The restaurant industry has survived a broad assortment of political obstacles in the last century, including market depressions, alcohol prohibition, and — more recently — even smoking bans. But the latest attempt to impose politics on our dinner plates comes from an unexpected quarter — chefs.
“The cuisine of trepidation is All About Me,” writes Greg Critser in The Washington Monthly (July/August 2001). “It is about what it takes to make chefs and foodies feel superior to the uneducated masses. If that means weeping over an organic cherry, then they will weep over an organic cherry (and charge you $10 for doing so). If it means traveling to Belgium to find real organic chocolate, then they do just that (and bore you to death by telling you all about it on the menu). And if it means denying poor kids in India and Africa cheap and more nutritious [genetically modified] rice — rice that might eventually prevent them from going blind — well, so be it.” This is the world of the Chefs Collaborative.
The Chefs Collaborative (CC) was started in 1993 to give voice to a growing contingent of “celebrity” chefs who want no less than to tell the rest of us what to eat (and when we may have it). CC was originally a project of an obscure Boston nutrition organization called Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, which came about in 1989 as the result of an unusual food fight.
In 1985 Robert Mondavi and Julia Child formed the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF), and installed as board members a variety of noted chefs, food writers, and nutritionists. The organization’s mission was an apolitical one: highlighting the pleasure of eating and drinking. Its first meetings, however, were anything but pleasurable. Julia Child’s biography describes the legendary chef berating Alice Waters (who would later become a central figure in the Chefs Collaborative) for incessantly evangelizing about organic foods. Waters was “bringing the whole spirit of the thing down,” Childs would later recall, “with this endless talk of pollutants and toxins.” Childs wanted the AIWF to avoid emphasizing such talk of doom and gloom, because she believed that it would serve to reinforce “the country’s ingrained fear of pleasure.” She also believed that Waters’ “romantic beliefs would not help feed two hundred million people.”
After four years of political tug-of-war, AIWF board member K. Dun Gifford (who sided with Alice Waters) resigned to start his own organization, taking most of the high-profile “celebrity” chefs and a handful of staffers with him. Greg Drescher, a young man who had organized AIWF’s conferences, also went with Gifford and became his business partner. In addition to a “progressive” event-planning firm, the two founded a nutrition-advocacy group that they called Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust.
Oldways fancies itself as a sort of culinary-archaeological nexus, promoting diets based (literally) on old ways. That those “old ways” contributed to limited life spans, vitamin deficiencies, and high infant mortality has never seemed to matter to their proponents. At a 1993 Oldways conference in Hawaii, a bunch of chefs decided to form their own special-interest subgroup in order to bring the Oldways message into America’s restaurants.
After six years of umbrella protection, CC emerged from its parent group in 1999 and now poses a genuine threat to the food choices and menu selections that we take for granted. Built on a politically correct platform of “sustainable” (organic-only) produce, the group’s agenda has grown to include boycotts of popular fish species, prohibitions on biotech-enhanced foods, the abolition of chemical pesticides, a worldwide reduction in meat consumption, militant demands for “local” ingredients, so-called “living wage” mandates for restaurant employees, and even dystopian “green taxes,” to be levied on cuisine that doesn’t meet the Chefs’ definition of “sustainable.”
All of this is based on the flimsiest of justifications, usually resting on the shifting sands of junk science and wrapped up in the alarmist messages of other activist groups with which CC has “collaborated.” These include Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, the Worldwatch Institute, and Environmental Defense, just to name a few from the political far left.
The Chefs Collaborative’s own literature describes its work as a mission to “change the way people make their food choices.” Treating the general public less like customers than like children who need to be educated in “civilized” table habits, these chefs are self-anointed arbiters of “good food” and “bad food,” injecting activist politics into the simple act of eating. Chef Barbara Tropp (of San Francisco’s China Moon Café) saw the trend coming in 1994, when she reminded Eating Well magazine that “many of these chefs were [activists] taking over buildings in the ‘60s… It’s natural that their politics spills into the industry.” As with the politics of many a true believer, the rigid dogmas of today’s celebrity chefs are out of step with reality — in this case, with real-world tastes, modern agriculture, and even advances in food safety.
