What role do chefs play in transforming our food system? How might we understand their practices – sourcing ingredients, transforming them, and preserving food in various forms– as ethical practices and as contributions to a more sustainable and socially embedded food system?
Over the last year I conducted qualitative research of United Kingdom (UK) fine dining chefs with a view of examining these questions and understanding what it means to be an ‘ethical chef’. I wanted to understand how chefs were engaging with the social, environmental, and economic dilemmas of food production through an explicitly ethical register. I analysed the practices chefs were developing to create a more just food system and how they could educate the general public about these practices and their underlying principles. The results were surprising, as I found ambivalence, cynicism, and at times outright dismissal directed at my suggestion that chefs could be food ‘activists’; the ways that chefs make choices to create a more ethical and sustainable food system often goes overlooked. I found discourses and practices of ethical engagement – ways that chefs blended their aesthetic and ethical practices in the face of broader food system issues. In particular, food preservation – the practice of processing, transforming, and storing food – emerged as a practice that reveals the complex ethical dimensions that shape a chefs’ creativity and their relationships with others in the food system. So, what does food preservation have to teach us about how chefs practice ethics?
In the early summer of 2021 I called Ben Chapman, chef and restaurateur of a collective of Thai and modern European inspired restaurants in central London. I was interested to talk to Ben as he had been mentioned by another informant of mine as someone who worked closely with various farmers. During our conversation, I made reference to a previous interview he gave in a food magazine where he mentioned “real” farm-to-table cooking, indicating a critical attitude toward the “on-trend” farm-to-table cooking scene in the UK. Given this comment, I was curious what he thought of the existing farm-to-table movement and what a “real” version of it would look like. Ben expressed how conventional farm-to-table fails to create a truly sustainable and robust partnership between farmer and chef that would allow both to flourish. During our phone call, Ben told me about a partnership he has developed with a rare-breed pig farmer:
“You’re in a relationship with the farmer and you’re responsible for the whole thing being a profitable endeavour and, therefore, the whole animal. So initially when we started working with our farmer, the challenge was to get as many pigs as possible per week in order to support his growth…so that was our focus and we spent ages with the fat and it was killing us. The fat on those pigs was great, but what are you going to do with it? The real key thing here is if we can work out how to sell the skin and the fat easily, then that completely unlocks the whole process. Because it means we can pay more per kilo for the pigs and in that circumstance, we want to pay as much money as we can. And one of my chefs suggested, ‘why don’t we cure it all and do fried rice with lardo?’ And it was clever because everyone will order that. It’s just a really clever dish because it’s an easy dish to order but it unlocks a massive problem for us.”
It is here that I noted the first intersection between ethics and preservation; for Ben, a “real” farm-to-table movement is centered around partnerships that work for both the practical and economic needs of the farmer and the aesthetic and culinary needs of the chef. Preservation is entwined with the economic relations he has formed over a number of years. This commitment to purchasing the entire pig is an expression of his ethical duty toward these food producers and is indicative of the kind of ethics at the center of my research; a form of ethics that emerges in moments and contexts where it may not normally be recognised. Here, Ben put forward the idea that there is more to preserving food than mere technique; there is also a question of ethics that is expressed by Ben and the other chefs I interviewed. After all, these chefs do not need to preserve foods. Their desire to do so does not come from the necessity of preserving foods for months of scarcity or the risk of a poor harvest. Rather, for the chefs I interviewed, preservation animates a kind of ethical practice that allows them to enter into more holistic and sustainable partnerships with food producers; relationships Ben believes to be key to a “real” farm-to-table movement.
Through my discussions with chefs, I began to see how preservation acquires new meanings rooted in respect, responsibility, and moral economic bonds. Reminiscent of Mol’s[i] ‘logic of care’, ethics here is not about making value judgments or distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ but engaging in the everyday practical activities of what works on a context-dependent basis. This sense of ethics operates in specific contexts for each chef that finds what is ‘good’ along the way. In this, defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ does not precede action, but is built up through fostering business relationships and being held accountable for one’s actions while remaining grounded in the everyday realities of labor and the necessities of keeping a business afloat.
Moreover, the chefs I interviewed view preservation not only as a practical way of supporting their producers, but something that is also rooted in the aesthetic craft of being a chef. I argue that preservation is also a practice that emphasizes aesthetic traits and values of the craft such as resourcefulness, creativity, and a notion of respect for both produce and producer. In short, preservation gives form to the ‘art’ of the craft. Preservation is both an aesthetic and social function where a sense of pride in the craft and the ethics of accountability correspond.
These two values – aesthetic and ethics – meet most noticeably when it comes to sourcing. The chefs I interviewed believe the fundamental task of a chef is to carefully source ‘quality’ ingredients and treat them in a way that enhances their natural properties, like taste and texture. This collective ideal is born from a style of ingredient-led cookery that has been prominent in the UK fine dining scene since the late 1980s when British chefs such as Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leigh, and Alistair Little paid greater attention to ingredients rather than technique. As the two Michelin-starred chef Sat Bains told me:
“we’re trying to recreate that bond between grower, supplier, and chef where you talk to the supplier and say, ‘what have you got?’ Not a blank phone call and say, ‘I want this’. That’s not true gastronomy to me – that doesn’t make sense. You should be taking the advice of professionals to make sure your menu is the best it can be, using the best ingredients, using the best people who grow those ingredients.”
