Thomas Keller Has a Responsibility — to Set the Record Straight

Fedele Bauccio with Bon Appétit chefs

I was surprised and disheartened to read comments by Thomas Keller in the New York Times that chefs’ only responsibility is to taste. “Is global food policy truly our responsibility, or in our control?” Keller asks. “I don’t think so.”

I disagree, as do many others, and I am hoping that Keller’s statements were taken out of context. Chefs have an enormous power to make a difference, and they can do so without sacrificing flavor. A good artist does not ignore the factors that affect his prized materials. If Michelangelo had learned Carrara marble was disappearing, he would not have shrugged and said another white stone would do for the David. If chefs ignore climate change, those oysters Keller and I both love will disappear from our warming oceans.

The food system is responsible for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. By making different culinary choices, the hundreds of chefs that work for us (many of whom idolize Thomas Keller) have reduced our carbon footprint by 25%, the equivalent of 5 million pounds of carbon dioxide monthly. They did it by cutting their beef usage  — cattle are a major contributor to climate change — with dishes that use meat as a key flavor, not as the main course, and with naturally raised beef patties that were smaller but shrank less when cooked. They stopped buying air-freighted seafood, opting instead for fish and shellfish that have been flash-frozen at sea.

Yes, governments should address climate change. While they bicker over the best approach, we in the food world can and should make a difference.

That means not serving species that have been red-listed by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, such as bluefin tuna, no matter how wonderful they might taste. A few years ago, the food world erupted over rumors that Keller’s French Laundry was serving this severely endangered wild fish, but it turned out that the restaurant was sourcing it from the very small supply being farmed by a Japanese lab.

So Keller — or his smart advisers — was trying to have his deliciousness, and save it, too.

As the bluefin example shows, Keller’s track record is not as apolitical and out of touch as the newspaper makes him sound. Two weeks ago, Keller signed Oceana’s campaign asking for stronger regulation of seafood labeling from the government, as did I, other major restaurateurs, and more than hundred chefs, including dozens from Bon Appétit Management Company. Unlike me, he also signed a recent petition by chefs to overturn California’s ban on foie gras.

Foie gras is the perfect example of how taste should not trump all other considerations. Sure, it’s delicious: if you can ignore the animal suffering that produced it. I can’t, and that’s why we banned it in our restaurants.

The chefs I know care deeply about flavor. They also know how to find it in foods that meet real standards for sustainability. I believe Keller does too, and I think he has a responsibility — as an artist whom thousands admire — to correct the impression that flavor and sustainability can ever be an either/or proposition.

Fedele Bauccio is the CEO and founder of Bon Appétit Management Company. He has been honored with a Sustainability Pathfinder Award from Chefs Collaborative, an inaugural Leadership Award from the James Beard Foundation, and other awards for pioneering a more sustainable model for food service. This piece has been cross-posted on the Huffington Post.