No genetic purity, no manure, no service
Celebrity chef Alice Waters has laid down the law for her own restaurant, Chez Panisse: “Flat out,” she says, “no genetic engineering.” The Chefs Collaborative generally echoes this sentiment, insisting that biotech foods have no place in the modern kitchen. This culinary dogma, however, flies in the face of the extensive review (8 to 10 years, in most cases) required before a genetically improved food product can be marketed in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has an extensive battery of examinations, inspections, and field tests. The EPA has its own protocol that must be satisfied, as does the USDA. Then there are exhaustive (and expensive) reviews conducted by the National Research Council, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Never mind all that, say CC spokespersons, who carp about food “purity” as though it were incompatible with science. Jane Henney, then the United States FDA Commissioner, addressed this concern in 1998 by explaining that Americans have already been eating biotech-enhanced foods for nearly 15 years with literally no evidence of added food safety risks. “Not one rash,” she said, firmly. “Not one cough; not one sore throat; not one headache.” Still, this group of over a thousand professionals maintains a steadfast hold on this scientifically illiterate position.
Not content with simply avoiding genetically improved foods, however, CC has plunged directly into the arena of anti-biotech activism. In 1998 the organization’s national leadership joined with Greenpeace in a campaign to deluge the FDA with consumer requests for mandatory biotech food labels. The following year, CC was a signatory to a similar petition from Mothers for Natural Law, a radical organization affiliated with the cultish empire of Indian mystic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
The Chefs also had a hand in starting and promoting the “Keep Nature Natural” campaign. This effort, a product of organic food marketers and the “natural foods” industry, aggressively lobbies for tax breaks for organic farmers, while using junk science to spread fear of conventional and high-tech foods. It’s funded by organic food lobbyists on behalf of organic marketers like Eden, Nature’s Path, Wild Oats, and Whole Foods — and by Andrew Kimbrell’s misleadingly named Center for Food Safety.
Among the most vocal and dogmatic CC spokespersons on the biotech food issue, New York celebrity chef Peter Hoffman stands out. He has actually argued against the production of “Golden Rice,” a crop that could save literally millions of lives in the Third World. TIME magazine has said that “at least a million children who die every year because they are weakened by vitamin-A deficiency, and an additional 350,000 who go blind” could be saved by this innovative use of food technology. But Hoffman will have none of it, lambasting agricultural progress as unnecessary. “The Green Revolution was a dismal failure,” he insisted at a 2000 press conference. “We don’t need it now, we didn’t need it then.” The Nobel Prize committee heartily disagreed, awarding the Peace Prize to “Green Revolution” father Norman Borlaug in 1970.
It’s worth noting that CC has to contend with a few vocal dissenters within its profession. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in March 2000, the legendary Julia Child called genetic food improvement “one of the greatest discoveries” of the twentieth century. She takes issue with the anti-biotech-food movement, saying that its adherents have “a very backwards-looking point of view.” The Los Angeles Times had similarly unflattering things to say about Bitter Harvest, a frightening tome about modern food technology by CC’s Ann Cooper, noting that the author doesn’t “let facts get in the way of a good doomsday scenario,” and calling the whole exercise a giant serving of “anxiety pie.”
The price you pay for eating organic
The Chefs Collaborative continues to promote organic-only eating in an attempt to permanently “change the way people make their food choices.” One recent newsletter claimed that “promoting organic farming methods is crucial for sustaining the planet.” As an organization, CC organizes restaurants into “cooperatives” that agree to buy produce from local farmers, only then “work[ing] on bringing them into the organic fold.”
Once organic produce reaches the table, of course, it is more likely to cause deadly E.coli infections than conventionally grown food. Dr. Robert Tauxe, then chief of the Foodborne Diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control, explained why, in a 1997 article in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. “‘Organic’,” wrote Dr. Tauxe, “means your food was grown in animal manure.” This is the “ick” in “organic,” and it is especially prevalent among farmers who opt for the expensive organic certification that celebrity chefs crave.
