Eat This Fish, Save the Planet?
Some of the world’s leading chefs are helping to save the world, one plate at a time.
“Eating is an agricultural act,” the poet and activist Wendell Berry once said. His intention: get consumers to understand their role in a process that begins on a farm and ends on their dinner plate. You can extend that argument far beyond the planted field, however. Every decision we make as consumers of food—choosing an organic apple over a standard one, shopping at a farmer’s market, ordering a bowl of açaí from the Amazon—can have an effect on the furthest reaches of the planet.
Some of the world’s top chefs are now applying this philosophy in the kitchen, inserting a sense of responsibility into what could otherwise be an exercise in indulgence. This is beyond farm-to-table: it’s about choosing specific ingredients and dishes that communicate our responsibility to the environment.
Take the lionfish, a resplendent and exotic native of the Indo-Pacific. A number are thought to have escaped from South Florida aquariums during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The invasive species has been wreaking havoc on Caribbean reefs ever since, preying on the native parrotfish—which is critical to coral health—and able to nearly wipe out the sea life of a small area in a matter of months.
Fortunately, lionfish also tastes great. “It’s a firm, white fish with very delicate flavor. It’s versatile and easy to use,” says Juan Pablo Loza, the executive chef at Rosewood Mayakoba on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. When possible, he incorporates the fish onto tostadas with avocado or in ceviches, where it is spritzed with the juice of local sour oranges. Loza is part of a larger effort by chefs in the Caribbean region to combat the spread of the species, who are holding lionfish rodeos and promoting its purchase in supermarkets like Whole Foods.
Other chefs are using their cooking as a way to promote biodiversity. Peru’s Virgilio Martinez, whose restaurants include Central in Lima, as well as Lima Floral and Lima Fitzrovia in London, has created a system of substitutions, so that all of the ingredients found in a particular dish come from the same ecosystem. Instead of sugar, a dish might use crystals of sweet yacón, an Andean tuber; rather than dyes, the juice of a cactus fruit called airampo; or instead of a gelatin, a resin extracted from Amazonian tree bark called huampo. “We are trying to preserve these diverse ecosystems that are being lost by maintaining their natural balance,” says Martinez. “We want to communicate these places, to create awareness by telling their stories through our food.” Similarly, chef Alex Atala of São Paulo’s much-lauded D.O.M. seeks out—and helps market—indigenous ingredients like Saúva ants and Baniwa chile peppers, conferring value to cultural traditions and the landscapes they come from.
It’s not just the ingredients that go into a dish that’s of concern, it’s also what’s left over afterwards. Roughly one third of all food produced annually—an astounding 1.3 billion tons—ends up in the trash, and chefs have been finding inventive ways to reduce that waste. During the 2015 Milan Expo, Italian chef Massimo Bottura—of Osteria Francescana in Modena, named the World’s Best Restaurant of 2016—repurposed food that would have been thrown out from restaurant kitchens into over 10,000 meals to be served to the city’s poor. He pulled off a similar feat a year later at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, using leftover ingredients from the Olympic Village to serve a mix of the needy and paying customers each night. Bottura plans to expand the concept to major cities like New York and Los Angeles in 2017 and 2018.
In New York, chef Dan Barber created a concept called wastED, which attempted to eliminate waste in every aspect of the food chain. In 2015, participants in special pop-up dinners at his restaurant Blue Hill were served dishes like juicy veggie burgers made from leftover beet pulp and skate cartilage that was deep fried like chicken wings and dipped into a tartar sauce infused with smoked whitefish heads. The pop-up proved so popular that several items made from scraps—vegetable fries and veal chicken nuggets—are now permanent fixtures on Blue Hill’s bar menu. This year, from February to April, Barber is bringing the concept to London, where he’ll cook alongside English chefs Gordon Ramsay, Tom Kerridge and Clare Smyth. “For wastED London, we’re working with dozens of collaborators across the food chain. It’s been inspiring to see how many of them are already investing in programs and partnerships to minimize waste,” says Barber. “It’s indicative of what can happen if we stop thinking of our food system in silos—if we start looking at the byproducts of one craft as the ingredients for another. Hopefully we’re adding to that conversation.”
Rosewood Mayakoba: Km 298 on Ctra. Federal Cancún-Playa del Carmen; +52 984 875-8000
Central Restaurante: 376 Santa Isabel, Miraflores, Lima ; +5112428515
Lima Floral: 14 Garrick St., Covent Garden, London; +44 20 72400-5778
Lima Fitzrovia: 31 Rathbone Pl., Fitzrovia, London; +44 20 3002 2640
D.O.M.: 549 Rua Barão de Capanema; Sao Paulo; +55 11 3088-0761
Osteria Francescana: 22 Via Stella, Modena; +39 059 223-912
Blue Hill: 75 Washington Pl., New York; 212-539-1776
WastED London: 400 Oxford St., Marylebone, London; +44 20 7788-6210