Freeing Gastronomy and Embracing Slow Food

Using food as a tool for empowerment and transformation in today’s rapidly changing world.

Pitchfork in the soil

In the wake of food freedom, chefs and consumers alike are recognizing food’s ability to strengthen communities around the world.

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Food and Freedom: How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World Through Gastronomy (Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2015) by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food organization, sends a strong message for food justice. An advocate for “good, clean, and fair” food, Petrini believes in empowering people by giving them control over access to their food production and distribution. The following excerpt from Chapter 11 focuses on the current state of gastronomy, and how we can move forward with positive change.

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What Next?

When they are freed, an animal that has always lived in a cage or a person who has been in prison for many years is bound to feel at least a bit disoriented. It is after liberation that the hard part comes: the animal has to learn to feed itself on its own and it won’t necessarily survive (I have always been amused by the question Michael Pollan asks animalists. What would happen to hens set free from a henhouse? Answer: they would probably be killed by a fox or a pine marten), while the ex con would struggle to find a job, integrate into society, and overcome the prejudices that surround him. Sure, they would be free, but to do what?

Now that it has shaken off its yoke, gastronomy, too, is limping along uncertainly and paying the price of prejudice. It is not immune from contradictions, but these are actually a sign of complexity. We have freed gastronomy, but is it really free? The easy answer is no. You only have to switch on the television to see why. I have already evoked analogies with pornography. Food on TV is pure showbiz, with competitions between cooks that boil down to a race against the clock; recipes that have to be thrown together in a few minutes for the husband just home from work who wants to watch the news; restaurants that are madhouses in which chefs alternate excesses of rudeness and seductiveness; primary ingredients that are treated as unimportant; producers and farmers who are shown like animals at the zoo, to accentuate their curious, often bizarre sides. Often even the sternest critics of this TV ignorance fail to realize that all they have to counter it is an antiquated model of gastronomy that champions an elitist approach to the enjoyment of food: the restaurant as a holy place where the cult of personality surrounding chefs is defended to the hilt; recipes that are always sublime and superlative, not to mention photogenic; expensive, super-select primary ingredients. That of the classic old gourmet model of the connoisseur who invests himself with innate—more often than not impromptu—critical skills is a world in which the farmer does not exist. Gastronomic criticism has evolved with the web and now has more power than ever in terms of diffusion and capacity to reach an increasingly interested audience. Read through the right filters, it provides a service, but especially on the Internet, the range of a food writer rarely extends beyond restaurant reviews, personal takes on recipes, classifications of merit, a plug here and a snatch of gossip there. This is what attracts audiences on both television and computer screens, and this, too, is a response to food’s worst enemy, the market. Rightly or wrongly, there is a lot of talk these days about Good, but the questions of Clean and Fair are either ignored or seen as a boring fixation on the part of “Slow Foodites,” people who defend the past (hadn’t we said that we intended to erase it and its backyard gastronomy?) and the environment, nitpickers who don’t want us to eat tuna fish and salmon anymore? “Zero food miles” rhetoric, used at every turn in the most unlikely contexts without taking account of the fact that the local and the seasonal are a complex matter, is now devoid of content, like the environmentalist refrain of the 1980s. Some think that this is all we are; it’s a matter of points of view.

Declaration of Lima

I personally am happy to sit back and enjoy hearing everyone singing the praises of the cooks and chefs of the new wave of French bistros and the finest North and Latin American cuisine restaurants, all in search of good and clean food products that respect the dignity of farmers and often translate into direct collaborations and exchanges of products and knowledge. No wonder food bloggers now venture out of their usual circles of restaurateur and producer friends, who invite them to their own initiatives, and travel to Mexico, say, to discover the meaning of biodiversity in products that had previously all seemed the same and, amazed by so much wealth, advocate its protection; or when, on vacation they meet a peasant who changes their lives—or at least their way of seeing food—by letting them taste things they had never tasted before. Whether it is young people bridging a gap caused by inexperience or more seasoned journalists capable of taking new ideas on board, I am happy when I see this happen. I can sense that a network is growing and, above all, I convince myself that the role of small farmers and producers in local areas where gastronomy is not enslaved—simply because it has never existed there as we know it—will be a great driving force for change in the future. I can sense that gastronomy is being liberated thanks to their labor, to a mixture of different ways of seeing and doing things. I can sense that our past and our present, in which gastronomy was and is treated as little more than a game, reveal a model that we should not follow, but that will prove useful. Not only producers but also cooks and chefs are well ahead of the critics. In 2011, for example, some of the best chefs in the world met in Lima and wrote an “Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow,” later renamed the “Declaration of Lima,” that suggests we rethink the direction we are moving in and acknowledge that something has effectively changed over the last thirty years. Paolo Marchi was the first to speak about this in Italy in an article on Identità golose.13 This is what he wrote:

