My grandfather didn’t need the term “slow food” to understand the value of traditional agricultural practices. But today, a movement reviving those values is bringing about a real change in how we connect with our food.
My German grandfather was displaced to the U.S. during the war, and he worked long hours as a landscape gardener for some of the larger estates in Bel Air, Los Angeles. He stood well over six feet tall and must have weighed three hundred pounds, all muscle. I remember his gnarled hands, numerous scars, and mud-packed work boots, which looked giant to me as a kid when I watched him lumber out of his truck in the evening. What I recall most vividly was the great tenderness and care he displayed when it came to working with food. As a young boy I spent long hours working with him both in the garden harvesting vegetables, and even longer in the kitchen making jams and canning for winter storage. At the end of the day he would pour me a small glass of cold German beer as a reward and have me sit next to him at the dinner table. To me it was a huge honor to work alongside him, and those small moments remain in my memory as some of best of my life. His combination of tough exterior and meticulous artisan impressed me so much as a child that my grandfather became a major influence in my decision to become a chef.
Like most Europeans of his generation, he grew much of his own food and it would never have occurred to him to use anything other than the freshest seasonal ingredients. My grandfather helped to teach me about respecting the earth and the bounty that it can yield in exchange for hard work and attention to detail. He used no chemicals and tended his crops with the same respect and constant nurturing he reserved for his family. For those lessons alone, I owe him a great debt of gratitude.
Today, with many families scattered across the country and most people lacking sufficient time to eat or sleep properly, much less grow their own food and make dinner on a nightly basis, we have quite literally lost our connection to the earth’s cycle of life and capacity for regeneration. And the resulting environmental crisis is big: many of the world’s top thinkers say that global warming is upon us; the cost of fuel has skyrocketed; and genetically modified foods are rapidly taking over the food chain. The common bee, which is the pollinator to the world’s plants, is disappearing due to overspraying of chemicals. Even the global menu has become homogenized, with a Pizza Hut in Lisbon or something that looks very much like California cuisine on the menu of a restaurant in Ireland.
We’re beginning to recognize that unless we preserve our animals, seeds, and time-honored methods of sustainable farming, we are in serious risk of losing our food supply altogether. A style of living that was once taken for granted has now become a luxury, and consequently the slow food movement has taken hold around the globe, with the promise of restoring these lost connections through the food we eat.
Every two years, upwards of five thousand farmers and artisans from around the world travel to Turin, Italy, where Carlo Petrini, founder of the slow food movement, holds an invitation-only slow food conference where participants gather to share ideas and plan for our future.
One tenet of the slow food movement holds that as chefs we have a responsibility not only to become involved in helping to heal the planet by cooking and working in a sustainable way, but also to preserve our local food cultures. Whether you live and work in Kansas City, Missouri, or Tin Cup, Colorado, there are ways to make a difference and that difference can and will translate to improving the restaurant’s bottom line. Your restaurant’s reputation will also benefit over time, because consumers are beginning to care about what happens to the planet and their local communities.
Listed below are some simple steps that can make an impact without taking too much time out of your busy day.
- Join your local slow food convivium at SlowFood.com.
- Recycle as much as you can, including donating your used fry oil for use as bio-diesel. Many farmers are now running their equipment on bio-diesel. It’s kind of cool — the exhaust smells just like fries.
- Look into using “green” restaurant products whenever possible. There are a lot of choices out there right now, like to-go containers fashioned out of sugar instead of plastic.
- Buy from local farmers and artisans whenever possible. Sometimes this may affect your food costs, but many consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic or local, handcrafted foods.
- Research and promote local foods, recipes, and traditions. If the theme of your restaurant is more ethnic in its focus, try to use some recipes that are authentic and traditional.
- Whenever possible, inform your customers of the slow food methodologies you follow, either through restaurant promotions or whatever marketing strategy works best for your particular establishment.