Even in Great Britain, where organic agriculture is skyrocketing, public health officials agree that “organic” doesn’t mean “healthier.” Professor Hugh Pennington, who chaired the UK’s 1996 investigation into E.coli infections, said that “organic food… is not healthier than normal mass-produced food, and in many cases is far unhealthier. There are problems over fungi infecting organic food and indeed the risk of getting E.coli from the ‘natural’ cow manure is very real.”
Even Katherine DiMatteo, head of the U.S. Organic Trade Association, won’t claim that organic food has any nutritional or safety benefits. When asked straight-out by ABC’s John Stossel whether or not organic food is safer for consumers, she replied that safety isn’t what organic food is all about. So why on earth is it selling? And why are celebrity chefs helping it along?
By lining up against genetically improved foods, the Chefs Collaborative has allied itself with the organic and “natural” foods industry. It’s no coincidence that Chefs chairman Rick Bayless’ line of organic sauces and condiments is marketed by Whole Foods, the nation’s largest organic food chain. Whole Foods executives have also sat on CC’s “board of overseers,” and the company underwrites its outreach and media campaigns. Whole Foods — along with its varied competitors — cashes in whenever CC raises the level of hysteria over non-organic foods. And some of that cash finds its way back into the chefs’ aprons. In 1996 the Chefs Collaborative announced a fundraising partnership with Whole Foods that delivered at least $150,000.
At least it can be said that CC — and Oldways, its former parent group — are equal-opportunity profiteers. In 1997 Supermarket News described a marketing arrangement between Oldways and a Boston area “natural food” supermarket called Wild Harvest. Asked about her organization’s agenda, Oldways program manager Annie Copps replied: “We’re using primarily members of Chefs Collaborative to promote the use of produce that is clean, local and organic wherever possible, and to make the dishes as plant-based as possible, and using, of course, Wild Harvest products.”
Most smear tactics directed at biotech foods have their genesis in the communications offices of organic food marketers, and CC has become an active participant in this arrangement. If this sounds a little too conspiratorial, consider what one speaker said at a U.S. Organic Food Conference in 1999: “The potential to develop the organic food market would be limited if consumers are satisfied with food safety and the furor over genetic modification dies down.”
It’s not propaganda if you get course credit
Embedded deep within the Chefs Collaborative mentality is the idea of the chef as educator, telling consumers what they should and shouldn’t be eating. During an impassioned speech at the January 2001 annual CC retreat, chef Judy Wicks (of Philadelphia’s White Dog Café) summed up the organization’s outlook, saying that “restaurants are uniquely positioned to educate and activate consumers.” This is the same activist chef who has publicly conceded that the Chefs Collaborative “use[s] good food to lure innocent customers into social activism.”
No surprise, then, that the Chefs Collaborative has been taking its anti-biotech, anti-agribusiness, anti-meat, and anti-pesticide messages directly into elementary schools since 1994 (Oldways officially reclaimed the school program in June 2000). Through its “Adopt-a-School” program, CC gets its unrealistic ideas in front of the tiniest consumers while they’re still young. This way, explains Rick Bayless, “there’s a better chance they’ll be choosing good foods over not-so-healthy foods as they grow. And by ‘good,’ I mean foods that are grown, harvested and prepared in ways that don’t harm the planet or the person eating them.” Today’s professional chefs should know better than anyone that the conventional U.S. food supply is safer, more varied, less expensive, and more nutritious than ever before. It’s regrettable that Bayless seems intent on ignoring these facts in order to push a radical agenda to the most vulnerable audience imaginable.
Of course, a whiny nation demanding “sustainable” cuisine is no good unless you’ve also trained the next generation of chefs to toe the party line. Never fear — the Chefs Collaborative has that covered as well. CC “board of overseers” member Eve Felder is an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and Oldways co-founder Greg Drescher is the “Director of Education” at CIA’s Napa Valley campus. Drescher’s ideological baggage was packed in Fairfield, Iowa — home of the Maharishi University of Management. This college promotes the questionable teachings of Transcendental Meditation inventor Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose dietary edicts emphasize organic foods and whose medicinal tenets favor expensive organic herbal preparations. Greg Drescher, like many of today’s in-your-face organic high priests, draws inspiration from “The Maha” (as John Lennon used to call him). Few of Drescher’s converts, however, know exactly what it is they’re embracing.