Yesterday, Sunday, September 11, in Lima, in Peru, during the Mistura event [Author’s note: which I shall return to later], the chefs who make up the International Consultancy Board of the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, in the Basque Countries, the University of Gastronomic Sciences [Author’s note: another one!] and its Center for Research and Innovation presented an “Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow.” I have translated it. One thing is for sure: years and years of Slow Food haven’t passed by in vain in the four corners of the planet:

“At a time when society is rapidly changing, our profession must actively respond to new challenges. The culinary profession of today offers a wide variety of opportunities and trajectories. We chefs remain united by a passion for cooking and share the belief that our work is also a way of life. For us, cooking offers a world of possibilities, allowing us to freely express ourselves, pursue our interests, and fulfill our dreams. Indeed, we believe that cooking is not only a response to the basic human need of feeding ourselves; it is also more than the search for happiness. Cooking is a powerful, transformative tool that, through the joint effort of co-producers—whether we be chefs, producers or consumers—can change the way the world nourishes itself. We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a fair and sustainable society [ . . . ] To all of you, we direct this reflection, entitled ‘An Open Letter to the Chefs of Tomorrow.’”

There follow seven points, subdivided into four subjects: Nature (two), Society (two), Knowledge (two) and Values (one):

“Dear chef, in relation with nature:

1. Our work depends on nature’s gifts. As a result we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature, to use our cooking and our voices as a tool for recovering heirloom and endangered varieties and species, and promoting new ones. In this way we can help protect the earth’s biodiversity, as well as preserve and create flavors and to elaborate culinary methods.

2. Over the course of thousands of years, the dialogue between humans and nature has created agriculture. We are all, in other words, part of an ecological system. To ensure that this ecology is as healthy as possible, let’s encourage and practice sustainable production in the field and in the kitchen. In this way, we can create authentic flavor.

In relation with society:

3. As chefs, we are the product of our culture. Each of us is heir to a legacy of flavors, dining customs, and cooking techniques. Yet we don’t have to be passive. Through our cooking, our ethics, and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country. We can also serve as an important bridge with other cultures.

4. We practice a profession that has the power to affect the socioeconomic development of others. We can have a significant economic impact by encouraging the exportation of our own culinary culture and fomenting others’ interest in it. At the same time, by collaborating with local producers and employing fair economic practices, we can generate sustainable local wealth and financially strengthen our communities.

In relation with knowledge:

5. Although a primary goal of our profession is to provide happiness and stir emotions, through our own work and by working with experts in the fields of health and education, we have a unique opportunity to transmit our knowledge to members of the public, helping them, for example, to acquire good cooking habits, and to learn to make healthy choices about the foods they eat.

6. Through our profession, we have the opportunity to generate new knowledge, whether it be something so simple as the development of a recipe or as complicated as an indepth research project. And just as we have each benefited from the teaching of others, we have a responsibility, in turn, to share our learning.

In relation with values:

7. We live in a time in which cooking can be a beautiful form of self-expression. Cooking today is a field in constant evolution that includes many different disciplines. For that reason, it’s important to carry out our quests and fulfill our dreams with authenticity, humility, and, above all, passion. Ultimately, we are each guided by our own ethics and values.”

The document was signed by Ferran Adriá (elBulli, Spain), René Redzepi (Noma, Denmark), Alex Atala (D.O.M., Brazil), Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, Italy), Gastón Acurio (Astrid y Gaston, Peru), Dan Barber (Blue Hill, USA), Michel Bras (Bras, France), Yukkio Hattori(Japan) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck, UK). [Author’s note: Blumenthal subsequently denied signing the letter and had his signature removed.] The G9 of the restaurant industry.

What can I add? Gastronomy has been liberated itself and the phenomenon is now irreversible. Now it is up to us—food and wine critics, university lecturers, farmers, artisans, cooks, enthusiasts, citizens—to turn it into something that can change the world and walk tall without the uncertainty of someone who has just been released from captivity. It is up to us to use the energy released by the union of our diversities well. To make sure that food becomes the tool for a transformation so profound as to make our lives and those of future generations better and happier.


Reprinted with permission from Food and Freedom: How the Slow Food Movement is Changing the World Through Gastronomy by Carlo Petrini and published by Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2015.