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Chefs Step Up to The Plate

Chefs Step Up to The Plate

The role of chef is constantly shifting as we see them having a larger impact further and further away from the kitchen but what is a chef in the 21st century?

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If you love your land you reflect it. If you love your land, you are also responsible... Michel Bras.

Right now, as I write this paragraph, there’s a fine dining restaurant in Bolivia helping give unemployed locals a job in the kitchen, a chef in Colombia going on missions with armed guards to war torn areas of his country to bring guerrilla fighters and ex FARC rebels together behind the stove. There’s been a whole list of Michelin starred chefs in Milan cooking waste ingredients for the homeless for the past five months, there’s the Clink restaurant inside a prison in the UK and a number of establishments taking disadvantaged or struggling youths and giving them a chance to make it in the culinary world.

Around three weeks ago we attended the Mesaredonda gastronomy critique in Mexico City, a one-day event that brought together some of the biggest names in the culinary industry to discuss everything from sustainability to creativity. In the first report from that roundtable discussion we focused in on some of the main topics highlighted during the event, but one overriding theme kept arising, in many guises and from many people, scattered throughout all the topics and somehow hidden within every question, comment or theme, there sat a constant anchor. That the chef of today has a much bigger role to play outside of the kitchen. That the motivation for social responsibility, from the chefs and customers, is now coming through stronger than ever, and that the role of a chef and how we recognise it is going to change dramatically.

Helping farmers get the best for their products, helping educate people in cooking food waste, changing the fast-food supply chain, researching entirely new ingredients and disrupting home delivery methods. Chefs are already involved in all of the above, but building programs to feed the elderly, is that really their job? Should they play a role in helping fight against, or, in some peoples’ opinions, fight for the introduction of GMO crops? Is it their job to protect the rare varieties of ingredients we’ve been loosing thanks to industrialisation? To address food deficits in their countries, to work on social health, obesity, social economics? Should they be the ones explaining to all of us exactly what the hell a transgenic plant is and exactly what it might do to our food systems in the future? And are these the questions that now keep chef’s awake at night? If so, it seems a whole lot more complicated than planning tomorrow's lunch service.

“When I first started, chefs were terrible communicators - it was a joy when this generation of smart, educated and well articulated chefs came around”, proclaimed Ruth Reichl, as the food writer spoke about a shift from the idea of chefs as recipe producing machines to people who can carry and communicate a valuable message. “The future of leadership in the kitchen has little to do with cooking”, replied Michel Bras, “the restaurant leader of the future will have social responsibility on a whole new level.” The question was asked to the French chef via a video by Rene Redzepi. In another instance, Andoni Luis Aduriz sent a question to the organiser Enrique Olvera, “how do you think we’re going to provide food for our future generations?”

It’s these topics that are hitting chefs at the forefront of gastronomy, they’re not stepping away from their research or dedication to delicious but they are moving with society, all of us are becoming more and more aware of our affects on our surroundings and so are chefs and for the generation of chefs that comes after them, the ones currently training in their kitchens, those who sat in the audience at Mesaredonada and those who watched the live stream at home, for them it will be the norm, for them, Social Responsibility it will be part of what being a chef means. Because as we said before - the role of the chef is changing and for the Millenniums - Generation Y as they’re called - they already expect this stuff as part of the package. 

“A chef is the CEO of the company - you should empower staff so much to the point where you become redundant - allowing the chef to go on and do more work”, a concise response given by Reichl when one audience member asked about the issue and, in many cases, negative connotation of a chef who is not always in their kitchen. The chef is naturally shifting away from the bricks and mortar of the restaurant, they have been doing it for a while, but the more transparent way in which it will be done in the future, this is what is different. This is what is needed to give chefs the true freedom to explore the  other avenues of impact they can have.

Jair Téllez from the Merotoro restaurant in Mexico City stood with mic in hand and bravely stepped forward, “When does the chef come out of the closet and admit that they aren’t cooking all the dishes, that they have other restaurants, other businesses? Why can’t chefs admit that?” As with all shifts like this, in any industry, it will be a few brave ones who step further out of the kitchen to help redefine the role and some who surely won’t accept the change. "A chef should chop ingredients, create recipes, and bloody well cook", that's what they’ll say, but that seems a much sadder path to follow, after all - isn’t a chef’s purpose in many cases to help enrich us?

If this really is the future of the chef in the 21st century then there will need to be further education, new ways for chef’s to learn, to access information and to process where it is the industry is going and where they stand in shaping it. Someone who has perhaps helped to push the term of what it means to be a chef more than most is Rene Redzepi. Just last month he announced news that he will be working with the Danish government to help set the food curriculum for children, and just last week, he showed that he also sees the gap in education required for chefs to acquire the skills needed to continue impacted our future. He did this with the launch, alongside Yale University, of a Chef Institute that he says will help to: “create and curate new discussions among leading chefs as their influence continues to develop past the walls of the restaurant.”

“Partnering with Yale is an opportunity to realise the potential we believe the chefs have to influence how we eat now and in the future”, explained Redzepi. “Combining this with the university’s fantastic legacy and educational resources we think can provide a new knowledge base, one that has often been overlooked, that will reinvent the leadership role of chefs in initiating new conversations on topics like kitchen culture, sustainability, inclusiveness, and respect.”

The first participants are expected to attend the institute in 2016 and Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College, said they are expecting them to leave the program with a “compassionate understanding of the socio-economic, environmental, and health challenges facing food systems around the world, and be inspired to bring lasting change.”

There was mention of Gustu in Bolivia - 32 on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, a successful business and one that owner Claus Meyer - co-founder of Noma - uses in a two pronged social attack. One to promote Bolivia through its rich biodiversity, similar to how Gaston Acurio has done in Peru, and the second to use funds generated by the restaurant to train young chefs from the local area. Jamie Oliver was awarded an MBE by the Queen, largely due to the role his Fifteen restaurants have had in offering unemployed young people the chance at work in the kitchen. Then there’s the likes of Daniel Patterson who recently walked away from his executive chef position to pursue a dream of impacting the fast-food sector with a chain of restaurants he will open with Roy Choi.

It’s nothing new to note that the chefs' influence is extending way beyond the kitchen, but it is new to see so many chefs now embracing the responsibility. In the past there were just a few, usually bashing away at projects dear to their own heart, or, in many peoples’ eyes, projects that helped promote their brand. Now they’re accepting the role with vigour, they’re presenting to The UN, they’re obtaining research grants to discover new ingredients, they’re even stepping into the world of editorial publications with their own magazines, journals and websites.

A few years ago chefs started slowly leaving the kitchen, at first just to deliver the dishes to our table - to explain their story, connect with the diner. Now they're standing in front of our world organisations, they're planning the food education and diets of our children and they're helping shape what’s on all our forks in the future. The door of the kitchen has been flung wide open and they’re flying out into the world to do their respective bit. Perhaps this needs remembering the next time we complain a chef who started a restaurant, built a great team and taught them all to fly, wasn’t actually in the kitchen when we visited. Or perhaps, as surely some will shout, they should all just stick to cooking.

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