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Chef José Andrés’ recipe for better eating: fair farm laws, old cows, and plenty of vegetables

Chefs might be at home in the kitchen, but these days, they’re also in the White House advising on nutrition recommendations, in front of British parliament testifying about sugar taxes, and outside major companies leading protests against unsustainable fishing.

Last month at a food conference hosted by the James Beard Foundation, an organization long known for its focus on culinary feats, the discussion was decidedly policy-centric. Chefs joined entrepreneurs, scientists, and health advocates to talk about the future of food, covering topics that ranged from technology to education to tipping policies at restaurants. José Andrés, a Spanish-born chef who trained under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and now has his own small empire of restaurants (from the avant-garde Minibar in Washington DC to Tres in Beverly Hills), spoke about the role chefs can play in changing the way food is prepared and consumed. In an interview with Quartz, conducted via email, he specified the problems he sees and the changes he recommends. Below is a condensed version of his responses.

Quartz: What is the biggest problem in the US food supply and how do we fix it?

Andrés: I think there are two problems when it comes to our food supply. One is on the consumer side. In this country, people have become selfish with the process for how we buy food. We want simplicity, and so instead of visiting a farmers’ stand every few days and buying food fresh, we end up going to some giant corporation that sells food that will last you a month. In the end, we’re spending more on the food that we feed our dogs and cats. Did you know that a 12-ounce can of SPAM can cost as little as $2.50, while a 12-ounce can of organic dog food can cost as much as $30?

On the other side, there’s the agriculture industry and the subsidies that control it. We are subsidizing enormous companies that are not even growing food we can eat. If we’re going to subsidize in this country, we should subsidize everything and make sure that all farming is created equally, between all sizes. We need to give every farmer the opportunity to be competitive. If not, then don’t subsidize anyone.

Is there any validity to the complaint that healthy food is more expensive and takes more time to prepare?

I don’t think these kinds of complaints are logical, because produce is more or less affordable, and fresh produce doesn’t require a lot of ingredients to make a meal that is delicious and healthy. Something as simple as cutting a tomato in half and drizzling it with olive oil and vinegar, or boiling green beans and potatoes in water with a little bit of salt is delicious, and most of the time you can do it in five minutes.

When choosing produce, meat, eggs, and dairy, what is more important: local or organic?

Food should be raised in way that’s good for the plant or the animal, good for the environment, and good for us. Now whether that’s organic or not is something I think we are still figuring out, however I generally fall on the organic end of the spectrum. I am all for local and supporting the farmers around me, but I also love enjoying champagne made from grapes grown in France, and Parmesan cheese from Italy and beautiful apples from Maryland. The fact is, most places in the world can’t grow every single food that you want to eat. Eating local exclusively is not practical. We should grow food where it grows best, and people can buy local what grows well around them.

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Chef José Andrés (center) on the Chefs Advocate for Agriculture panel at the James Beard Foundation conference, with chef Andrea Reusing (right) of Lantern Restaurant and Karen Karp of Karen Karp and Partners. (Kent Miller)

Is there a way to eat meat that is actually humane, environmentally responsible, and healthy?

Yes, and you can experience it at my restaurant Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas where we believe in eating higher quality meat, but less of it. Okay, maybe there are some things on the menu that are more in the spirit of gratification than health, but the general philosophy of how we serve meat is a living example. For example, a gorgeous rib-eye steak arrives at your table sliced and ready to be shared, and it’s complemented by incredible vegetable dishes that are just as flavorful and sexy as the meat itself!

Another thing we are doing is sourcing our meat from older cows. There’s a restaurant in the town of Leon, Spain, called El Capricho, and they raise some of their cows until they are 10 or 13 years old before slaughtering them. I had one of the best meals of my life there. Unfortunately we can’t source from El Capricho, but we have found a company called Mindful Meats here in the United States that is doing something very similar. There’s nothing wrong with an older cow, so long as you know how to cook it. These cows spend their lives grazing freely in pastures of grass and eating a diet that enriches their meat with nutrients and flavors. It’s a win-win for the animals and for the people enjoying them later.

What labels do you trust?

Our restaurants don’t really depend on labels. We depend on our eyes and relationships. We meet the producers, visit the farms, and taste their products, and we make our decision based on those experiences. Having said that, I know this is not possible for every American consumer, so if I were shopping in a grocery store, certified-humane labels would be the best available.

Recently there were two major acquisitions of companies that sell organic and natural meat: Hormel acquired Applegate and Perdue acquired Niman Ranch. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

I think it’s a mix. It’s a good thing because it shows that big businesses are paying attention to this movement of eating healthier food, which is huge. We are seeing changes like this everywhere. It also creates a synergy between two very different core philosophies, which allows these companies to learn from one another. Hormel can teach Applegate big business and Applegate can teach Hormel about organic. Same goes for Perdue and Niman Ranch, especially when it comes to animal treatment, something Niman Ranch has been specializing in for years. The key is to not let the larger companies’ production practices affect their new subsidiaries, because that can dilute the integrity of what the smaller companies are doing. It will be interesting to see if they can do it. So many people believe that these specialty producers can’t operate at the level of a Perdue or a Hormel; that their sound and sustainable processes wouldn’t be possible. Now that Applegate and Niman Ranch have the capital behind them, we can actually see whether it’s possible or not.

There are a ton of new technology companies in the food space. Which models do you find the most promising?

Right now plant-based proteins and dairy blow me away. Companies like Hampton Creek, Kite Hill, and Beyond Meat are figuring out ways to produce the food that Americans love to eat, without using the ingredients that are harmful to us and to the planet. It’s revolutionary and it paints a promising future for how we are going to be feeding ourselves. The technology we are developing is really incredible, too. For the past few years, my friend Nathan Mryhvold has been using light to create a laser that can identify, track, and kill mosquitoes. The technology can calculate wing beat, frequency, shape, size, and airspeed of an insect to determine whether it’s a mosquito or not. They originally intended to use it to help curb the spread of malaria, but inevitably it serves as a great alternative to using pesticides.

What should the government’s role be when it comes to our food?

The important thing to know about food is how interconnected it is, and that farmers, doctors, chefs, scientists, and government officials should all have a role. The government can play a very positive one, too. There is a problem with the food supply in this country, especially on the industry side, and the problem is basically our farm bill. If they can fix that piece of legislation to level out the playing field, we would all be better for it. The government should also be making school lunches that are healthier and free for all. We need to be feeding our children better.

These are things the government can actively be doing, but there is one thing I think they should put a stop to. This past July, the House passed a bill called H.R. 1599, a piece of legislation that would block state GMO labeling laws and make it virtually impossible for the FDA to craft a national GMO labeling system. My friends and I in the industry have started to call this bill the DARK act, for Deny Americans the Right to Know. Whether we should be using GMOs or not is yet to be determined, but we should never be denied the right to choose whether to buy food that’s been grown with GMOs.

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