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It was back in 2011 in Lima at the now famous G9 summit that chefs from all over the world gathered to produce a manifesto for the future of their own profession. An open letter signed by the likes of Ferran Adrià, Michel Bras, Gaston Acurio and Alex Atala, a manifesto addressed to all chefs and cooks in the industry. It read, in part:
We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just and sustainable society ... through our cooking, our ethics and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country ... we can also serve as an important bridge to other cultures ... we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature.
At the time, the mere idea of chefs who cooked expensive tasting menus in ivory constructed Michelin mansions for those lucky enough to afford the experience was widely scorned - restaurant critic Jay Rayner went as far as to question the whole thing as a "grand act of self delusion".
Who were these high profile chefs and did they really believe that the work they were doing could transcend the stoves in their kitchen? Shouldn’t they be focusing on soufflé perfection instead of social reflection? I myself was sceptical but the themes and issues raised back in 2011 haven’t gone away, in fact, they’ve grown and grown as chefs across the globe have focused their businesses, media exposure and rock star status towards making a wider contribution that impacts well away from the perfect porcelain plates of their restaurants.
In just the past few months the Roca Brothers have signed on to advise The United Nations Development Programme and Daniel Patterson has made the bold move to step away from what some would call a cushy position in a two-starred Michelin restaurant to open a fast food place in one of America’s most underprivileged neighbourhoods, alongside fellow chef Roy Choi.
I attended Mesaredonda in Mexico City at the end of 2015 - a one day culinary critique of the gastronomy industry attended by chefs, journalists, academics, scientists, historians and researchers - and I noted that the social theme in the world of food was going nowhere, that in the four years since the above manifesto was published, it had actually grown to include tangible examples and projects that proved chefs were stepping up and happily accepting a responsible role in everything from politics to agriculture, research to education.
At the beginning of this week inside the Basque Culinary Centre (BCC) in San Sebastian, a place that sits at the heart of modern avant-garde gastronomy, another important step along this path was taken. The launch of The Basque Culinary World Prize - an annual prize that aims to highlight and award a chef whose work “improves society through gastronomy”. A prize that will come with a massive €100,000 cheque to devote to a project of the recipient’s choosing, and a prize that will highlight some of the most important, innovative and beneficial gastronomy projects around the globe.
Any professional working in the food industry can nominate a chef to receive the prize and a jury made up of world famous chefs and experts such as the food scientist Harold McGee, the Italian culinary historian Massimo Montanari and the author Hilal Elver will be charged with helping pick a winner from a shortlist of 20 finalists.
It’s a massive step towards cementing the real gastronomic projects that are impacting different aspects of society, something that will finally offer some transparent and honest analysis. As chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, himself a board member of the BCC, explained just after the announcement: “There are some chefs with big notoriety that can help just by spreading a message, by sharing ideas with big audiences, while there are some chefs that can help in a more concrete context, by really improving people’s lives or realities, or by improving an entire sector.
“This prize will not only help to underline this but also invite other sectors of society to do the same: to be conscious of how small gestures and small - but real - actions can make a difference. Thats what’s important to me… Sometimes we think the gastronomy world is just for those who end up having the biggest influence in terms of communication or media, etc. In this case we are talking about real things…The kitchen (or gastronomy) is a reflection of the society we are part of and the time we live.”
Aduriz’s sentiment is echoed by the other board members of the BCC and by the star-studded line-up of chefs who will help to choose an overall winner. This is not another accolade for the greats or gods of gastronomy but a real chance to highlight genuine work that has an impact, something that will help to solidify the new way chefs are approaching their professions.
As Aduriz reiterates: “The world is full of prizes and awards, but all related to the professional side of chefs, not with the rest, that in many cases is related with social change. I hope this prize puts unknown people and those with big trajectories on the same level. Because it doesn't matter if you are a Michelin started chef or if you cook in a favela: if what you do has an impact, then this prize is for you… It will judge the capacity you have to make this world a little better, understanding that is something that can have multiple effects.”
The Oxford dictionary defines the world ‘chef’ simply as: “A professional cook, typically the chief cook in a restaurant or hotel.” First published in 1884, it’s hard to argue with most of the definitions found inside the hugely important book but as with the languages we speak everyday, the definitions, uses and words inside the dictionary constantly evolve - often taking on entirely new meanings. ‘Meat’, for example, in the first editions of the dictionary used to refer to all foods, and back in 2013 they updated the word ‘Marriage’ to include the modern definitions now attached to the word. I would argue that right now, with the work that chefs are undertaking, with the hundreds of projects this prize is set to highlight and with the constantly shifting role of the chef, that this rather basic description needs to be redefined.
Chef: a professional cook, typically in charge of a kitchen but also, in many cases, a person who engages in activities that put their gastronomy skills, techniques, knowledge and entrepreneurship towards effecting social change - be it political, educational, cultural or historical...