Chefs Should Get Out of the Kitchen

Some people think that chefs shouldn’t speak out on social issues, that they shouldn’t get involved in political causes or try to change our current industrial food system. Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion. But I think that argument is ridiculous. Until recently, chefs were little more than servants for the wealthy. And the general attitude toward their work resembled the traditional view of what women should do: get in the kitchen, shut up, and cook.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a book about the devastating harms caused by the modern industrial food system. If the people who prepare food every day for a living aren’t qualified to pass judgment on that system, who is? The handful of corporate executives who run it? The politicians owned and operated by those corporations? Journalists, academics, policy analysts, restaurant critics? I’d imagine that people who love to cook would know a thing or two about what we’re eating.

Alice Waters should serve as a role model to chefs everywhere. She cares how food tastes, but she cares just as much about where it came from, who produced it, and what it may do to the people who eat it. Her early interest in food coincided with her involvement in politics. In fact, the two became inextricably linked. During the late 1960s, she protested against the Vietnam War—and fed the protestors.  In her worldview, good food serves as a foundation for other, more important things: family, community, social harmony, justice. She has yet to put her face on cans of soup or open fast food restaurants in airports. Her activism is heartfelt, her beliefs radical in the true sense of the word: getting at the root, the fundamentals of things. And she can cook an egg better than anyone I’ve ever met.

It would be silly to argue that artists, writers, and musicians shouldn’t speak out on social issues. Look at any successful protest movement of the last hundred years—workers’ rights, civil rights, gay rights, environmentalism—and leading cultural figures have played a guiding role. Now that chefs have a prominent voice in mass culture, why shouldn’t they, too? And it’s not only chefs who need to get involved in making change. It’s every single person you know: doctors, lawyers, nurses, bus drivers, janitors, secretaries, dental assistants, shop clerks, and most of all, people under the age of twenty-five. They have the least to lose and the most to gain in making sure the future doesn’t get totally messed up. The greatest threat we face today isn’t global warming, world hunger, genetically modified foods, religious fundamentalism, nuclear weapons, or unchecked corporate greed. What worries me most is the extraordinary apathy and complacency in today’s democratic, consumer societies: the lazy, defeatist attitude that nothing can be done, resistance is futile, what’s the point.

In the world’s most privileged countries, there’s this notion that somehow you have to be perfect and pure, you have to devote your life entirely to helping the poor, or it’s not worth doing anything at all. Well, I gave up trying to be pure a long time ago. That was never going to be an option. But it’s remarkable how much things can change if a lot of people do something—some small thing—on a regular basis. That’s how life improves, individually and collectively. Getting involved with important issues broadens the definition of who you are, beyond just what you do for a living. It’s a good antidote for the narcissism, materialism, and celebrity worship that the mainstream routinely promotes.

So do I think that chefs should be quiet and just stick to cooking? On the contrary. Every so often, they really need to get out of their kitchens and into the streets.

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