Chef Christopher Ray Talks How Top Chefs Influence Changes in Food

Those who have the biggest hand in preparing our food hold a responsibility to transmit core values to consumers. Here’s how chefs can influence a change in food culture.

Here in America, and indeed across the world, there is a growing interest in how chefs can influence a change in food culture. I’ve been a chef for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve learned a surprising fact: My job isn’t merely to make food for my customers. Many of them, to my surprise, come to me not only to eat but to learn how to eat.

Changes in food culture come in waves. With each wave, we see increasingly progressive values permeating both retail and restaurants, and we get a little bit closer to our food.

Decades ago, if you wanted the best, most sustainable products, you had to form relationships with long-distance purveyors. Then you could speak to people on the phone with higher frequency and familiarity. Now you can go to the farm and see the animals, from hogs and cattle to antelope and elk.

Today, the natural food movement gives us the opportunity to source food from less than 100 miles away. This is a huge advancement and reduces our environmental footprint significantly.


Living in a McDonald’s Culture: Where Is Food at Right Now?

Today, we live in Franchise City. Before, Mom and Pop shops characterized the food landscape. But now, we now see the same cookie cutter establishments on every corner and in every town. From to Rochester to Dubuque to Spokane, restaurants abound in which it’s hard to determine who is actually cooking for you.

At the same time, in certain areas, there are a lot of chef-owned, partnered and neighborhood restaurants. There are also a lot of chef-owned or -affiliated farms. There are chefs buying food trucks. They’re taking products from their affiliation out to the customer at lunchtime.

What Does This Mean for the Chef’s Responsibility?

Chefs embedded in the local, sustainable food movement feel a responsibility both toward consumers as well as toward partners such as growers and purveyors. To educate clients and consumers, we have to get in touch with how each animal was raised and fed and treated.

Unfortunately, we have seen some gaffes in the industry. Look at when bison ribeye emerged on the food scene. Despite being the same cut of meat, bison and beef cook very differently. Yet a lot of chefs tried to cook them the same, which resulted in an unappealing product. This demonstrably harmed the reputation of bison. Purveyors had to work hard to overcome that and prove its worth as a product.

The Role of Seasonal Eating in Our Diets

Then there is the role played by the seasons. For the vast majority of history, we humans were seasonal eaters. We didn’t have the technology or ability to be anything else. Today, though, we all too often see chefs pairing hogs from right here in Wisconsin with oranges from Florida. But that’s not the way to support the local food scene, nor is it necessarily even more delicious.

Instead, it seems natural to me to pair, say, Pacific Northwest salmon that was at one point steamed with kelp and fresh blueberries because that is how the natives did it. The harvest of each ingredient took place around the same time; these foods are meant to go together.

Does that mean spending a little more money on quality local foods? Maybe. But that enables farmers and growers to spend a little more money taking care of their animals and crops, which is a net win for everyone. Notably, though, this increases the chef’s prerogative and responsibility to increase the perceived value of mature, well-cared for meat. That, in turn, enhances flavor and nutrient density.


Speaking of Which, Let’s Talk Health and Flavor

Young, factory farmed, homogenous animals do not have much flavor or nutritional value. A considerable body of research that has come out since World War II demonstrates that the micronutrients in our food are steadily declining. We’re not talking a couple of percentage points, either. Numbers are sometimes as high as 25 to 40 percent less than the nutrients that should exist, and that would have existed before the second world war. Moreover, these meats are just tasteless compared to their mature, naturally grown, naturally fed counterparts.

Our food is becoming less nutritious and tasty. Additionally, many consumers persist in the wrong beliefs about meat. They are scared of fat, for instance, even though the research no longer points to it as nearly the sort of health issues we once thought. It’s a hard sell. That’s where chefs have to seek one-on-one audiences with clients and consumers, with evidence in hand. Then they can show them where they’re misled and what they can do better.

It’s important to realize, though, that we have to make the positive sell, not the negative sell. Our job is not to bash the current foods we eat, but to make a case for the foods which are better – both for people and the world.

The Takeaway? Transmitting New Food Values Is About Caring

To change our food system requires a great deal of passion and devotion. Well, it’s all about getting one-on-one with people. It’s about caring enough to pass on either your knowledge or legacy. I don’t think you need to have an ego to pass on a legacy, but I don’t think you need to keep everything a secret to be a star. Those that want to guard against all of their recipes and what they have learned from somebody won’t do much to transmit new values; those that are willing to share what they know for the advancement of all will have the impact we want to have.

Change has to come from all quarters as well. Here’s an analogy I like:

One strand of twine is not very strong, right? But when you get intimate with the dirt, there is another piece of twine. When you get intimate with the grower, there is another piece of twine. And when you get intimate with the barn butler, there is another piece of twine. Then you learn about the animal, and there is another piece of twine. Now there are five strands now that build a very strong rope straight to the plate.

So, if you’re wondering how chefs can influence a change in food culture, this is how. Sharing knowledge. Taking the time to talk to people. Explaining their partnerships with purveyors such as Chickadee Hills Homestead and others that work to respect the natural order and the animals within it.

Guest post by Chef Christopher Ray

Chef Ray is a nationally renowned chef bringing his passion to you.  His company, Five Course Catering is a boutique catering company committed to creative food excellence!