What (if any) responsibility do chefs have to the greater community with regard to a sustainable food system?

What (if any) responsibility do chefs have to the greater community with regard to a sustainable food system? That’s the question at the center of  the recent New York Times article, For Them, a Great Meal Tops Good Intentions, featuring chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Aduriz of Spain.

The article has stimulated an intense conversation among chefs and other stakeholders in our community about what role chef’s ought to play in influencing our food system.  We’d like to hear from you.  Are flavor and sustainability compatible?  What does sustainability mean to you – is it the same as “local?”  What enters into your decision-making when sourcing ingredients from far away? Do you think chefs have a responsibility to be role models when it comes to sustainable cooking?

We’ve written an op-ed and are trying to get it published. We look forward to sharing our views on the topic.  In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you! Leave a comment below.
2012-05-18T12:16:06+00:00May 18th, 2012|Blog|8 Comments

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  1. Wendy Isaacs May 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    In my opinion chefs should be invested in the food they are preparing and using local, organic, and sustainably grown ingredients is a conscious choice that shouldn’t be in conflict with creating flavorful, appealing dishes… organic tastes better! Perhaps if more chefs adopted this practice we could finally replace our decaying, government-supported conventional food system and keep the farmers who care about our health and the environment in business!

  2. James May 18, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    The idea that wild ocean sourced fish are local is ridiculous. A fishing boat landing locally is no different then a banana boat landing locally.

    I was born in northern Maine, my mother learned to cook for the hired hands on a potato farm. To her salt and pepper were exotic spices. I ate many boil Irish dinners and potato soups growing up; I miss those meals on a good cold winter day but I have also learned to make do with crawfish étouffé and seafood gumbo.

    If eating locally means buying overpriced produce of less quality then that too is ridiculous and effectively welfare. Any business operation that requires permanent financial support to continue is counterproductive. I refuse to eat in a bad restaurant so why shouldn’t I refuse to purchase lower quality protein or produce.

    If eating locally means forgoing chocolate, coffee, tea, spices, etc. then that too is ridiculous.

    Consuming unsustainable products is, if truly unsustainable, unsustainable and should be stopped. Too many times, an individual’s bias declares something unsustainable that in reality is sustainable and vice versa.

    I would love reasonable price local protein and produce at competitive quality. I appreciate the natural rhythm of eating the seasons augmented from time to time by home canned vegetables, pickles and relishes.

    In summary, I don’t go out to eat what I can cook at home, I want to be impressed by the food and the service. Eating Local campaigns should be terminated in favor of sustainable agriculture. I think we need more independent grocers that are willing to carry local produce but also demand quality (we need to let the bad growers fade away). I think the FDA needs to design and promote small scale creameries, egg processors, canneries and abattoirs to encourage the growth of small scale, local animal husbandry and allow the products to be sold to restaurants, grocery stores, and individuals.

  3. Britin Foster May 18, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    We are a tiny bakery/cafe in Albany, NY. We practice farm-to-table in the interest of enjoying the benefit of working w/ (and eating) THE FRESHEST, sustainable produce/milks/cheeses/flours/etc. available from the plethora of hardworking, local producers that abound in our region; reducing our carbon footprint; and providing Clean, Real, Local foods to our community.

    By doing so, we develop meaningful relationships with our food producers; support their families and our local/regional economy; and bring our community healthy, seasonal, fresh foods (we share photos and stories which spur other communal relationships). For us, sourcing our ingredients locally just makes sense, on every level. We are helping to celebrate the farmers and small food producers of our region, getting to KNOW them personally, and bringing their stories to the general public, which is beneficial for any community/economy. Everyone must eat, and with all the crap that goes into some “foods” these days, it pays to be able to look your farmer or cheesemonger in the eyes and ask pertinent questions.

    There are ingredients that a Chef may want to serve that can’t be gotten locally, of course, but learning the provenance of our food and the producers behind it brings much-needed soul back into our meals and celebrates regional delicacies/star producers.

