Green Cuisine Takes Root in America's Kitchens
Sustainable cooking. Clean cuisine. Call it what you will, but cooking with a conscience has struck a chord with chefs and, in turn, their clientele.
"Chefs must be at the forefront of helping people re-connect with real food," says Chef Tom Leavett, personal chef and owner of Chicago's White Oak Gourmet, who says Americans have lost touch with the sources of their food supply due to the convenience of industrialized agriculture.
But while sustainable may be a new buzzword in the media sphere, it's tradition in the kitchen.
"Alice Waters talked about sustainable foods in the early 1970s," says Chef Stuart Donald of the Mars Hill Cafe in Mobile, AL. "Since then, it has gone from being a quirky sentiment to a full blown movement."
What Is Green Cuisine Anyway?
How chefs define sustainable cooking varies, but most emphasize producing healthy, natural foods, preferably from local growers who employ environmentally responsible agricultural techniques.
"To me, sustainability means not trying to outsmart Mother Nature," says Donald. "Don't mess with a plant's genetic makeup. Don't manipulate an animal's life-cycle through diet or chemistry. Let nature take its course." That usually means choosing organic food, non-genetically modified products, or fair trade goods whenever possible.
However you define it, kitchens everywhere are incorporating sustainability principles in their day-to-day operations.
Putting Your Food Where Your Mouth Is
So, how are chefs putting sustainability principles to work in the kitchen? For many, this means thoughtfully selecting the source of their products and trying to find local, natural alternatives for everything they use in the kitchen. For Chef Donald, that means building seasonal menus that minimize imported products, particularly seafood. Chef Leavett networks with local farms, composts his food scraps, and even encourages his clients to plant their own gardens. Still, it's a challenge.
"Going sustainable in the kitchen is a journey," says Leavett. "It hasn't been easy considering our country's overwhelming dependence on industrially produced foods."
Sustainable Culinary Schools Make their Mark
As culinary trends and philosophies change, the culinary schools shaping tomorrow's chefs adapt. Green cuisine is no exception.
"Our most important job is to help students developing a sustainability mindset," says Christopher Koetka, Dean of Kendall College's School of Culinary Arts. "Sustainability is so much bigger than just buying locally or seasonally; it's about a comprehensive behavioral change in the kitchen."
At Kendall, instructors teach students where food comes from and how it's raised. Eighty-five percent of the foods dished up in Kendall's fine dining restaurant are locally sourced, and they provide a large garden space for students to grow their own produce.
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), one of the biggest names in culinary schools, is doing its part, too. It has a long tradition of incorporating green principles in its curriculum, and in the last few months it has begun transitioning St. Andrew's Cafe, a combined public restaurant and classroom on CIA's Hyde Park Campus, to a sustainable restaurant. St. Andrew's recently earned a two-star certification by the Green Restaurant Association.
"I'm amazed by how many [students] are aware of these issues," says CIA Professor and St. Andrews Executive Chef Dan Turgeon. "But many still don't know where their food comes from. That's what we're trying to teach them."
Still, implementing a green cooking approach in culinary education takes time.
"You can't just flip a switch," says Turgeon, "It's an evolution."