Why I Disagree with Thomas Keller, and What Local Food Teaches Me

Thomas Keller is one the world’s most celebrated chefs with his fleet of restaurants in Yountville, Las Vegas, and New York. At the same time, he is a vocal “thorn in the side” of local food advocates, with his direct dismissals of the locavore movement.

His message was much the same this year when he spoke at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Foods Institute a few weeks ago.  Speaking on a panel called “The Future of Food: Scaling Down,” Chef Keller made the distinction between geographically local and temporally local food.

That is, he personally considers local food to be anything that he can get at his doorstep within one day of harvest – even if that means flying that product overnight from across the country.

Here are some excerpts from Keller’s comments on the panel:

When I started cooking, 32 years ago sustainability wasn’t something that was talked about. And, being a chef, the kind of chef that I wanted to be, was about quality number one: quality of product, quality of execution, quality of experience for the guest.

It all rested on the highest quality that I could produce. For me as I went through my career, I came to understand where our product came from and where the best products came from, the term local changed for me. So it wasn’t about a geographical location, it was about quality of the product.

If we could get great lobsters from Maine everyday at my back door, then for me that was a local product. If I could get the best lamb available from Pennsylvania, then that to me was a local product.

Now certainly, in saying that, all of you are probably thinking “Well, this guy’s crazy “– because he’s talking about sustainability, local geographical products, not leaving a carbon footprint by shipping things across the US, and there are certainly many things to be said for that.  But there’s also something to be said for supporting some of our purveyors who have products that are coming across the continent for us, people like Keith Martin, who is my lamber in Pennsylvania.

His protocols, his holistic way of raising his animals is something that I want to continue to support, because I really believe in the way that he’s doing [it]. And eventually he will have an impact on the entire industry, and raise the standard of the entire industry. So, I’m willing to leave a small carbon footprint by shipping his lamb from Pennsylvania to Yountville or to New York or to Las Vegas because we use his lamb in all of our restaurants to continue to support what he’s doing. So, I buy from people I have great respect for.

So, ultimately, Keller is justifying the greater environmental load that his purchasing produces by the possible long-term benefits that supporting quality farmers might create. Keller has also said, “Price isn’t important to me, I just want the very best available.” As such, he admits to having an elitist philosophy – which is partly why he has been so successful in the culinary world.

And I am the first to admit — in the sphere he inhabits, his views work.  Extremely well.  At the same time, I would strongly caution against implementing this “24-hour local” food rule for the rest of society.

There are several reasons for this:

1) Building a Diverse Community: If everyone bought their food like Thomas Keller, we might have good quality farms but at the same time we wouldn’t have the infrastructure to support them.  Our agricultural infrastructure is currently targeted toward the large players in the market. It is difficult, for example, for small meat producers to find a certified processing facility in their local area, or for small farmers to find distribution networks for their products.  The more we buy from our local foodshed, the more incentive there will be for these localized networks of infrastructure to be (re)created.  In the process, we will make it  easier for sustainable food producers to go about the business of growing good, healthy food.

2) Diversity on our Local Farms: If we choose to buy our specialty foods from across the country, we are simultaneously decreasing the food-dollars that go to our local farmers — dollars they might invest in growing those very same products closer to home.  Farmers need an economic incentive to grow a variety of plants and animals.  This agricultural variety will directly increase the ecological / environmental health of our farm ecosystems, and at the same time encourage better health as we increase the number of foods in our diets.

3) Energy Use: Economist Jeff Rubin has a new book called Why Your World Is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller which addresses these issues directly.  Rubin’s premise is that the current decline in oil prices is going to be short lived, and was caused in large part by our current recession.  Once the economic recession is over, oil will again be well over $100 / barrel – which will have a dramatic impact on how we grow and ship food.

