Chefs are good at lots of things. Writing generally isn’t one of them. This is a problem, because the interface between all the chopping and roasting and shouting in the kitchen and all the stuffing yourself in the dining room is a thing called a menu. Oh dear. If grievous bodily harm to the English language were a criminal offence, then the courts would be clogged up with menu-writing chefs. I’ve seen dish descriptions so long they are akin to short stories with an unhappy ending: the food on the plate. I’ve seen something called a ‘symphony of fish’ which had only two parts, a plate of ravioli made with ‘basil enthused pasta’, countless soups and terrines and sauces described as ‘home made’ which makes you wonder which grubby cash and carry they bought the rest of the crap they serve from.
But the bit of menu babble which really gets my caffeine-fuelled, expletive-happy goat is this: ‘all our ingredients are seasonal and local’. Oh do give it a rest. I know why it’s there. A menu is a pitch document. Chefs may not be able to write but at least they can make you think well of them. Short of listing the donations they’ve made to orphan charities, and the donkey sanctuaries of which they are patrons, the best thing they can do is show a commitment to the planet. Every bleeding gastro-pub menu from here to Inverness now reads like three choked verses of ‘We are the world’.
I admire the sentiments. Of course I do. There are currently seven billion people on Planet Us and that is expected to rise to nine billion by the middle of the century. By 2030 we will need to be producing 50% more food, with fewer resources and in a way that mitigates climate change. The challenges are huge. We all want to be good consumers and eat sustainably. The problem is that, along with all those prime local and seasonal produce, we’ve been fed a bunch of cobblers. For the past year I’ve been writing a book on what a genuinely sustainable food chain looks like. And it turns out that it’s not about local and seasonal and organic and small scale and artisan. They are merely lifestyle choices for the affluent middle classes, which we’ve mistaken for part of the wider debate on how we feed ourselves.
The cult of local food is a perfect example. We’ve been taught that the fewer the ‘food miles’, the more sustainable the food. The problem is that food miles only account for the carbon involved in getting ingredients from field to fork. What really matters is what happens back in the field: the carbon in the fertilisers, the buildings, the tractors, the carbon footprint of the farmer with his flat screen TVs, Range Rovers and four smelly Labradors each of which has a bigger carbon foot print than the gas guzzling monster in the driveway. And all of that must be divided by yield.
When you look at all that it transpires that the proportion of the carbon footprint of your food caused by its transport is between just 2% and 4%. What matters is how it’s grown not where. And because that is so, seasonality is not the great sustainable wonder chefs will tell you it is. When you take in the carbon footprint of your average Kenyan green bean farmer, who doesn’t have a flat screen TV let alone a bloody Labrador, those green beans may actually have a smaller footprint, despite the transport, than ones grown in the Cotswolds.
So it goes on. Economies of scale matter. Small is not always best. And organics are not the great wonder we’ve been told they are. Some chefs have wised up to this. They have recognised that there is nothing wrong with being obsessed with aesthetics: with how things look, taste and smell. I love how things taste and smell. After all, I make part of my living as a restaurant critic or, as it’s technically known by being ‘a greedy bastard’. But they know that aesthetics are not the same as the politics of sustainability.
So the Gallivant Hotel in Rye, for example, talks on its menus of using local ingredients but only ‘when best’. Likewise chef Stephen Harris of the Sportsman Pub on the North Kent coast is seriously committed to localism. The man even boils the sea at his back door to make salt. But for him it’s about capturing a sense of place, inventing what the French call a terroir, rather than pretending he’s an eco-warrior saving the planet. In short, what we need from our chefs are fewer empty slogans, and a bit more thought. It’s important. It’s a part, however small, of keeping everybody on the planet fed.
Jay Rayner’s new book A Greedy Man In A Hungry World: how (almost) everything you thought you knew about food is wrong is published now by Harper Collins, price £12.99