Dear Umbra,

I heard some fancy New York restaurant that I could never afford to eat at is cutting meat from its menu. Does this affect my life at all?

–Very Exclusive Greens

Dear VEG,

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You may never step through the doorway of Eleven Madison Park, the $335-a-plate, three-star Michelin restaurant that I assume you are referring to here. You may never even set foot on the New York City block where it is located. But there are still ways that a climate-driven decision made in an elite kitchen can influence the food you end up serving in your own home. They actually have little to do with big moral statements, and more to do with the simple pleasure of eating. 

Consider the case of the honeynut squash. As legend goes, Dan Barber, the chef of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York — another elite restaurant with an exorbitant price tag — asked vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek to make a “good-tasting” butternut squash. That challenge led to the development of a sweeter, smaller, more flavorful cultivar, the honeynut. The new gourd was so tasty that its market quickly grew beyond Barber’s restaurant to the shelves of Costco and the cardboard boxes of Blue Apron.

Barber is one of the most distinguished chefs in the world. As such, his goal is to prepare and serve food that is delicious. But he has also devoted enormous care and effort to cultivating an ethos that drives his restaurant and his cooking. He prioritizes vegetables and grains, local sourcing, and the role that ingredients play in ecosystem health. He lets very few — if any — parts of a whole ingredient go to waste. And he has succeeded in “making his label and brand about the complex, nuanced stories of food systems,” said Camas Davis, a butcher and food writer in Portland, Oregon.  

Anyone who has simply tried to make over their own personal diet to reflect the very complicated issues of food systems knows it is no small feat. And even though eating organic, locavore, and low-waste is not exactly applicable to every kind of eater, Barber’s philosophy has outgrown the hallowed stone walls of his restaurant. “This idea of using extra parts of the animal, or parts of the vegetable that you’re not used to using, that’s starting to seep into Food Network shows and social media feeds,” Davis said. “This sort of romance around the thrifty economy of food has come back somewhat. Whether it’s utilized practically, I don’t know, but I think that’s seeped into the consciousness of some consumers.”

The idea that food trends naturally trickle down from the top echelons of society to the masses feels a little Reagan-retro. In a rather panned Wall Street Journal column in 2012, food writer Charles Passer proposed this exact phenomenon, using as a template the famous cerulean sweater monologue from the movie The Devil Wears Prada — the one in which Meryl Streep, as the fashion editrix Miranda Priestley, explains in the most withering terms to Anne Hathaway’s character that even an item on the sales rack at T.J. Maxx originally derives from runway haute couture. 

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But, as critics pointed out at the time, it’s unlikely that a decision made at a $300-per-plate restaurant might have a substantive effect on, say, the McDonald’s dollar menu. That’s because fine dining and fast food have entirely disparate business models: McDonald’s distributes millions and millions of units of very cheap, fast, palatable, and reproducible treats while profiting enormously. In contrast, top-tier restaurants’ brands are more about exclusivity. Their chefs experiment with the very chemistry of cooking, serving the meticulously crafted results of those experimentations in extremely limited numbers to a select few people who will pay prodigious sums for them. One ethos does not exactly translate to the other. 

There are some shifts in food culture that are not exclusive to one dining sphere. Plant-based burgers, for example, have been on the menu at Burger King and White Castle for over a year now. A lot of change occurs in the restaurant industry simultaneously, and cannot be sourced back to a single influencer. Davis emphasizes that there are a number of little-known chefs at less famous establishments who have been pushing the same locavore, ecosystem-forward food philosophy as Barber for decades.  

But within the world of high-end cuisine, you can be sure that other chefs are paying attention to Eleven Madison Park’s announcement. Some have already suggested that this move will influence other fine dining establishments across the country to consider a climate-driven shift of deprioritizing meat on the menu.  Meat-eating has long been considered a symbol of luxury and indulgence, so there’s something sort of novel about putting artichokes and asparagus on the most aspirational of plates. (Though in the world of fine dining, the meat-free institutions of Tian in Vienna, King’s Joy in Hong Kong, and Daigo in Tokyo have brought decadence to vegetarian meals for years.)

According to Lund University sustainability scientist Kimberly Nicholas, when leading chefs demonstrate how diverse and delicious plant-based eating can be, it “shifts the culture away from valuing the high-carbon life, and towards the low-carbon high life!” The lifestyles of the super-rich certainly have an impact on the atmosphere that all of us share —  as we know, there is a strong correlation between extreme wealth and a gigantic climate footprint

And yet. While it is possible that a revelatory vegetarian meal at Eleven Madison Park inspires a billionaire to cut frequent meat from her diet — and that she might then persuade some of her billionaire friends to do so — diet is just one line item in a personal carbon budget; the bigger climate offenders are travel and housing. Super-wealthy Americans are responsible for fully half of all air travel-related carbon emissions and own an average of nine homes each. Could that revelatory meal also transform those aspects of the ultra-rich lifestyle? Those would have to be some banging radishes.

To be clear, Eleven Madison Park is not the first Michelin-starred restaurant to cancel meat from its menu. In 2001, the acclaimed French chef Alain Passard turned the menu of L’Arpège — one of the 50 best restaurants in the world — entirely vegetarian, a shocking move at the time since the Parisian dining destination had been known for its expert preparation of meat. (The restaurant eventually brought back fish and poultry dishes, albeit to a lesser degree than before.) Thinking back on his decision in 2015, Passard said it had nothing to do with climate or the environment or anything like that. As he told Bon Appétit, he was simply bored of le boeuf:  “There is a creativity with vegetables that you don’t have with animal tissue.”

It is apparently a commonly shared belief among elite chefs that vegetables are more challenging (and therefore more interesting to prepare) than meat. While meat is fairly easy to make delicious, vegetables often require a little more nuance and creativity and expertise. And that, suggests Bon Appétit’s new vegan chef Chrissy Tracey, is really the biggest potential for influence. “Everyone in the world has already figured out the best ways to make different meats and best preparation methods, but that is something that’s still on the small scale when it comes to the plant-based food realm, because there wasn’t the demand there is today,” she said. 

Tracey acknowledged that the price tag of a meal at Eleven Madison Park puts it out of reach for the average home cook to take an inspirational visit, but the size of head chef Daniel Humm’s following on social media indicates that he wields an influence outside of those who dine at his restaurant. “I think he’s going to inspire a lot of people to get out of their comfort zone and eat seasonally and eat locally, and that will be the bigger influence here, rather than people taking techniques and learning things from what they get out of? the experience at the restaurant,” Tracey said. “You won’t be able to recreate most of the dishes on the menu.” (Sure enough, the Eleven Madison Park cookbook includes the following disclaimer: “‘Will people actually be able to cook from this book?’ The simple answer is yes-ish.”

So how will this influence your life, VEG? Well, you may never shell out for a revolutionary endive at Eleven Madison Park. But by now you have hopefully gleaned that there is always room for experimentation, creativity, and deliciousness in the neverending journey of making your own personal diet more sustainable. It’s not a slog, it’s a process of discovery.

It is my belief that genuinely influential cultural transformations, at least from a climate perspective, tend to happen at home. They might not make the same kind of headlines, but I think those transformations are the most exciting. 

Tastefully,

Umbra