Food and Money- A Microcosm of Our World

Hello everyone. I wanted to take this morning away from writing about attractive holes in the wall or fancy French bistros to talk about food, and how it represents the way we run our society today. If you follow me for my photos and my commentary on the restaurants I go to, now is the time to look away.

Are you sure? I have some really radical opinions, by many standards.

Seriously, we’re going somewhere totally beyond your comfort zone. Remember the first time you had sushi?

Last chance.

 

 

 

Ok, let’s get revolutionary.

To begin, I’d like to take a look at New York City. It’s a happening place, a busy place, but more importantly, it’s a delicious place. I grew up here, I’ve worked the restaurants here, and I’ve had the luck of being able to compare it to many other cities and villages on my travels abroad. Every kind of cuisine or chef eventually makes its way to the Big Apple, in a surprisingly genuine form- and I’m qualified to say so, as I have been trained by some of the best chefs in the city. Sometimes the Apple is a little wormy, but for all the bruised, battered parts comes a steaming hot pie dripping with savor and authenticity. I love this town.

That being said, we should all be ashamed of ourselves. Has anyone taken a walk through our public schools? How about Harlem, round 125th st? Take a jaunt through where some of these kids are living, and count how many of them are skinny, or obese with cheap fast food. How many peer into the wholesome pizzerias and Caribbean bakeries with the unmistakable gleam of hunger? Look around and count how many people are languishing in the May heat, jobless. Realize some of these kids will never be able to do well in school because they’re starving on the streets.

Now go round the Meatpacking District round 3am, and get an eyeful of the 4600 tons of restaurant food waste our city throws out every day. The bags of perfect produce earmarked for restaurant use before it even makes it to the markets often never see a plate, but go straight into the landfill.

Let’s not even look at the stuff that’s been sitting around too long for human consumption, thrown out by inept owners who ordered too much against a chef’s inventory recommendation, or can’t be bothered to hire a person to be there when the delivery arrives so the kitchen gets the right amount of food. Let’s not look at the unavoidable wastes: the burned stews, the shoe leather steaks, or the orders winging back to the kitchen because the customer “suspects the lamb was sourced from a suspicious butcher.” (which actually happened to me on a line, we had a nice mid-shift snack in the back.) Instead, check out the truffle risottos that get thrown out because they’ve been overcooked and lost their tiny grain of texture, or the exotic game shipped all the way from Buttfudge, Old World, and haven’t sold because people don’t know what the hell it is or why it’s stacked into a Jenga tower. Do look at the inordinate amount of eggs poached just a side too solid for a customer’s taste, the ignored table bread stockpiling into epic mountains, or the thousand-dollar champagnes attempting to form swimming pools on the dance floors in some of the bars and nightclubs.

Why does this happen? To be fair, chefs and cooks are often a sad, resourceful lot. We save EVERYTHING. Peels and bones go into stock. Cheese rinds flavor tomato sauce. I once worked at a restaurant where the old house-made rolls got blitzed into breadcrumbs for a crunchy macaroni and cheese topping. Often, using your trimmings and thinking creatively can mean the difference between safe on book black and slipping into lava red.  Chefs are tasked with the monumental duty of waste management, but sadly, not because we care, though we do, but because it costs the owners money.

Therein lies the crux of today’s rant: Money. Call it what it is, why not? Businesses are fine with food waste so long as it doesn’t cost them money. They’re fine with putting 4600 tons of it on the pavement because hey, it gets picked up for the same cost as a suburban housewife’s dinner party leavings, doesn’t it? Let’s get the most bang for our tax buck. Owners sleep soundly at night knowing 35 million people starve in the USA while food gets picked at by NYC rats, so long as the numbers check out. So long as the clientele is happy, sure, throw away every plate with a tiny blemish of sauce in the wrong place. With a simple beet salad going for 14-20 bucks, and a massive margin of profit coming in from alcohol and coffee, we can afford to throw things away. Relieve mine personal responsibility, for I am entrepreneur, may I always be commended for covering my own ass.

I don’t really blame the captains of industry for approaching a business with the attitude they do. It’s rough out there, and one slip can mean paying off a sea of debt all their remaining days. But isn’t that the problem in a nutshell? The NYC restauranteur situation is a microcosm of a bigger, systemic issue: our attitude with money. If we’re paying for it, we do what we like- including waste and depriving others, for no other reason than to feel wealthy. Our society decides to reward people for juggling money, for spending it, for putting their own neck on the line with easy loans and forgivable offenses, like generating 70% of the City’s food waste. Basically, we make it very easy for someone to gamble, but when the tide turns against the gambler, the sharks begin to circle- and innocent people get caught in the feeding frenzy.

Money is partly a tool for managing limited resources- but let’s face it, if we’re throwing out this much food and other consumables, we have the resources to feed people who might be down on their luck, maybe even help them recover and retrain to get back on their feet. NYC in particular is heavily leaning on reducing food waste, with programs like City Harvest saving any consumables for the less well-to-do. This summer, Stellar Farmer’s Markets with the Department of Health is doing demonstrations of healthy, sustainable eating in low-income neighborhoods, with locally sourced products. I’ve never known chefs to throw away food that comes back to the kitchen- usually, it’s divided as staff meal amongst line cooks who, ironically, might not be eating too well themselves.

Even with all these efforts, this much waste can only mean something  inefficient is gumming up the works. I’m not saying we should abolish capitalism- free-world thinkers and other idealists often neglect to provide a method of managing humanity’s natural impulses, or for solving disputes. Nay, we have grown up too much for straight-up revolution. I’m just saying, our attitude with wealth needs to change. If we dial down on an owner’s fear of losing everything he owns in one failed restaurant, and start to reward safe, sustainable, waste-reducing practices, maybe some of our problems will start to go away. Maybe consumer attitudes will change towards food, viewing it not as a given but as the precious resource it is. Maybe that plate of lamb a la grecque is just fine not reaching the heights of Olympus. Maybe, just maybe, we all have a little sad, resourceful chef in all of us.

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