Here’s an excerpt:

I like salmon — who doesn’t? Salmon consumption has risen about 23 percent each year for the last decade or so. There are a number of good reasons to eat more fish: we all want food high in omega-3s, we want to eat less saturated fat, we want healthy protein for our low-carb diets. But here’s the key reason for the amount of salmon on your dinner table: cheap oil has been subsidizing the cost of fish. Just like Wal-Mart and Tesco and big- box retailers around the world have been able to cut prices on almost everything by taking advantage of cheap shipping and cheap Asian labor, salmon went from being delicious local seafood to being another global commodity. Cheap oil gives us access to a pretty big world.

So, what happens when our globalized food system breaks down as oil prices rise?  We need to be ready with local options, which brings us back to points 1 and 2.  (Again, in Keller’s case, he is buying the best without regard to price.  But this doesn’t work for the rest of us.)

Finally, as a chef I have personally found great value in buying and serving local food.  First of all, it keeps me directly connected with the seasons – and more importantly, how those seasons change from year-to-year.

For example, the menus I create tell me to the week when the local strawberries are available, when the blood oranges are ripe, and when the heirloom tomatoes are fresh off the vine.  I could, if I wanted, get these products nearly year-round if I chose – but then I wouldn’t know that a heavy spring rain delayed the strawberry harvest by two weeks compared with last year.  And perhaps I wouldn’t realize it when unusually cool temperatures kept the heirlooms from fully ripening.  And it is these seasonal and yearly variations that keep me grounded in where I am.

Working with local farmers also teaches me to be nimble in the kitchen, especially if you commit to buying whatever they bring you.  They might say they have 20 lbs of baby bok choy, but then the harvest might not pan out and instead I receive 10 lbs of sugar peas and a case of garlic scapes instead.  Too bad that your menu is already printed – improvise improvise improvise.  This is how nature is in the real world, and it benefits me as a chef to accept and integrate that unpredictability.

Interestingly, Keller does have a small farm as part of The French Laundry.  But when he talks about his farm, he does so from a social view point, not an environmental one. Again, here are Keller’s comments from the Sustainable Food Institute panel:

We have our own garden and orchards in Yontville.  “Why do we have our own garden, our own orchards?”  We’re in California which has the most amazing product in our country. It’s not just that we like to grow our own so we can say so. It’s about the teaching process for our young cooks.

When I was a young cook, I would get on the phone every night and place my order and it would come in the back door, and I didn’t have a connection to where that food came from, and so my idea of waste wasn’t’ something that was really important to me.  So now, growing our own, and harvesting it, and washing it and serving it, you understand the level of respect you have for that food grows enormously. So the amount of waste has been reduced by a great deal.  So it’s really about responsibility and respect for the product.

“Responsibility and respect for the product” is a great goal — and I applaud Keller for investing time, energy, and money into his gardens.  But at the same time, his culinary skills have given him power as an international spokesman for what good food is.  His terminology and ideas around local food are confusing to the casual observer.  So while his food is delicious, I believe our country would be better off by not following the example he is creating.

Photo: inuyaki.com

10 thoughts on “Why I Disagree with Thomas Keller, and What Local Food Teaches Me

  1. Last night, my wife and I joined many members of our community in celebrating the first anniversary of Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick, VT.

    Claire’s is a community-supported restaurant, which during its first year achieved patron numbers projected in its fourth year – every day. Why?

    A primary reason is Claire’s chef, Steven Obranovich, who spends time nearly every day talking to local farmers and processors about what’s available, what’s in peak, etc., and then adapted his menu to accommodate those local products.

    It’s working. Earlier this year, Claire’s announced (proudly) it had purchased over 70 percent of its food from within 10 miles of the restaurant. Considering the restaurant is located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (translated: cold), this is saying a lot.

    By supporting local businesses, Claire’s and its customers are increasing demand for local products, which in turn keeps money circulating in the local economy longer. Everyone is winning.

    And the food is spectacular! Claire’s has been awarded the Editor’s Choice Award from Yankee Magazine for the Best Community Concept. We also just won a spot on Conde Nast Traveler Magazine’s Hot Tables list.

