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The Ethical Chef?

The Ethical Chef?

Alice Waters, Executive Chef and Founder of Chez Panisse (photo David Sifrey)

Abby Olitzky | Chef's Blade

What is a chef’s responsibility to their community and sustainability?

When John Besh, chef of August, fed his city with rice and beans after Hurricane Katrina, he didn’t have to. He didn’t have to be the first to open after Katrina or rebuild other restaurants in his neighborhood. Judy Rodgers, executive chef and co-owner of Zuni Café, and Alice Waters, founder and executive chef of Chez Panisse, didn’t have to support local farmers 20 years ago. Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill farm, restaurant, and cafe, didn’t have to start his own farm and agricultural center. And David Chang, executive chef and co-owner of Momofoku, doesn’t have to offer his employees health care and 50-hour workweeks. These are just a few talented chefs that support their community and their environment.

But what is a chef’s responsibility? And what influence do they actually have other than their customers.

I believe that in an era where being a chef is seen more and more as a legitimate profession and where the media has created stars, a chef has more influence over their public. It is now commonplace for chefs to source their food from sustainable and local sources, for one, it is fresher. Yet, I believe chefs can work together to do more, not only creating a network but getting their team involved in creating solutions for more sustainability and participation in their community.

I have obviously dined in a restaurant that doesn’t care that much about the impact they are making. I also see many restaurants throw words around on their menu. Either the wording is confusing or more importantly meant to be. What is their responsibility to the customer to be truthful? Do these restaurants disregard their relationship with producers yet find some words marketable and trendy?

I believe the role of the chef will be filled with more ethical decisions: Should I offer my employees health care? Should I support this farmer? These ethical decisions are thrown under the rug when restaurants only care about the bottom line: profitability. And I know how challenging it is to be profitable in this industry. But when a restaurant views itself as integral to the community and the well being of those in it, it will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling job and, in most cases, more profitability in the long run.

I leave you with some questions: Can a higher price point restaurant achieve this sense of community? While sometimes, a lower price point restaurant cannot afford to support other business and producers. Is there middle ground?

What ideas do you see being implemented by chefs? How can chefs and restaurants take a more active role in their community?