Greg de St. Maurice
Chefs today wield a great deal of influence. They are (or are expected to be) simultaneously artisans, entrepreneurs, activists, and celebrities. In December the Washington Post published an article titled “A top chef from a world-famous restaurant wants to fix America’s school lunches.” The phrasing of the headline itself begs numerous questions: are Daniel Giusti’s actions worth following because of his celebrity? Is a chef better equipped to improve school lunches than someone in another profession, say an administrator, an economist, or an anthropologist? Such questions need to be asked. But it is, as the Washington Post article notes, worth observing that Giusti left his job at Noma, one of the world’s most influential restaurants and one with a very elite clientele, for another position meant to catalyze change in the food system. Giusti says, in an interview for Lucky Peach: “Well, if I’m going to feed people, I want to feed a lot of people and I want to wake up every day thinking that what I’m doing is affecting a lot of people’s lives in a positive way.”
Chefs today understand that their actions have consequences, whether sourcing or kitchen atmosphere or neighborhood economic impact, and they seek to influence society and guide change. Noma, incidentally, is closing so that it can be reconfigured as a restaurant organized around an urban farm. Sustainability, seasonality, and “local” are keywords. But chefs’ activism is evident not only through the choices they make in fulfilling their responsibilities as chefs, or in their “private” lives as individuals, but interestingly also in the networks they form with colleagues to pursue common goals. Chef Giusti, for instance, belongs to the Chef Action Network, which is engaged at the local level around school lunches and at the national level when it comes to legislation regarding food and nutrition. And, as he explains in his interview with Lucky Peach, he has received emails from people from a wide variety of backgrounds interested in participating in his project—some of them pro bono. Celebrity’s power to mobilize may very well help Giusti be successful where others have not.
We can be both critical and supportive of chefs’ activism. Chefs can be charismatic leaders who effect change. They should not be seen as heroes whose actions negate the need for other kinds of activism. Chefs do not operate in frictionless environments—they must engage with consumer trends, media narratives, government regulations, investors eager for profits, and so forth. Even when a restaurant such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Noma seems to epitomize some of the kinds of changes grassroots activists seek, there is always the question of reach: who benefits from such restaurants? Who is left out? Chefs, expected to be productive along many different dimensions simultaneously, may only accomplish so much. Their power is limited and we should not neglect to also support less charismatic actors working to improve our food systems.