The culinary giants discuss farming insecurity, workplace harassment, and the unsung merits of zucchini.
This portfolio appears in Document No. 14, available for order online now.
More than ever, food and dining have emerged as common forums for sociopolitical discussion: Ethically and environmentally exploitative practices in the modern business of food are proving untenable. The devastating effects of climate change leave lasting farming insecurities in their wake. And, like most industries, waves of sexual-harassment allegations are now crashing through all levels of the food world. Faced with the moral imperatives of the culinary field, chefs Samin Nosrat and José Andrés have risen to the fore as advocates of boldly progressive and people-centered solutions.
As a chef, author, and educator, Nosrat advances a socially conscious philosophy of cooking—one that fosters productive and responsible relationships between cooks, farmers, and the earth. Nosrat got her start in sustainable cooking in 2000 at Chez Panisse, working under renowned food activist and restaurateur Alice Waters. She moved on to train in Italy before returning to the Bay Area, where she found a new calling in food education, resulting in her 2017 James Beard Award–winning book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, which was adapted into a hit television series for Netflix last year. In both projects, Nosrat expands beyond restaurant-focused culinary genres to position home cooking as not only a radically simple and accessible practice, but a community-building act.
Twice named one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People” and nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, Andrés has crafted an international career marked by culinary and philanthropic ingenuity. He arrived in New York in 1991 following an apprenticeship at a three–Michelin star restaurant in northern Spain and a stint as a cook in the Spanish Navy. Four years later, he worked his way from New York to Washington, D.C., where he led a kitchen of his own. He’s since built his reputation on his innovative and diverse portfolio of more than 30 restaurants, as well as on his humanitarian efforts. In 2018 alone, his intimate, 12-guest D.C. restaurant, minibar, earned two Michelin stars, and he announced plans to open a 35,000-square-foot Spanish food hall in New York’s Hudson Yards. Meanwhile, Andrés’s nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, served 3.6 million meals in Puerto Rico in the months following Hurricane Maria. (More recently, during the government shutdown in Washington D.C., he opened a pop-up kitchen to feed furloughed federal workers and provided free meals at all of his D.C.-area restaurants.)
The formidable pair caught up to consider the future of food—in crowded kitchens and on small farms, at avant-garde restaurants and at family tables. Tracing the entangled threads that zig-zag between food and greater social issues, they discuss the mixed blessing of standing at a new frontier, from the pitfalls of food criticism to the unsung merits of zucchini.
Samin Nosrat—It’s such an honor to speak with you.
José Andrés—Are you kidding? You are the smartest and hottest thing to happen to food in years. Your name pops up in every conversation. You make waves, my lady. Congrats. This is so refreshing. I’m so tired of Gordon Ramsay. I’ve never said that in public.
Document—You come from different places in the food world. For each of you, where are we right now in dining?
Samin—Even before we can speak about dining, I think we need to create some linguistic clarity. I eat in restaurants and I used to work in them, but my work is about people. And that usually means empowering people at home to cook with and for each other. What I am interested in doesn’t have a lot to do with dining. And I’m not really a chef, I’m just a cook, and a person who teaches people how to cook. When I started cooking, 20-something years ago, cooking wasn’t cool. It didn’t hold the same place in our culture—and certainly not in pop culture—that it holds today. That has all happened so quickly that we need to take a step back. In the fashion world, there’s such a clear difference between clothes and fashion, and we have words to talk about those differences. Nobody expects that the things on the runway are the things that people put on in the morning when they go out into the world. But we somehow have conflated what happens in the highest restaurants—things that get Chef’s Table episodes and documentaries made about them—with what people should be doing at home around their family and around the table. To me, those are two completely different things. So talking about dining must be a conversation that is really clarified for all of us. Because food is so much more.
The chefs who do all of that really creative stuff, I think of them more as artists, or couturiers. It’s not meant for everyday eating. It’s not meant for everyday people. It’s an expression of their artistry. So when you ask what I’m eating, I’m most likely eating pasta and chicken.
“If you put a piece of meat in your mouth, in the first five seconds, it seems like you’re having an orgasm. But for the next 25 seconds, you’re chewing a tasteless piece of shit.”
Document—José, do you feel like an artist?
José—I feel like an artist. A very bad artist. I do believe that in our profession, where you’re cooking and feeding others, you are like an artist. And it’s true that it’s the chef doing the most inventive, creative things: coming up with new techniques, developing new dishes out of those techniques, and giving importance to new or forgotten ingredients. Every profession in its history has always had people that push the boundaries of what we know. In cooking, it’s not any different. We see the few who push the boundaries at the highest level, but then, on the other hand, we have the notion that maybe we should be more participative in pushing the boundaries of how we are feeding humanity. And now the question is: What are we doing about it? How do we put the time in to feed the few, but also to feed the many? We are becoming better and better at being champions—trying to be the voice of change.
