I was working at a large resort a few years ago, killing the prep list for our New Year’s celebration. Running up to the last several hours before execution, I found myself in front of a six-foot griddle getting ready to sear off two thousand U10 scallops. As I started popping the lids off of the containers, I was amazed at how beautifully uniform every single one was. I set myself to the task at hand as my mind began to wander, imagining what it must have taken to have harvested and sorted all of the scallops. Had it been a labor of love or just another shipment to get out?
Earlier in the morning, as I walked into the prep kitchen to rally the crew, I was taken aback at the pallets and hand trucks stacked with the product for the event. When one is prepping for a thousand people, it doesn’t leave much room for reflection, yet I wondered — more than once that day — where had all of this stuff come from? Had factory farms and ranches been involved or did some product represent smaller operations? How much had come from our partners in the adjacent valley or did it even matter? My thoughts at that moment were more practical than romantic; there were mouths to feed, after all, and purveyors to thank.
What Does It Mean to Be a Chef?
There had been a time when the “how” mattered just as much to me as the “why.”
I once honeymooned in the Black Forest in Germany and across from the chalet in which we were staying, there was a small restaurant on the hill overlooking the shallow valley. Every day at 2 P.M., I would watch the chef leave his restaurant by a side door with a basket slung over his arm. He would make his way up the rise in his Wellington boots to forage the surrounding countryside. My mind would race with ideas of the specials he would feature that night built with his discoveries from the forest. That, I thought to myself, now that’s a real chef.
As life would have it, I never had the opportunity to be that kind of culinarian, but that memory has always stuck with me. As my career progressed, the fantasy of a mindful partnership with the land became one of a stewardship of labor and food costs. You could argue that one is as valuable as the other, but becoming a good tactician to the exclusion of all other concerns always felt like a hollow victory to me. Did driving an acceptable food cost mean that the only connection to the land that made fiscal sense came by way of neat, Cryovac packaging? Did holding the labor line mean that chicken stock came from a bucket, or worse yet a tub of base, because there were no hours in the budget for breaking down whole birds?
Did keeping my job mean that I had to sacrifice the founding precept of whole food husbandry for the profitability of convenience? Was a “chef-ready” product an oxymoron or an insult to those that have forged the way for me? Is it really “chef-ready” or just “grill-ready”?
Then I spoke to Joel Salatin. Joel is the owner of Polyface Farms, a biodiverse operation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He’s also an advocate for a progressive permaculture movement, where humans, animals, grasses, and trees all work symbolically together for the health of the ecosystem. There is an elegant low-tech simplicity to how Joel manages his operation using mobility and grazing cycles in a graceful and responsible dance with his surroundings. He has been featured extensively in the press and spends a good amount of his year traveling the world discussing his approach with an evangelistic zeal.
He spent some time with me on an episode of Chef Life Radio and what he told me gave me pause, as well as some inspiration to figure out a better way for me as a chef and human being.
“We’re looking for committed partners,” Joel said, “Ones who get that all chickens are not created, or sized, equally. Chefs who are flexible and who know their craft well enough to make use of random breasts or a couple more dozen eggs.”
Ideally we, as chefs, can assist farmers and producers like Polyface Farms by adopting a whole animal practice in our kitchens, using by-product and minor cuts in all kinds of ingenious ways. Rather than a negative impact on the bottom line, the reality is that food costs — and staff proficiency — benefit from these types of practices because as Joel said, “Either you cut it or you’re paying someone else to cut it; it’s all relative.”
For Joel, the question always comes down to context. As a way of explanation, he is fond of saying, “You can be a Buddhist; you can even be a Nudist, but a ‘Nudist-Buddhist'? That will just confuse people.”
Life Lessons From Farmer to Chef
I guess that depends on the farmer. My conversation with Joel and the clear example of his sacred mission taught me that:
- Doing the right thing is more harmonious than doing it quickly or cheaply.
- History and tradition are there to serve us, and us to them.
- Transparency in process, product, and communication is essential to building trust.
- Being in an active partnership with the land, and those that mindfully tend it, can be challenging, rewarding, and ultimately empowering for any chef
- Convenience comes at a cost, and some, such as depressed wages, terrible working conditions, and ecological mayhem, will not be listed on the label. We can either pay the price now by supporting and working with biodiverse operations, or we can pay much more later in product scarcity, rising healthcare costs, and environmental dead zones.
The Chef as a Storyteller
So much of what it truly compelling in this life right now, and perhaps has ever been, is the narrative that we tell. Some chefs are content to let their cooking to do the talking. For a time, I too shied away from being an educator for my guests. Sometimes I consoled myself that I was just giving them what they wanted, letting the market make my decisions for me, instead of using this noble and respected profession to influence markets, purveyors, and set the trend. I hesitated to get up on the soapbox prepared for me by the labor of others.
Comfortable or not, we as chefs have an obligation to engage with our guests; telling the story of those with who we stand in partnership with. We are the public face of those producers who are trying to do the right thing; those who are working hard at being good stewards of what providence has bestowed on them. Why should we be less enthusiastic to stand in and be counted as equal partners and advocates of that which we reap?
As Joel told me, “People want to step into a righteous, sacred story, a helpful story, and participate in it. You just have to give them the context.”
I have to believe that he’s speaking about all us, chefs included.