of 12 pork bellies. They were local, sustainable and delicious, but due to inconsistency in fat/meat ratio I ended up with less than a dozen sellable portions. That's one portion per belly! Now can I, as a chef, go to my partners and rationalize my food cost based on my morals? Admittedly, I find factory farming to be appalling but it would benefit chefs the nation over if you and your colleagues showed us how to meet consistency and cost without having to resort to such offensive practices?

There are many amazing chefs doing remarkable things, but no one ever writes about the guys and gals who are struggling every day to make ends meet--utilizing the small farmers and making delicious food so everyone can have the best of everything while also keeping their jobs, businesses open and ensuring food on their own tables.

I don't think there's a chef out there worth their weight that doesn't care about your ideal and wants the same things you do. But until we are educated on what the better choices are and how we, as chefs, can achieve all we need to achieve (meaning everyone wins) there are going to be struggles, and the bottom line will always win.

Stefanie: What do you think needs to happen for chefs to start to shift?

Paul: Apart from flavor, your wishes are our main concerns but just not achievable from a consistency and costing perspective at this time. Please don't get me wrong in all of this. I'm not a cynic by any means rather a realist. These are challenges that chefs don't discuss publicly, but we surely discuss it amongst ourselves--few will go on record regarding the struggles. Do you think an up and coming chef being interviewed by Food and Wine or Bon Appetit is going to gripe about inconsistencies or cost from the small farmer? Will he or she complain about the fact that the typical "Portlandia-esque" customer who wants to know the name of the chicken refuses to pay the $35 for the high humane welfare bird (because that's what we need to charge to make any money)? Customers want transparency and higher quality, but are they truly willing to pay the cost for it? Of course not, but that doesn't mean we haven't tried to align "perfect" product with great taste. It's just that there are a multitude of variables that aren't being discussed on a whole, from chefs to consumers. We all need to be educated on how we can achieve higher quality, consistent food and a cost that makes sense for everyone. Many of us do the very best we can, but the conversation about what shifting truly means and the realities that exist will help us all reach your ideal.

THANK YOU Paul Gerard for delivering it straight! Bottom line is that my ideal challenges chefs' end product consistency and costing model. But there has to be another way--one that puts true high quality ingredients and authentic sustainability at the center (versus the green washing sort) as well as their customer's health and wellbeing. So given this, I am asking you, the consumer, to help chefs do better. Demand different but also be willing to pay for it!

To stay connected with Stefanie, sign up for her blog -- bi-weekly ruminations, radio shows and recipes, and follow her on: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Her book, What the Fork Are You Eating? (Tarcher/Penguin Random House) is available wherever books are sold. You can also catch Stefanie's recent TEDx Talk here.