Samin—I absolutely agree with that. One of the things that feels moving to me, from watching Chef Andrés’s work in the world and listening to him speak, is that he takes the responsibility of taking care of other people so seriously.
Document—I want to talk about diversity. It’s a topic in every industry, and professional kitchens and restaurants are no exception. What is changing and what isn’t?
José—We need to see it from 10,000 feet above, and then we need to see inside a business. From very far away, diversity is one of the things that makes America one of the most exciting places on the planet. When you get inside the restaurants, then you’re talking about diversity of man versus woman, Americans versus Latinos or Asians. It seems like the kitchens are a boys’ club, versus a women’s club. Why is that? This brings a lot of issues, but also, I believe, opportunities. So when we talk about kitchens in America today, the conversation is about who is in charge: Are we giving enough opportunities to women? Are we giving enough opportunities to minorities? Are we giving them the same chances that maybe a white boy with blond hair and blue eyes had when I arrived in America around age 20? I believe, today, this conversation is happening. That doesn’t mean that we’re doing enough, but I do feel that at least that conversation is happening.
Samin—One of the most inspiring things I see is that young people in restaurants are so much more attuned to these issues and so much more vocal. To add to what Chef Andrés had to say on equity: I don’t think that there is a shortage of diversity—ethnic diversity or racial diversity—in kitchens. Primarily, kitchens are not staffed by white Americans. They’re staffed by immigrants and by people from all over the world, because, a lot of the time, that is the only work they can get. It might be racially diverse, but that’s not the same as being inclusive, and that’s certainly not the same as offering equity to people. Until we can create pathways for minorities and women, and gender minorities, to be in charge, to be leaders, and to profit off of these jobs—both in kitchens and in other parts of the food industry—then that’s not real diversity, that’s not real inclusion. If there’s only a handful of people who all look the same in charge and profiting, then nothing’s happening. For me, right now, it’s mostly just words, and I want to see action.
Document—How does that action happen? Is it a Marxian thing? Is it who owns the materials of production, who owns the restaurants?
José—Sometimes, it’s very hard. I dream that things will happen on their own. But then the reality is that’s not the way. I have to go back to when I was a 5-year-old, and in my house, my mother cooked, but my father cooked, too. We were four brothers, and I was watching how my father would equally share the task of feeding my brothers, me, and my mother. My father would go shopping every other day. It was not my mother’s task. I’m bringing it back, 45 years later, trying to answer your question in today’s workforce. We are trying to make sure everybody has the same opportunities, in a natural way, without having to force it. For example, the C.E.O. in my company is a very smart and prepared person—the best person for the job. She happens to be a woman. We didn’t put her in this position because we thought it would be cool to have a woman. We put her there because she was the best person for the job. And then this trickles down all across the company.
Samin—There are so many people who have been historically disenfranchised because of systemic racism and systemic misogyny, that to put the responsibility on the disenfranchised people to find their way into a business and seek equity, is really flawed. I think it’s the responsibility of the people in charge to come forward and say, ‘This is how we’re going to run our business.’ And that may mean someone saying, ‘I’m going to give up some of my own opportunities, and I might give up some of my own income to share it with other people, to treat people equally, and create true equity here.’ I think the chef’s example was a really great example of that in action. I think that it’s hard to convince people to give anything up. And that’s why, in some ways, I’m pretty pessimistic about this. But I’m hopeful that we’re going to create models of true equity, or at least greater equity in this industry.
Document—What should we be eating right now?
“The chefs who do all of that really creative stuff, I think of them more as artists, or couturiers. It’s not meant for everyday eating. It’s an expression of their artistry.”
José—We have to be pushing more for vegetables. Forget that they’re healthy, forget that they’re good for the environment. The number one reason we should be eating vegetables is because they are damn delicious. Period! What happened is, we had so many British recipes and vegetables that people didn’t like them. But if you follow the recipes of vegetables from countries around the world—some of them coming from poor countries—they’re able to do so much with so little. If you put that piece of a good, nice, tender zucchini in your mouth, simply oiled, slightly with salt and pepper and olive oil and vinegar, and you start munching, it’s so flavorful from second one all the way down your throat. If you put a piece of meat in your mouth, even if it’s the best meat from the best pastures, in the first five seconds, yes, it seems like you’re having an orgasm. But for the next 25 seconds, you are there like a lion in the middle of Africa: You’re chewing a tasteless piece of shit. You’re like, ‘Why the heck am I spending 25 seconds of my life trying to cut this thing in pieces and put it through my intestines?’
Meat, as much as I love meat, is highly overrated in more ways than one. A vegetable is just a love affair with the natural wonders. Vegetables should be praised. They have a very low voice, they don’t scream as much as meat does. Sometimes we have to bring down our inner voices to be able to listen to them. And they’re telling us these beautiful songs and poems of why they belong to us, and we are not letting them in.
