The double-edged knife

Chefs and the dangers of false advertising

Aki Guomundsdóttir // Columnist

Illustration by Rachel Wada

There’s something terrifying about the growing appeal of food photography, chef documentaries and burgeoning foodie scenes. If we keep going down this road, we’ll be carving chefs into marble statues. We’re in a trance believing that somehow there’s a newfound respect for food, in tune with the environment, with the seasons, with the cosmos.

As an industry insider, I can’t just hold my peace and watch that happen, so let me shine some light on the ordinary kitchen. Not the Michelin-starred, trend-setting kitchen that begets mouth-watering documentaries. The ordinary kitchens, where you and I eat whenever there isn’t a special occasion, are still – echoing Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential accounts – vortexes of drug use, mental illness, chronic underpayment, unsanitary practices and an ironic disregard (maybe even contempt) for food.

Sure, most chefs have internalized and memorized some garden-variety bullshit speak about working with “local purveyors” or “striving to use local organic ingredients whenever possible” or paying “competitive wages”. Many restaurants, including several I’ve worked at, falsely declare those same things on their websites or to local newspapers. Worse of all, the “all fresh, local, seasonal, organic” branding of so many cafes and smoothie bars that rely so heavily on tropical fruit is truly risible for anyone with a basic knowledge of nature.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if chefs were held to the same standards of truth as journalists. If fact checking became a reality, we would equate chefs with tabloid writers at best.

I’ve always loved cooking – but what’s happening in most restaurants isn’t cooking. We could call it capitalist cooking: turning raw materials (in this case raw food, the cheaper the better) into profitable commodities. False advertising then becomes essential, targeting the zeitgeist and telling people what they want to hear, and it has become so widespread I can hardly recall working at a place that honestly sold what it said it was selling. The most financially successful kitchens will also target our addiction to sugar, salt, fat and alcohol, without obviously declaring it. Likewise, when eating out, I can easily read, smell, or literally see the bullshit.

When a restaurant vaguely states that “we use local organic ingredients whenever possible”, what they really mean is that local organic ingredients are so prohibitively expensive and so frustratingly perishable that mostly, they buy the cheap shit from Mexico and California like everyone else. Most chefs don’t go to the farmer’s market like you see in the documentaries: they order food through the phone or online.

When restaurants list Parmigiano-Reggiano on a menu (the super expensive, super amazing, protected designation of origin cheese from Modena, Italy), they probably mean some other knockoff or even Kraft Parmesan. When you order the mouth-watering feature soup of the day, you could be ordering something, say, 12 days old (the most I’ve witnessed). Free-range eggs and chicken are often not. Homemade bread is often baked from frozen. All this could still happen at a beloved, super-busy restaurant sitting very highly on Tripadvisor, Yelp, or best of the city rankings.

Any menu that never changes – or rarely changes – has no believable claim to be local. Because nature changes, not only in four seasons, but in mini-seasons within the seasons. Some “seasons” in the food world may only last a few weeks. And nature isn’t perfectly predictable: sometimes you don’t get what you’re expecting.

Cooking truly seasonal, local, ecologically responsible food is hard as shit and even the best chefs in the world struggle with it. Some risk financial failure while attempting it and many of them have accomplished extremely admirable feats through persistence, risk bearing and an uncompromising passion for the raw ingredients and their natural environment. Their feats should be lauded, but riding the wave of their success through outright lies, foxy branding and pretentious presentation of food is not only cowardly but also irresponsible, given the strains on our food systems.

Chefs can try to innocently claim to be forced by the “invisible forces of the economy” to purchase whatever’s cheaper, to waste, to underpay workers on every step of the chain, to lie, and throw one’s creativity and passion to the flames. But the burden of that re-education rests on them. They don’t necessarily need to be outspoken activists, but if there’s any hope of preventing the collapse of major ecosystems, they first need to stop lying. At the same time customers should strive to be less gullible and hold chefs accountable for their claims.

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