Sysco ends up being the whipping boy of the kitchen world for various reasons. We've all held that whip in our hands at some point in time or another. Even non-chef/cooks out there have come to understand this organization as the butt of many a good food joke. They equate the chef who orders from Sysco as the slacker who doesn't really care about his ingredients or his guests. "He's cooking out of a box." (... as opposed to cooking out of the box.) It's easy to take this view because we like simplicity and we want to feel like we are better than the next guy. How many food articles do we read where this corporation becomes equated with some lower level of cuisine... or maybe not even 'cuisine,' but some downgraded fast-food world inspired pseudo food stuff served out of a package. The mediocrity of American food. Yes, it's easy to make the jokes, but like everything else in this world things are not that simple and true change takes a little bit more than elevating one's self at the expense of others. There is a growing sense of discouragement with the American food system as a whole. I have felt this for a long time now. This entity is under more tough scrutinization than every before, and it should be. There are many evils to point the finger at. Again, it's easy to envision many little guys facing up to the giant agricultural corporations. In a David and Goliath scenario, picking out the good guys and bad guys is pretty easy. In reality, things are just not that black and white.
No disrespect to Joe Beef. I've never been to Canada or eaten at the increasingly famous restaurant, but I respect the points brought up in the last Lucky Peach intervew. The Joe Beef team seems to strike a chord of integrity in food that resonates with the restaurant-going population across America. The only point made that I think was unecessary was the Sysco-bashing comment. Ok, we get it... you are cooler than us and have more integrity... was that the point? I understand why the comment was made though. We are living in a time when you can make yourself seem loftier by making others seem like something lesser. In a heartbeat, we'll laugh at the restaurant chef who gets a weekly Sysco delivery, but that guy who makes the tacos at our favorite taco stand... he's ok. He may stop by Jetro every Tuesday to buy masa harina, mop heads, lard, and toilet paper all from the same store, but he's ok. He's doing it authentic. He's keeping it real. What a bunch of fucking hypocrisy. Some of the people who applaud this type of comment will stop at the grocery store later (which also sells meat, bleach, and mopheads) and think nothing of it. What's the difference here? None really.
How do we affect actual change in the food system? There are many restaurants out there that lay claim to only using the freshest, most sustainably and organically grown, local, free-range, virgin organic grass fed, foraged, artisanally prepared foods that your good money can buy. All the key promo words are locked in there. Not always, but often we can cry bullshit to most of these. It's all about promotion. It's sometimes just about labels and loopholes and putting a big green sticker on your head. Do I believe it's all bullshit? Of course not, but things have gotten a little bit out of hand. We can't just spend every menu writing session hopscotching over ever trendy ingredient and terminology. It needs to be real. Many of us chefs have replaced the traditional competitive medals and rank insignia of former days with pats on the back from the media (and by media, I mean all public forums including social media). Most chefs (again including myself) are loving the fact that chefs are profiled in such honorable ways now. This was not always the case, and line cooks were once considered the dreggs of the restaurant world. I'm just saying that this is dangerous motivation, and the more we do it the closer we get to slipping on the thin ice into freezing waters of contradiction. I've tasted my own feet many times.
All of this was made clear to me (well, not really clear at the time, but a little faint light bulb went on somewhere) a couple of years back at a StarChef congress. The opening panel was with Charlie Trotter and Norman Van Aken. Trotter made a comment that echoed so hard, it's the only thing I can remember from the entire conversation. When every chef was deep in the doo doo of bashing the food system and making ourselves seem somehow more elevated (including myself), Trotter sat there and defended our American food system. He took the 'not so easy' way out of the argument. My mind retorted. Why would this extremely intelligent and influential chef say this? Well... because he is extremely intelligent. I always play devil's advocate in situations. I'm not trying to be an ass, but my mind will always 'argue' with itself as a means of trouble-shooting things that has developed over many years of kitchen organization. It's a reflex. How is our system so great? We've got huge corporations genetically altering our foods and spraying them with the latest Roundup chemicals, pigs cows chickens being piled up on top of themselves and their shit in foodlots, food poisoning outbreaks revealed weekly, increasing food allergies, etc. etc. etc. etc. Other countries have it better and their grass is greener and not genetically altered. Is this really true? And if it is, then how do we change it? Trotter said that, "we (the American food system) fed the world." This is not completely literal, as there are children starving at this very moment. It is, however, more on point than not. We have come closer to feeding the world than anyone else. Did we sell part of our souls in the process... sure we did. We want to fix it now, but getting all 'Alice Waters' on the food system really doesn't do a damned thing when you get down to it. A little garden on the White House lawn doesn't feed a huge percentage of the population. Yeah, it makes for a cute newspaper story, but come on. Maybe it's time to have real conversations on the food system if we want to change it (not the counter-productive bashing that is so easy to engage in).