The central point of a chef’s decision-making is a ‘fetishization of ingredients’ in which ethical practices are grounded. I borrow this phrase from the way Jeremy Chan of the Michelin-starred restaurant Ikoyi in London describes his approach. He characterizes this ‘fetishism’ as a
“very intense sense that we have to handle something with care. There’s this sense of pressure when something has been picked or grown for us; or something has been caught or something has been aged. We are under this extreme time pressure to capture its essence and transfer that to the person we are cooking for in the quickest and most intense form possible.”
Again, the aesthetics of cooking blend with a sense of responsibility to others, both for producers and consumers.
This logic extends to these chefs’ preservation practices. In the contexts I am investigating, a chef’s aesthetics and ethical orientation are in fact closely intertwined and co-constituting of one another. The ‘ethics’ of chefs are not made up of concrete rules or altruistic acts that define what is good. Rather, they are formed through the aesthetic elements of the craft and are (re)produced through creative activities such as sourcing ingredients; resourcefulness, finding creative solutions, exhibiting craft and knowledge, and managing waste. Accordingly, preservation is not simply the preservation of a foodstuff. In and of itself, preservation is not an ethical practice, but it can be when it is rooted in a wider sense of responsibility. As such, it cannot be understood as technique alone but must be perceived within the wider relationships and contexts of how preservation is practiced.
Respect, Responsibility, and Moral Economics
I spoke to Ben over the phone one evening while he was spending some quiet moments in his office doing administrative tasks. After finally reopening after the complete closure of the hospitality industry at the start of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his restaurants Smoking Goat, Brat, and Kiln were already operating at full capacity as eager diners flocked back. Despite the pressures that come with this return to normalcy, which was made worse by staff shortages making it difficult to meet consumer demand, he took the time to discuss his philosophy and practice as a chef. Ben came into the industry late as a self-taught twenty-nine-year-old chef whose inspiration for cooking was sparked after travelling through Thailand; an experience that inspired him to replicate an ethos and style of cooking that could not be found in Britain. For Ben, it is an ethos of produce, flavor, and an immediate connection with farming practices that he attempts to capture:
“What I enjoy about the food and produce [in Thailand] is the brightness of flavor that comes from the connection they have with farming. It’s a country where people still have to cook with produce that is grown in their front gardens as opposed to a supermarket down the road. So, we learnt how to use produce in Thailand and apply it to the produce that we have here. So then, as a result of that, we become more intensely connected to the produce that we do have here.”
Ben’s appreciation of Thai cooking and its close connection to where the food is produced informs the relations he attempts to create with food producers in the South West of England. Similar to how Jeremy Chan describes a ‘fetishism for ingredients’, Ben likewise stresses an intense connection to both produce and producers. Fish is line-caught from day-boats down on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall before making its way directly to the restaurant door the same day; vegetables and Thai herbs are grown by organic and regenerative farmers in Cornwall and Devon; and Tamworth pigs are reared in Somerset on biodiverse land that was once a conventional farm that had been denuded by years of heavy chemical use.
Underpinned by the search for ingredients, it is the moral and social relations that are fundamental and play a vital role in Ben’s everyday labor and culinary practices. One of Ben’s suppliers is Dan Cox. Dan is a former chef who worked in multiple Michelin-starred kitchens in Spain and the UK before deciding to retire from the kitchen to start a biodiverse farm in Cornwall with the aim of supplying the best produce available for high-end kitchens. He now supplies Ben, Jeremy, and many other chefs in the UK. He spoke of the importance of chefs working closely and reflexively to his needs:
“People like Ben and Jeremy – they really get it. And that’s what they’ve been trying to do, they’re trying to challenge everything and trying to find a better way of working with the farmer. Yeah, the conversation between chef and farmer should be one of understanding and sympathy and flexibility in terms of the product.”
He mentioned the issue of his sheep and the difficulties he has in ensuring they have a consistent amount of fat coverage. However, such an issue for him offered a creative opportunity for Jeremy:
“That’s where Jeremy is even more forward thinking because he wanted the one with lots of fat on and he was like, ‘that fat for us is incredible because I age it for six weeks and the fat itself becomes an incredible product’. He would confit things in that fat or make things from the fat, not just worrying whether there was too much fat on the chop.”
For chefs like Jeremy and Ben, it is the social relation and economic partnership between chef and producer that is at the center of their work and motivates their use of preservation. As Ben mentioned, “there was a lot of good growers and great farmers who were supplying into restaurants, but there wasn’t necessarily a genuine connection between how the restaurant was working and what the farmer was doing.” Herein lies his outlook and the significance that supplier relations have in his work as a chef, where ‘genuine’ working partnerships are key. Merely buying from a supplier is not enough and, according to Ben, entering an economic relationship means entering a relationship of responsibility.
