Change What You Eat, Change The Environment: The Social Responsibility Of Chefs And Consumers

The past 15 years have seen the largest progression of food since the dawn of Haute Cuisine -- from organic to molecular, boundaries are being pushed and customers are being educated.

Food, like fashion, is cyclical, and constantly affected by fads and trends, but there is a much larger meaning that can be seen in the underlying themes of our generation.

Gone are the days of meat and potatoes. Processed food bears the scarlet letter. We are now in the age of social responsibility and that is reflected in the foods we choose to consume.

Our generation has educated palates and, quite simply, the consumers dictate the path of progress with their spending. Whether it be the Paleo Diet, the Gluten Free way of life or the consummate vegetarians and pescatarians, consumers are now making healthier life choices.

Working in a consumer-driven business, we chefs have a responsibility to educate our guests with new local products, provide healthier alternatives and create social awareness for those with whom we interact.

If it is deemed that gluten is bad for people, and yet a delicious alternative to a bagel is not presented, then there is no education and no increased demand. Le Bernardin, one of the world’s greatest restaurants, maintains its success under Chef Eric Ripert without using any of the overfished species in the ocean.

We are merely scratching the surface of where food will go from here, but one thing is certain: The current generation cares about where the product is from, and what they are using as fuel for their bodies.

As a chef, my life revolves around constantly educating myself and others about food. The ocean is in a constant battle with man to replenish some species of fish whose populations have dwindled, while others are in abundance for us to serve.

Berries, of any kind, do not belong on a menu in New York City in the winter, and if you see them, you know they are either tasteless or the route they took to get to their destination left a huge carbon footprint with reckless indifference to the effects on the planet.

In Miami, there is currently a desperate attempt to corral the explosive invasion of lionfish that are threatening to decimate the entire marine ecosystem of south Florida.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has enlisted the help of chefs in the city to create a demand for the fish through their restaurants.

As a consumer, there is something you can do to change the way supermarkets do business. Don't settle for tasteless produce. Supermarkets demand that farmers harvest their produce early so it can "ripen on the truck" as it makes its way across the country.

If we all returned tasteless produce a la Cosmo Kramer, the supermarkets would get the message and let the farmers ripen their fruits and vegetables properly. The carbon footprint of providing strawberries to New York in December is tremendous versus eating local and seasonal.

If the consumer does not buy the socially irresponsible product, the vendor will cut its supply and, therefore, the consumer has created a positive change.

Understand that you, as a consumer, have a level of social responsibility and what you spend your money on is the key to change.

For every pound of lamb you consume, the chain of growing, slaughtering and transporting that meat to your table is the equivalent CO2 emissions of driving your car 40 miles. For every pound of lettuce, however, the CO2 emissions are equivalent to driving 2 miles.

The more local and seasonal your buying habits become, the better the product tastes and the less damaging it is to the world we live in.

Coming from an Italian family, the center of our household has been and will always be the kitchen. Our social interaction is surrounded by amazing food from the farmer's market, Prosecco and Campari.

As I watch some of the popular television shows that chronicle past decades, this 30-year-old chef in New York City struggles to comprehend what life would be like if people still ate the way they did 50 years ago.

It's hard to grasp, while I watch an episode of "Mad Men," that Ritz crackers and cheese spread next to pigs in a blanket ever signified upper middle class society. Restaurants and chefs have done a good job educating the public about food.

One thing is clear: The restaurants in a given area can provide an immense amount of information on a given location and social climate.

Photo credit: Marisa Benjamin