At one time, chefs used to be cooks only, making dishes, creating recipes, and serving their hungry guests. People were not interested about their deep thoughts outside the ‘menu spectrum’, or about their other interests outside the kitchen. To be fair, at that time, the chef was only a cook! Their parallel activities were not relevant. Their reflections about philosophy, poetry, art, music and even environmental issues were hidden somewhere, and were not shared with the public. Their restaurants had the unique function of feeding physical hunger and to offer a good time to their guests.
Times have changed, however, and, as in all evolutionary processes, cuisine has evolved, and so too the role of the chef. Restaurants and chefs are now asked about their philosophies and ethical views. More than cooking to satisfy physical hunger, they are using their technical knowledge and skills to transmit ideas, to convey messages, and above all, to let the guests leave their restaurants with food for thought.
A couple of weeks ago, the Ambassadors of the Basque Culinary Center, Ferran Adriá, Yukkio Hattori, Massimo Bottura, Michel Bras, René Redzepi, Gastón Acurio, Alex Atala and Dan Barber, were in Lima for a meeting aiming to produce a document called the Lima Declaration. These chefs are named by the media the G9 (or ‘G8’ - Heston Blumental was not present because of other commitments). The idea was to begin a dialogue around the world about the role of the chef, and to set guidelines about the role with the aim of creating an international circle of common ideas.
As chef, journalist and one of the 20 witnesses at the G9 meeting in Lima this week, I am happy with this new development. Is it not the wish for any professional – to use his power to do something good? The G9 chefs have realised their power, and are trying to motivate other professionals around the globe to be responsible inside and outside their kitchens.
The Lima Declaration has evoked much comment around the world, and some journalists (mostly not present at the event) have expressed doubt about the importance of the document, and its impact. Some journalists have even questioned whether these chefs have a right to express views about the future of the planet! Why should we listen to a ‘bunch of cooks’? I believe that it is for the same reason that we should listen to a journalist, to an artist, to a musician, to a farmer, and to any professional with serious points of view. The ‘Lima Declaration’ is not going to change the world, but it is certainly a letter of good intentions. Most of the points are obvious and already discussed by Carlo Petrini from the Slow Food Movement, by Georges Schnyder from Prazeres da Mesa, Brazil, and more recently by René Redzepi at the Mad Food Camp in Copenhagen, but it is important that all the top chefs included in the G9 should add their names to the ideas previously discussed in a fragmented way with their interpretation.
The letter gives to chefs around the world a starting point for self-analysis: that the chef’s role is not only to feed people - a clear message that can be read in the introduction and between the lines throughout the document. It should be noted that the declaration is a statement of intent and that the methods by which the ideas are realised will need to be fleshed out later. The Declaration might have included comments on transgenic food (Dan Barber gave a very passionate speech about it after the G9 meeting) and the use of local produce and support to local farmers wherever possible. Also, social responsibility and ethics were treated in very general terms in the document, and could have been more specific. This would have helped young chefs around the world who need more direction at the start of their careers. However, Gaston Acurio explained the reason for the tone of the document: «This is only the first step to open a global discussion about the theme. It is only the beginning.»
What is important is that the G9 meeting has certainly caught people’s attention throughout the world. The Lima Declaration has set a foundation stone for a new approach and it is good that chefs are showing initiative and encouraging global responsibility in ethical, environmental and social issues. An historic moment indeed!