Writing in a 2001 Chefs Collaborative newsletter, Eve Felder made no bones about the connection between CC and the CIA, asserting that “the principles of the Chefs Collaborative… are our principles.” Chefs Collaborative co-founder Ann Cooper has described herself during radio interviews as “a consultant to the Culinary Institute of America.” The CIA and CC have also co-hosted seminars showcasing anti-biotech issues in recent years, and featuring such session topics as “Organic companies vs. the Multi-National Global Networks,” “Plant-based cooking,” and “Chefs as Restaurateurs and Activists.” Invited speakers have included:
- organic-foods lobbyist Roger Blobaum
- Organic Valley marketing director Teresa Marquez
- Organic Farming Research Foundation chief Bob Scowcroft
- “Newman’ Own” (organic) proprietor Nell Newman
- Whole Foods Markets executive A.C. Gallo
- new age “wellness” guru Andrew Weill
- environmental scaremonger Brian Halweil (of the Worldwatch Institute)
- Rebecca Goldburg (Environmental Defense)
- organic meat marketer Bill Niman (Niman Ranch)
Chefs Collaborative was the first group to hop on board when Washington nonprofit SeaWeb announced its boycott of Atlantic swordfish (the “Give Swordfish a Break” debacle). According to some estimates, more than half of the restaurants SeaWeb listed as swordfish boycott enrollees were headed by Chefs Collaborative members. Never mind that the National Marine Fisheries Service said that “swordfish are not considered endangered,” and that the campaign would “end up having a detrimental effect on fishermen.” SeaWeb called the tune; the chefs danced.
And why not? SeaWeb is part of a tight-knit circle of aquatic mischief that runs on green fuel from the David & Lucille Packard Foundation (nearly $2.5 million so far). That same foundation made a $200,000 donation to Chefs Collaborative in November 2001, earmarked especially for “consumer education” on seafood issues. Other Packard Foundation donees include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Seafood Choices Alliance, and Environmental Defense — all of whom have “cooperative” agreements in place that financially benefit the Chefs Collaborative.
The Chefs Collaborative also uses its influence to direct the flow of commerce to “approved” fish vendors. CC officers hold nine seats on an advisory board at EcoFish, a for-profit vendor of “sustainable” fish (the Packard Foundation also holds a seat). And when CC bigwigs Rick Moonen and Eric Ripert came out in support of a “moratorium” on Caspian Sea caviar (December 2000), few noticed that Whole Foods Markets was less than two months into promoting its own “domestic, farm-raised” caviar line.
Moonen and Ripert participated in the boycott at the request of Fenton Communications, a leftist Washington PR shop whose tactics have produced dozens of baseless food scares (including the phony 1989 Alar-on-apples fiasco). Fenton promoted the caviar boycott on behalf of a client — Whole Foods Markets.
Fenton Communications’ links to Chefs Collaborative began in 1999, when Environmental Defense (another Fenton client) wanted a culinary partner to promote its “dying oceans” agenda. With a $50,000 contribution from Environmental Defense, CC co-produced Seafood Solutions, a guide to cooking fish in an “environmentally responsible” manner. Not surprisingly, the October 2000 press conferences unveiling this book featured representatives from both groups as well as SeaWeb. And Fenton Communications handled all of the arrangements.
In addition to declaring dozens of fish species politically incorrect (Chilean sea bass is the latest), the Chefs Collaborative has a history of pushing a diet that’s as meatless as possible. When Greg Drescher and K. Dun Gifford founded the Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust (which later spawned the Chefs Collaborative), they were also in the event-planning business — organizing “health” and “nutrition” conferences for environmentalists and animal-rights devotees. A full year before CC was born, Drescher told the New York Times that he saw the animal rights agenda’s extremist public image as the biggest roadblock to widespread vegetarianism. “What’s being missed,” he said, “is an opportunity to support a strong position for reduced meat consumption from a nutrition and environmental perspective without the other baggage.”