Samin—That was so beautiful. I’ll add a couple things. It is every human’s—certainly every human in the developed world’s—responsibility to pay attention to what we choose to eat, and how it affects the environment. I do think with environmental and climate change, it’s really got to be first and foremost.
José—I agree about the environment, about local farms, about having diversity in our communities, because I think it’s vital. This is a national security issue, too, not just for America, but for the world; more [local practices] will be better for humanity in the long run. I agree with you on all of those things, I just think sometimes when we talk about them, we begin with, ‘They’re healthy, they’re good for you.’ They don’t think in those terms—they think in, ‘Are they good or not good?’
Samin—I totally agree. There’s something that people used to say at Chez Panisse, in the kitchen where I came up, about how ideology can outweigh the taste buds. I never believe that ideology should come first. I think taste comes first. What it means to be human is to live through our senses, because good food really does involve all of them. And chief among them is taste. So if something doesn’t taste good, there’s no amount of proselytizing that’s going to get people to eat it. That comes back to what I’m always trying to do, which is show everyone the tools they already have right in front of them, and just teach them how to use them to make simple foods delicious. How do you make a carrot taste great? How do you make zucchini taste great? It’s not hard, you know? And it’s right there.
Document—Poor zucchini. Zucchini’s gotten a lot of heat today. Last question, then: What needs to change, first and foremost?
José—I think restaurant cooking is a very democratic process: you cook something, you spend your savings to open your food truck or your little restaurant, and you do what you feel is right. And you may be right or wrong. And then you begin hearing bloggers or press or writers, and they begin criticizing—and sometimes criticizing just for the sake of pure criticism. So one thing I would like to change is that those who can influence the opinions of others need to be a little bit more pragmatic in their assessment. In the end, people are smart, people know what they want. In my case, I feel very well treated, but sometimes I sense that we try to create a chorus of opinion. Sometimes I have that feeling that there is an attempt to shape the conversation about what we should eat or what we should not eat. I like to eat everything. And I welcome anybody really trying to push the boundaries, and trying to tell me their story through a plate.
Samin—I’m a little darker. [Laughs] I have a darker hope.
“In some ways we’re almost trying to connect sexual harassment in the food industry all the way to subsidies. And it’s not an easy thing to do. But actually it’s all connected.”
José—Go for it.
Samin—I’ve spent a lot of the last year and a half sort of looking at and thinking about sexual harassment in restaurants. And I have looked at it in so many different directions and listened to so many different people’s experiences. As a person who worked in restaurants for a long time and ran a failing restaurant that ultimately closed, I feel like I understand so many of the pressures of what chefs and people who run restaurants have to face just to keep their business alive. Usually what happens is there’s this sort of chain of oppression that passes from the top all the way down to the bottom. And even in the healthiest restaurants I’ve ever seen, where there is a set up where all people are treated fairly and paid fairly and given their overtime, you have to look outside of that restaurant and look at where they’re buying their ingredients. Maybe they’re buying from farms whose farm workers are being oppressed and not being paid fairly or not being treated fairly. So, for me, when I take that big-picture view, I sometimes end up being really depressed, because I think, ‘Oh, wow, I don’t know if the way is for us to create a system that treats everyone fairly along the entire chain, until customers start understanding that this is a function of people not wanting to pay more for their food.’ And it’s really hard for me to mention that because I also understand there’s a huge part of the population who can’t afford to pay for their food. So I think this is a really convoluted way of saying that maybe dining needs to change. Where all of my thought processes usually end up is back with the farmers and back with governmental subsidies for crops. It starts with the seed and the price that people are willing to pay farmers. Until there’s economic incentives for farmers to grow healthy crops—more than just corn, soy, and wheat—there is going to be this constant pressure on everyone along the food chain to give more for less. I think that can start with government subsidies.
José—You’re touching the right points. It’s technically the five big crops. Obviously one of them is cotton. I think the bad thing is that the vast majority of the subsidies go into those crops. All of the fast food companies’ successes have been on the shoulders of those subsidies, meaning that I don’t agree with subsidies overall. I think they create a very fake system. I think the big companies benefit out of those subsidies in ways the small farmers of America have not. White corn is subsidized, but zucchini and cauliflower is not. And I think this is something that has to be changed.
In some ways we’re almost trying to connect sexual harassment in the food industry all the way to subsidies. And it’s not an easy thing to do. But actually it’s all connected. The many issues the food industry faces are going to have to have approaches that go from what happens at the policy level all the way down to the school level. We need more people taking good stances, one business at a time, one restaurant at a time, one school at a time. We must prepare more solidarity, respect, all of the above.
Samin—Agreed. Thank you. It was an honor, Chef.
José—It was great. Made my day.