If you do a Google Image search for “Chef Saves World” (because why wouldn’t you?), you’ll find pictures of people like Jamie Oliver (often dressed up like a vegetable), René Redzepi, Ferran Adrià, and Mario Batali (huh?). Who you won’t find a picture of is Thomas Keller, because he’s not interested in saving the world. As reported recently in the New York Times:
‘Chefs’ obligation to help save the planet? A lofty idea, they [Keller and Spanish chef Andoni Luis Aduriz] agreed, but the priority is creating great, brilliant food.
“With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” Mr. Keller asked. “The world’s governments should be worrying about carbon footprint.”
Both he and Mr. Aduriz view the goal of haute cuisine as a seamless fusion of pleasure and art. But more radically, they are united in the belief that their responsibility as chefs is primarily to create breathtakingly delicious and beautiful food — not, as some of their colleagues think, to provide a livelihood for farmers near their restaurants, to preserve traditional culinary arts or to stop the spread of global warming.’
Radical indeed that chefs should care more about the food they prepare than about the future of 7 billion people – of which not even 0.1% are actually relevant to their livelihoods. So, cue righteous indignation. Here’s Nick Wiseman in the Huffington Post, where he notes his great disappointment in Keller, his ‘personal hero’:
‘Dismissing the role of chefs to do anything but cook diminishes the power of the profession. Sure, restaurants just serve food. But a chef, translated literally from its French root, leads. Mr. Keller is within his rights to leave his “chef jacket” at the door of his kitchens, but the issues linked to how he makes his living are too important. As an essential building block of life, food is linked to national security, public health, economic development, environmental protection, cultural preservation. Read Michael Pollan’s letter to the Farmer in Chief to see how inextricably linked food is to the fabric of this country. So for Mr. Keller to limit the role of chefs to just cooking great food marginalizes a profession he has vaulted to celebrity.’
I’ve now read this paragraph several times, and it still dazzles me with its absurdity. There are all these dots, but they just don’t connect. Chef = leader. Check. Leader of his kitchen, non? Food is linked to national security (!) and public health. Indeed. But hardly the food that comes out of the kitchen at Keller’s Per Se (check here if you want to know what a Per Se meal looks like. Go poke your eyeball if you want to know how it probably feels to pay for a meal at Per Se). Oh, because Michael Pollan said so! Er, not falling for that one. The profession that Keller ‘vaulted to celebrity’? Er, no.
I haven’t eaten at Per Se (or The French Laundry) and probably never will. I have tasted food from his cookbooks, and yes, his brownies are kick-ass (as is his outrageously good whipped brie). But apart from that, and contrary to Mr. Wiseman’s disappointment, I have great admiration for (finally!) a chef who just goes about his business. There is probably a reason, after all, that Per Se is considered one of the best restaurants in the world, while other chefs get dressed up as vegetables.