To be sure, one plank in CC’s platform is the dramatic reduction in meat consumption. Gifford confided to Vegetarian Times readers in 1998 that the purpose behind Oldways’ attempts to tinker with the American diet “is to get people to eat more vegetarian meals.” True to form, where there’s a social objective, there’s a scare campaign to get the ball rolling. Chefs Collaborative overseer Ann Cooper told a National Public Radio audience in September 2000 that “it is not only possible but it is actually probably probable” that mad cow disease was present in the United States. “Many people,” she insisted, “think it’s already happening here.”
Of course, if you must eat meat, Chefs Collaborative will be happy to recommend a number of “certified organic,” “natural,” or “free range” options, all of which come with inflated price tags — if you have to ask how much it costs, goes the old adage, you can’t afford it. A Spring 2001 “Chefs Collaborative Communiqué” began with a horrific exposition on mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases, followed by thinly-veiled sales pitches for specific brands of “earth-friendly” and “safer” meats. The “approved” vendors included names like Farm Verified Organics, Niman Ranch, and Conservation Beef — all of whom count on consumer fear to sell their products. The Summer 2001 CC newsletter continued the sermon, barely containing the group’s glee that “the meat and dairy industries… are under siege” by government regulators as a result of infectious disease concerns.
Another great example of a fear profiteer is Jim Goodman. Along with his wife, Goodman raises organic beef and sells it to “L’Etoile,” a Madison, Wisconsin restaurant (run by CC member Odessa Piper), among others. Goodman’s activist streak runs so deep that he was a co-plaintiff in a pair of 1999 lawsuits brought against the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health & Human Services by a trio of anti-consumer groups (the Humane Farming Association, the Center for Food Safety, and the Center for Media & Democracy). These legal actions attempted to establish in court what scientists were saying wouldn’t happen (and still hasn’t) in a scientific setting: a link between mad cow disease and garden-variety human Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). Goodman is a member of the Chefs Collaborative.
Social-change activism in general is often a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” The sacrifices demanded by environmentalists and food cops often prove too costly for their sponsors, especially once a movement has taken off and its founding agitators become domesticated and comfortable. The Chefs Collaborative is rife with examples of such hypocrisy.
The Wall Street Journal has noted that despite CC’s insistence upon using only locally grown, organic produce harvested by nearby farmers, many activist chefs’ menus are full of items that can only be found in remote places to begin with (regardless of season). So while the rank and file get the timeworn use local ingredients speech, the Journal reports, most restaurant chef-authors have a staff that hunts ingredients down for them. For these guys, Federal Express-ing donut peaches in from California or tuna roe from Italy is completely normal.
And when all else fails, Chefs Collaborative members have a habit of special-ordering produce from the Chef’s Garden, a specialty vegetable farm in Huron, Ohio (a place which is local to very few people or restaurants). The New York Times calls this place a research and development center for elite chefs. The farm grows exotic vegetables, greens, and herbs from all over the world (per CC members’ special requests), including gourmet items never before grown in the United States. Thanks to the Chef’s Garden’s many enclosed greenhouses, chefs can order these items year ‘round, so they’re always seasonal. The customer list of this long-distance veggie boutique includes CC leaders Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Alain Ducasse.
Chefs Collaborative insiders often justify the wrinkled or misshapen organic vegetables on their menus by insisting that their restaurants’ patrons would have it no other way. Alice Waters says that odd-looking produce “has character.” Nora Pouillon says that “perfect apples or fruits” are only that way “because the farmer sprayed it with chemicals.” But the Times throws some cold water on these explanations, saying that one CC member called in an order to the Chef’s Garden for a 20-pound sack of one-inch round turnips. “A team heads out to the fields,” says the Times, referring to a group of technicians in white lab coats, and picks through rows of turnips, sifting out just the one-inch ones.
