In our celebrity-driven culture, chefs are seen as rock stars. Maybe they should be. If we are what we eat, then every time we enter a restaurant we put our health in the hands of people we assume are informed professionals. So let them get reality shows. Let them grace the covers of magazines — I'm fine with that. But with power comes responsibility; with celebrity comes a duty to use the public's attention to spread a worthy message. In the culinary world that message should be obvious: Eat wisely so future generations may also eat.
It's no longer a revolutionary idea. Today Food Lion has an organic and natural section. Food Lion. So what's the corner bistro's excuse? Thankfully, some local chefs are ahead of the curve. The talent behind Mamma 'Zu, Cafe Rustica, Zed, Edible Garden, Barrel Thief, Black Sheep and Mezzanine know that their professional choices influence more than the local critics. Some chefs are paying attention, but not enough.
The dangers of kitchen hackery aren't so different from the dangers of any unchecked ambition. When hot-shot bankers were left to their own devices they built an impressive house of cards. When hot-shot chefs are judged on short-term gains, the damage perpetuated could, in the final tally, make a recession seem like small potatoes: It may seem harmless enough to plan a menu without regard to season, region, rhyme or reason, but in the restaurant world artistic whimsy supports global corporate farming at the expense of our most important local business — family farms. When the simplest of meals served in a Richmond eatery include ingredients from California, Mexico, China and Chile (hardly an exaggeration), that carbon-footprint means that chef contributes to the slow cooking of the planet.
The solution is simple: When they buy local, buy organic and buy in-season, suddenly chefs are saving the world.
It's a change that's to everyone's advantage, because the freshest ingredients mean the best taste. Of course, buying local imposes limits. If you want strawberries in December you'll have to import them. But there are always options — peaches in summer, apples in fall.
Local ingredients require chefs to work from scratch. We'd like to think they always do. That's what they're supposed to do. If they aren't actually cooking there, it's a convenience store at best. Check into which restaurants offer the best local fare, and which make most everything in-house. They happen to be some of the best joints in town. Coincidence? I think not.
So here's the good news: This is Virginia. Agriculture is still our No. 1 industry. … by far. And though the number of megafarms is growing, so is the number of small, family-owned farms. These are the heroes that supply Richmond's best restaurants with the freshest produce and dairy and livestock, without poisoning Virginia's rivers and air and soil. Let's learn their names. Let's see their faces in magazines. I won't fault our chefs the limelight if they share it with the folks who are making them, and the future, look good.