Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller in his kitchen. (Photo by Arnold Gatilao.)

Thanks, Thomas Keller. Now we know where you stand. When you joined forces with Andoni Luis Aduriz and came out publicly in The New York Times this week as a chef who does not feel any obligation to the environment, we heard you.“With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” you asked.

You think it’s not your place, as reporter Julia Moskin puts it, “to provide a livelihood for farmers near [your] restaurants, to preserve traditional culinary arts or to stop the spread of global warming.”

Yep, you’re just here to “create great, brilliant food.”

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And you know what? That might make sense — if we lived in the 19th century. Then you could just focus on making your brilliant food (it would probably be served to royalty) and someone else would do the driving, someone else the laundry, and so forth. While the farmers — out in the countryside — would do nothing but farm. Of course, no one would dream of writing about you in a national publication, either. You wouldn’t have to be a global citizen of an information age.

And indeed — even in this day and age — you do have a choice. As a celebrity chef with an international following at whose restaurant a reservation may only be acquired with help of a skilled expert, you can opt out of caring about the impact the producers of your food have on the soil, water, and the atmosphere. You can downplay the role of the local food economy your restaurant supports and tell the “ambitious young chefs around the world hanging on [your] every word” that flavor comes first. You can also, by all means, call on “the world’s governments” to worry about climate change (and for all I know, you might even think they have the political will to do that). You absolutely can.

But you should know just how irresponsible this statement is. Not just irresponsible — destructive.

We’re at a turning point, globally, and food production — especially in its current, ultra-industrial form — is a huge part of the problem. We’re running out of land and water and, yes, the atmosphere is filling up with methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. In fact, agriculture is a larger contributor of greenhouse gases than the transportation sector. (This TEDx video gives a good, brief overview of the problem.) Meanwhile, our broken food system asks that its producers plow under native forests and grasslands to grow soybeans that feed pigs in China and over-fertilize their crops even when they know it will contribute to a giant dead zone in the nation’s most important fishery.

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The famous garden at the French Laundry. (Photo by Ernest Bludger.)

Meanwhile — as you know, Mr. Keller — there are a number of small-scale farmers, ranchers, and artisans willing to live on next to nothing because they believe there’s a better way. Many of today’s most sustainable farmers live without insurance, buy almost nothing, and find ways — by hook or by crook — to live on what they could otherwise earn driving buses or cleaning offices. And — thanks in part to the chefs and eaters who support them — they’ve succeeded at maintaining a small but growing front against monocropping and factory farms. And not coincidentally, the food they’re producing is some of the best; you and I absolutely agree on that fact.

Moskin calls your decision to undercut the role these producers are playing as stewards of the land at a crucial moment “radical.” She points out: “While their restaurants may be accessible only to the world’s 0.1 percent, chefs at top restaurants influence the entire global food community with the way they think, write, tweet and talk about food — not just the way they cook it.”

And indeed, some in the food world have responded critically, if subtly, which speaks to power chefs like you wield. In a wrap-up of Twitter responses on The New York Times‘ The Diner’s Journal blog, one of the harshest criticisms was, “Not sure this is the best strategy for ensuring history will treat you kindly.” Meanwhile, Chefs Collaborative — an organization dedicated to making the culinary industry more sustainable — has also begun collecting responses to the article.

I asked Laurie David — one well-known environmentalist who has recently turned her attention to food — what she thought about the chef’s statement, and, true to form for this producer of An Inconvenient Truth, she cut straight to the heart of what many in the food world are likely feeling. “The chef’s lack of concern for the serious challenges facing the world is anything but courageous. It’s really quite shocking. Why check your citizenship at the kitchen door?”