Accordingly, the cooking at Ben’s restaurants incorporates a style that aims to support his suppliers and aid in their growth. Preservation is central to this style. It is a style that utilises a nose-to-tail method which was popularised in Britain by Fergus Henderson in the 1990s and with his subsequent cookbook Nose to Tail Eating[ii]that features recipes for offal, pig ears, and bone marrow. Nose-to-tail is embedded within aesthetic ideas of respect and responsibility. As I discussed what the term means with Sat Bains, he shared,
“respect is the key word here. It means you haven’t sacrificed the quality of an ingredient. So, you’ve not badly butchered the fish that’s been line-caught, hand-held by one person right to the door. That respect is shown all the way to the customer – on the plate. The way you prep it…the way you use the whole fish. The bones for a stock – so everything is used…the roe if you want to make some taramasalata. Again, it’s the respect of the ingredient.”
This reveals that Ben’s preoccupation with how to deal with the fat and skin of his farmer’s pigs, is indicative of an entire aesthetic culture espoused by some chefs. The curing of the fat to make the most of the animal is not just about preservation, it is about the craft and skill of being a chef. It is about resourcefulness and being able to use culinary skill and knowledge to work in such a way that makes the most of any given ingredient. Consequently, these creative ideals correspond with social ideas of working closely, respectfully, and reflexively with producers.
In addition, Ben’s use of curing is representative of embedded markets. By ‘embedded’ I refer to Karl Polyani’s use of the term in his influential The Great Transformation[iii], in which he argues that in non-market societies, economic models are embedded in social relations. And while Ben operates in a market society, the decisions he makes are embedded within direct social relations that are built upon collective understandings of respect and responsibility. This is significant because it reveals the ‘moral economy’ within which these chefs are participating in and reflects how their economic activities are influenced by moral decisions in addition to economic rationale. Ben’s use of the word ‘responsibility’ is indicative of the embedded nature of his everyday practices, whereby his creative vision is influenced by the economic bonds he holds with producers and livestock holders.
“If we shut down, what’s going to happen? What happens to our farmer and the pigs? What happens to all the growers growing Thai herbs for us in Cornwall? They’re not going to be able to sell them elsewhere. All things said and done, I attach quite a lot of my sense of self and worth and the job to that. So yeah, it does build a level of robustness and connection essentially – and not taking it for granted.”
In this light, the curing of pig fat represents a moral responsibility to a supplier wherein culinary techniques and knowledge are used in such a way to create what Ben refers to as “genuine connections.” Connections give us a way to understand how separate elements – the craft of being a chef, farming in a responsible way, working reflexively, and finding creative solutions – work together to form an ethical practice. Ethics is practiced through responsibility held by chefs of supporting food producers and maintaining sustainable economic relationships. In this respect, chefs engage in a business, a craft, and an ethical practice.[iv]
In this sense, contemporary preservation is not just technique, but a practice charged with symbolic value. In Culture and Practical Reason, Sahlins argues that “no being, no thing, has being or movement in human society except by the significance men give it.”[v] I conclude that the practice of preservation is highly symbolic, exhibiting aesthetic and social meaning. Ben’s making of lardo holds symbolic meaning in how it is representative of both the aesthetic elements of being a chef – in nose-to-tail processing and resourcefulness – and ethics – in regards to showing respect and responsibility towards others. It is here that the ‘value’ of preservation can be found. In Sahlins’ perspective, value is derived from cultural concepts that define a system of opposing categories. As a result, value is understood in relation to what it stands in opposition to. Preservation stands in opposition to wastefulness; to disrespect; to commercial food systems that separate consumer from farmer; to a lack of knowledge, craft, and sense of duty to others. Ultimately, pickling, fermentation, and curing are practices that express ethics of care and respect. Ethics thus become visible through the everyday logic and practices chefs carry out and the economic relations they build in the process.
[i] Annemarie Mol, The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice (London: Routledge, 2008), 75-76.
[ii] Fergus Henderson, Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking (London: Bloomsbury, 1999).
[iii] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).
[iv] Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place: a Cultural Journey into Terroir (London: University of California Press, 2008).
[v] Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 170.
My thanks go to my participants Jeremy Chan, Sat Bains, Dan Cox, and Ben Chapman who form this ongoing research and took the time to be interviewed for this project. Thanks as well go to my supervisory team Professor Harry G. West and Dr. Christopher Thorpe at the University of Exeter for their continued advice, support, and guidance as I undertake my research. Thanks also goes to the editors of this journal for their feedback and comments.
Jed Hilton is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Exeter. His research examines the development of the chef profession, from obscurity to celebrity. His research also covers how and why UK-based fine dining chefs practice and understand contemporary food ethics and looks at how high-end hospitality responds to changing ethical sensibilities. A former chef himself, Jed is interested in food, labor, and moral economic markets within hospitality.