    Every chef’s closest professional relationships should be with their farmers and other food producers, because, you know, THAT’S WHERE THE FOOD COMES FROM. Respect, appreciation, even reverence for the masters who produce the food we use and consume is a must in my book! (IMNSHO)

  4. Maureen wilson May 18, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    I’ve heard all the excuses before. This is not a mandate but rather something you do when ever you can (be local and sustainable) because it’s just the right and smart thing to do.
    Having said this, we all deal with margins (even Thomas Keller I imagine). I’ve read stories in The New Yorker about chefs flying food in from god knows where for god only knows how much. For me, walking out to my garden and picking produce to eat within the hour is like nothing else flavor wise. It’s about fresh! And not doing harm.
    Those of you that want to bring in all this exotic crap Because You Can are just more of the 1% and frankly I have no respect for you.

  5. Stephanie Fitch May 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    As chefs we have to accept responsiblity of supporting sustainable farming and fisheries. We also hold the responsibilty of supporting our quality local producers, ultimatly supporting the communities that support us. We must hold ourselves to ecofriendly practices such as recycling, reducing energy usage and composting. In addition, we have the responsibilty of educating on healthy cooking and eating within schools and charities. As a chef, please do your part be proud to be part of this amazingly positive world change.

  6. Don Ogden May 21, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    I guess we know now where Keller’s sense of self-worth leaves off and his sense of self-importance begins: when he opens his eyes in the morning. As someone who has friends and loved ones in the high-end foods industry I can attest to the growing concern they have for the planet and its inhabitants, human and non-human alike. That concern is addressed in their choices and their product. I’ll be asking them not to service or patronize sociopaths and ecocidal low-life like Mr. Keller. For someone who prides himself on perfecting flavors he truly has bad taste.

  7. linda June 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    I understood that Chef Keller has his own garden/farm and employs a farmer to grow some of the food for his restaurant. i heard that farmer speak at a farming conference this year.

  8. Chefs Resources June 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    “Sustainable” and “Locally Grown” are two distinctly different concepts and I don’t believe that sustainable has to mean local. I think “sustainable” is very important when discussing seafood and carries a higher priority than “locally grown”. But I also don’t think that sustainable and locally grown programs have to be “all or nothing”, but rather need to be a goal which is sought after based upon the region we live in, the season we’re in, and our customer cliental (what our customers want and how much they are willing to pay).
    Like most hot topics, there are zealots on either side of the issue of sustainable food. Often times in the debate I hear idealists say something like, “All chefs should serve only local sustainable products and help educate people about real food.” In principle, almost every chef may agree with this idea in concept, but chefs also realize that implementing it in an absolute way is not practical. In many parts of the country, to purchase and serve only local products would result in an homogenized mass of similar dining experiences, it would mean the end of many ethnic restaurants, and going out to dinner in the winter would be a choice of who has the best recipe for winter squash and locally canned beans.
    I think that is what Chef Thomas Keller was trying to convey. His restaurant The French Laundry is located in Napa Valley, a veritable mecca of produce and vendors, where he is well known for utilizing local ingredients. But Per Sec is located in NYC… what local farm can provide food for all of NYC? Especially during the months when the region is blanketed in snow? “Local” for many chefs means getting the best quality product from as close to home as possible, while still serving a diverse menu. By this definition, oranges from Florida or California are “local” for most of the country. The diversity of the menu is more important than serving only local products from a few miles away. People go out to eat in order to try new and different things.
    Other issues which chefs are concerned with when implementing a “locally grown” program include:
    • Pricing – local producers sometimes cannot compete on the cost of goods
    • Menu price- because of the higher food cost of local products, the menu price is higher which can limit customer traffic
    • Quality – many issues can affect the quality of a product… bottom line is that a good chef is going to choose quality product over local product (who cares if it’s local but the product is garbage?)
    • Quantity – can the vendor produce enough quantity for the restaurant
    • Availability – is the product consistently available
    • Transportation – does the vendor deliver 5 or 6 days a week
    • Reliability – if I order it will I get it when you say I will… a chef’s menu relies upon dependability
    • Insurance – if your spinach is responsible for an E. coli outbreak do you have the resources to deal with the fallout
    One good solution for sourcing local ingredients from an array of farmers and vendor is to us a vendor such as Charliies Produce (West Coast). They have programs set-up which support local farmers and make it possible to source as much variety as possible from local farmers while being a “one stop shop” for chefs. This allows a chef to get much of his/her seasonal ingredients close to home, support local farms, and assuage the above mentioned concerns.

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