The Food Business and The Business of Food: Editorial
(this is an abbreviated version of an editorial published in my Graduate School’s Alumni Newsletter: Spring/Summer 2011: Saybrook HomePage, which I edit for Saybrook University Graduate College of Psychology and Humanities: http://www.saybrook.edu/phs/alumni/publications)
… I’ve been asked, “Why the food biz?” by more than one puzzled family member, friend, or colleague. I’m a Ph.D. in the social sciences, shouldn’t I be ensconced in the hallowed halls as a harried, but respectable academician, they ask, rather than catering house concerts, weddings, and alumni dinners …? What was all that grad school for anyway…?
As I look back on the March Alumni Dinner in the East Bay (which I was honored to cater) I find myself asking some of those same questions. This editorial is some of the results of my meditations.
The “food business” is a crazy one, one I’ve worked in for 30 years at every level imaginable, from dishwasher in a (truly rank) diner to catering chef, to making cinnamon rolls for bake sale fundraisers. I actually like to cook, and was “trained”as a very young bride who found boiling water for instant ramena challenge by my (then) landlord, Chef Frank Yamasaki. Frank, my aforementioned landlord, was a Cordon Blue trained chef who had traveled all over the world learning his craft. He took pity on me, and over several years, taught me to cook. He was a good teacher. Frank’s enthusiasm for cooking was infectious and from him, in my tiny kitchen on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, I learned the basics. I moved away, lost touch, and the marriage eventually ended, but I developed a passion for the culinary arts which became a second vocation and a serious hobby for many years. Combined with my mother’s wisdom (who is a traditional healer and herbalist and an advocate for organic, healthy eating) I began to develop my “voice” as a culinary artist. I got really good at it.
While enrolled at Saybrook studying systems thinking, I lived in Western Sonoma and then moved to Mendocino County (briefly) in Northern California. While living there, I became aware of the many and serious land-use issues, and, most especially the effects of corporate agriculture on the farming businesses of western America. With this awareness, I also began to understand that it the responsibility of those of us in the culinary arts to further the sustainability of our greatest wealth as a nation: the farmlands. There are as many philosophies as activist approaches to this issue as there are people who farm, cook, and eat on this planet, and half of them, it seems has written a book pitching a nutritional regimen. When I graduated, and my Great Long Range Plan of joining a faculty somewhere and spending my days thinking, teaching and writing didn’t manifest (although I still hope) I found myself in need of, well … a job. I went back into the food biz as a personal chef. (For an explanation of what that is, please take a look at my blog page: https://lezlie1.wordpress.com/) I began with small things: fundraisers, a special dish for friends, business lunches, house parties, and a party once a year at my house. It’s still small and it takes a lot of just plain hustle and willingness for shameless self-promotion to be a personal chef. Skills I’ve never been really good at, but there is the proverbial “learning curve” for all things.
I also find it the perfect forum to promote my ” culinary/eco-philosophy” of chef-ery: that of organic, sustainable agriculture. Whether you are a committed vegan or an omnivore or one of the many for whom “nary a green thing will pass these virgin lips” sort of guy, buying, eating, and, thereby supporting organic, sustainable farming is necessary to our survival as a nation, and ultimately, our planet. The woes and ills of corporate agri-businesses are well-documented by better researchers than I and are literally killing the farmlands: creating erosion, poisoned fields, perpetrating animal cruelty of the worst kinds, destroying family and community business economies, and encroaching on our precious wilderness and wildlife. Large-scale agri-business farming practices with the over-usage of genetically-engineered grains, chemical fertilizers, systemic herbicides and pesticides, are ultimately anti-health promoting on the individual level as well. Simply put: that box of sweetened, processed corn treats has no nutritional value and, as such, is not food. It’s the end product of an entirely artificial process so full of petro-chemical compounds that you might as well go over to the local oil refinery and lick the floors. So why eat it? (So you like junk food, OK – at least buy some organically grown fried stuff … !)
To put the final nail in the coffin: As a world business practice, the large multi-national corporations promote mono-culture planting of non-regional, luxury “cash crops” (such as wine grapes) which are grown for export and leave the nation’s populace hungry. The large scale environmental damage caused by the “fish farms” (1) of Asia and So. America for export have also been well-documented as has the usage of growth hormones and over usage of antibiotics in cattle and poultry feed lots. These animals are badly treated, sick, and malnourished. Beyond simple ethical questions, these animals cannot provide a good, healthy meal to anyone.
It is a small drop in a large ocean of issue, however, as an individual in the “food biz”, my menus are planned carefully, working with clients and suppliers in my area who support sustainable, organic farming and, except for a few seasonings and cheeses, are mostly the products of local businesses. I will travel for weddings, retreats, and festivals – contacting and working with local suppliers, educating the people I work with on the job as I go with the importance of all that we do to make your event — well — taste good. (As we did at the Bay Area Alumni Dinner last March.) For me, it’s also a lot of fun helping people make their special events even more special.
Because it is an event, a special one for the client, it’s all very behind-the-scenes and low-key. I appreciate the moments when I’m allowed to make my “thank yous” public and get to tell the attendees what I do, but, it’s not part of the job. The job is to make the event “special”: hire a band, rent the tables and the linens, work with the event planner and the organizers, sometime for months in advance to make every detail perfect. Then to hire the staff: the bar, the sous, the servers, the cleanup crew – this is where all that organizational and systems thinking comes in, as my mom would say, “right handy”. I do use my Saybrook education in this business a good deal, and I am grateful for it.
And … that is why, after the years of grad school and the diss, I’ve returned to the “food biz”.
(If you need a chef, don’t hesitate to call!)
To learn more about another Saybrook Alumna who is working in this area:
Linda Reibel’s blog: “The Earth Friendly Food-Chain” http://effc.wordpress.com/
1. A Responsible Approach to Sustainability http://www.montereyfish.com/sustainability.htm