The Chefs Collaborative’s own newsletter highlighted the apparent conflict between “buying local” and avoiding an “impure” gene pool. “Alan Tangren, pastry chef and former forager at Chez Panisse, writes Olivia Wu, found the chocolate solution. The Berkeley, Calif. Restaurant now orders organic Callebut chocolate directly from Belgium. Tangren brags that it takes two months to get it. Unless Chez Panisse is planning on moving to Brussels, this is not exactly buying local.
Other CC members who participate in the group’s on-line message boards have also seemingly forgotten to promote local ingredients. One offers garlic tops with long stems and Russian Red and Hardy German garlic, shipped on the day of harvest, no matter where your restaurant might be. Another touts the social-conscience benefits of buying vanilla beans from a Mexican growers’ co-op. A third offers tomatoes, arugula, watercress, and basil from Amherst, Massachusetts but never gets around to limiting his commerce to local chefs.
The last thing organic food marketers want is Americans who are comfortable with what they are eating, or who are willing to look in the “wrong” direction for salvation. Long time CC officer Joan Gussow warned attendees of the group’s 1995 retreat that a real danger existed of creating a “parallel food supply.” By this she means “Certified Organic Pringles” (or, worse yet, “Certified Organic Olestra Pringles”). The Chefs Collaborative exists first and foremost to steer Mr. and Mrs. America toward the “correct” organic foods, regardless of the related costs (both financial and health-related) and lack of selection.
Of course, the “correct” food choices don’t come cheap, and this seems to be just fine with the Chefs Collaborative. Dinner for two at a restaurant run by Charlie Trotter or Rick Bayless will set you back $200 or more. Eating at Chez Panisse (Alice Waters’ Berkeley, CA hangout) costs over $150 per person for starters. This is the typical cost of eating “locally, sustainably, seasonally, and without pesticides or herbicides.” But while celebrity chefs write us a collective food prescription, and rant about saving the world from fast-food homogeneity and genetically engineered foods, they seem absolutely indifferent to those who can’t afford to have it their way.
After all, the Chefs Collaborative wasn’t started in a church basement, a community center, or someone’s garage (as is the typical course for “progressive” nonprofits). The group was born in Hawaii, at the Ritz-Carlton Mauna Lani Hotel, where Oldways conferees sipped colorful cocktails with small umbrellas and dined on gourmet entrees, while discussing how to reform the way the rest of us eat and drink.
Ann Cooper has complained that Americans “pay less for food, as a percent of our income, than any [other] industrialized nation in the world.” In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in 1999, chef Odessa Piper complained that Americans are “practically inundated with food that is plentiful and cheap.” Nora Pouillon has bragged to USA Today that her vegetables “can cost as much [as] or more than many people’s meats.” Charlie Trotter tells Seafood Business magazine (March 1, 2001) that “maybe we should be paying more for fish. Maybe… consumers should be paying more.”
To hear these Chefs Collaborative lifers tell it, you would think their organization is in favor of inflating food prices. That’s crazy talk — or is it?
Consider the doctrine of “local” food production, a big feature of CC-endorsed cuisine. The idea here is that food should travel as short a distance as possible between farm and fork. Of course, our modern food distribution system has made it quite efficient and inexpensive to ship food — even perishable items — anywhere in the world. This means that, more often than not, “local” food (especially food of superior quality) is more expensive to buy. And that seems to suit the Chefs Collaborative just fine.
The promise of food costs spiraling out of control in general also plays into the desires of the organic and “natural” foods industries, as higher prices across the board would render their own products’ (already) exorbitant prices less noticeable. At one September 2000 Chefs Collaborative event, Theresa Marquez, the marketing director for Organic Valley (an organic-only farmers’ cooperative) declared: “The question is not ‘Why is organic food so expensive.’ The question is ‘Why are the foods we are eating now so cheap.’”
In fostering and replicating this sort of thinking, the Chefs Collaborative has betrayed its other chief aim: to “grow” the price of the food we eat, until the organic and other “sustainable” cuisines which they aggressively promote no longer seem all that pricey in comparison. In order to hasten this process, Ann Cooper has written that she “strongly supports” levying so-called green taxes on food, adding a 20% surcharge to foods deemed “unsustainable” by her and her colleagues.