I've always been envious of that free-standing restaurant chef that gets to bring in the most exquisite produce and proteins that his buyer can find. He's driving up to the docks every morning to pick up the freshest catch, stopping over at the Farmer's Market to get those Catalonian mountain-grown spring onions that are only in season for 2 hours out the year (he's flying these in, but will only buy locally made cheese), checking on his garden and feeding his small herd of baby Albanian midget pigs before coming into the kitchen to prep and maintain his aging cheeses, fermenting vinegars, and check the humidity level in his salami incubator. Somehow, he still finds time to cook on the line for every service and tweet every 10 minutes about all the cool stuff he's doing. Chefs so lofty they sound like they shit marbled fingerling potatoes. Yes, I'm being facetious (to a degree). I do love all of these things just like the next guy. I like being liked. As chefs, we are committed to learning and experimenting with food. It makes us better. We want to be better, and we should seek out ingredients from similar minded artisans and growers. So in the end, does that chef really impact the world after he's fed his 60 guests for that night. Maybe he turns the tables once, so it's 120 people (if there are no cancellations). Maybe 20 of them ordered the fresh sustainable fish. Is what he is doing important? It definitely is, but it took me some time to realize that it is more meaningful on a grand scale to talk that bride into not choosing the endangered fish as her entrée for her wedding of 200 people on the beach than to write it up on the special board in your restaurant. Doing banquets is grueling uninspiring work, but there is that bit of compensation involved... affecting things on a grander scale and making true change. Sure, the local foodie web-mag won't be running into your kitchen to write about the sustainable line caught fish fillet you lighly baked and served to a ballroom full of people, but there is some satisfaction albeit much more transparent and much more effective. This point was made even more clear to me after reading Nate Appleman's comments in this interview. How much more impactful it is when Nate puts humanely raised chicken in every Chipotle franchise across America than when another chef puts it on the menu for his 20-seat chef table? And to truly and honestly achieve that goal, systems must be put in place to raise, kill, package, and deliver that chicken (reality). There is no chicken fairy that drops shipment at the door overnight. This is a big country, and feeding it takes a lot of 'not so pretty' effort. I believe we can achieve everything we want to do over time, but we need to be real about it. So why does Appleman get dogged for his career choice... seriously? You are the man, Nate. Don't listen to the critics and keep it real... not surreal. You have the capacity to do far more good here, than anyone thowing stones at you.
Back to the bashing, can we not affect more of a real change in our systems with dialogues focused in areas that will actually matter instead of preaching to the cyber-choir? When we did a demonstration a few months back for an auditorium full of Sysco chefs, the lights in my brain got brighter. These guys were so motivated to learn new things. I was inspired by it. If they took new ideas, and shared them with all of their chef/customers... wouldn't a change in the system be so much more possible? What if they all started to insist on more greener products (which they are) for their regional clients? Sysco is huge. The means are there to accomplish what we want if we approach it without worrying about the backlash. We need to be careful of standing on pedestals cause it's so easy to fall off. Is it not better to affect change from within a system instead of resorting to insult to make oneself feel like they have more integrity. I realize that 'green' has become more of a promotional tool than anything now, but let's work it. We scoff when a Super Wal-Mart sells organic produce. Is it really organic? What does this label mean anyway? We do use Sysco products in our resort. We also use other foodservice distributors. We have a purchasing department and storeroom that is bigger than most restaurant kitchens. We buy fresh amazing ingredients from the little guys every chance we get. We try to support and promote local and do so whenever possible. We want to feel good about ourselves. Can the little fish guy on the dock supply pompano for your banquet of 300? Probably not. You pick and choose your battles. As chefs, we want to maintain our integrity. Realizing what defines you is the next step. Turn the mirror inward. We all need to stop at Publix on the way home from work somedays. That's part of the amazing food system we have here in the good ol' U S or A. Take a good real look at it. It really is amazing. Trotter was right. Now, let's start the dialogue here. Let's talk about how we can really make things better. This isn't completely a David and Goliath battle, so let's be careful where we sling our stones. I know I'm going to get some sort of backlash for this, but my point is about effectiveness. How do we truly and honestly make a better system for our kids?