  2. I think that my overarching goal in growing much of my own food is that I strive for sustainability…if only for my own family. At least we can make a small difference. And I think local eating has sustainability at its core. Leaving as small a footprint as possible. Conversely, flying in out of season food from the other hemisphere, simply because you can, is the opposite. I liken it to driving the car (in this case a really really big, fuel guzzling one) down the driveway to get the mail. You COULD do it…but then again you could walk and feel much better about yourself.

  3. Pingback: The Local Beet: Chicago » Link O’Wednesday

  4. “Interestingly, Keller does have a small farm as part of The French Laundry. But when he talks about his farm, he does so from a social view point, not an environmental one.”

    I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to talk about farming from a social view point. After all, there is a social aspect to farming, especially sustainable farming. He is still supporting sustainable farms, he just does it for a different priority. I think it’s OK to ship food. I buy local meat, eggs, cheese and veggies (when in season) and buy imported olive oil, coffee, and chocolate, and don’t consider that unsustainable. There is room for both the social and environmental view points in the sustainability movement.

  5. Wild-caught fish is a good example. We really need them for the omega-3s, yet sustainable fisheries are often thousdands of miles away. And locavores seem to be completely ambivalent about this fact: for most regions of the country, local food is only available a few months of the year, in season. Most farmers markets shut down for the winter. Most food is imported from elsewhere. Not only do we need to grow more food during the off-seasons, but we need more markets in which to sell it. And people need to develop a taste again for cold season foods. Can you say r-u-t-a-b-a-g-a?

  6. Keller is wrong and I say so from a culinary perspective. The demise of local and regional “cuisines” is all about the global availability of food. Cuisines are built upon scarcity and limited LOCAL availability. They are inventive LOCAL ways of turning a limited set of raw ingredients into edible and desirable meals. As soon as you make everything available anywhere and anytime then you lose the need to be inventive with what you have at hand. As soon as cooks are no longer forced to deal with a regionally common and limited set of local ingredients, you lose the entire concept of a cuisine. It reminds me of coming up out of the subway in many European cities and finding the very same chain stores that one finds in the USA. Who needs it?

  7. What is local seems to be the crux of a lot of debate these days. With so many layers and perspectives to take into account, I agree that the message out to the general public has gotten muddled. What’s more, we as members of a movement do no service to ourselves by creating a right and wrong, us and them, dichotomy.

    At Red Tomato, our answer is a regional food system. Pulling from the wealth of knowledge and product from growers in New England, NJ, PA and NY also allows us to work with in distribution systems that fit the existing wholesale model. Translation: we get local produce into grocery stores in the Northeast. BUT we know that different models work in different regions and no one knows the needs of their farmers and food system more than the people that live there.

    For the general public, wouldn’t it be simpler just to give people the directive: buy good, fresh food. Buy it direct, buy it at the grocery store, buy it from companies that you trust and respect – doing so will send a message to the growers that they are on the right track and the results in the marketplace will support demand for more, good, local food.

  8. I think the biggest issue here is that Thomas Keller is simply confusing the term ‘local’ with ‘fresh’. His products are very fresh due to his need to get them within one day. They are in NO WAY local and there is no such term as ‘temporally local food’. That’s the oddest thing I’ve ever heard. Chef Keller has earned his reputation as one of the greatest chefs in the world. However, his style and type of restaurant doesn’t necessarily qualify him to speak about truly ‘local’ products, but does qualify him to speak about luxury, fresh products flown all over the world.

  9. Thanks for a wonderful piece. Now more than ever it’s important that chefs become consciousness raisers on ag-eco issues, since often they’re the only point of education many eaters have.

  10. Nice piece Aaron! Your three arguments against the 24 hour rule are spot on. Full disclosure: I’ve never eaten at French Laundry so I don’t know how delicious it really is…but if I had, I’m sure I’d still agree with you.