by Zara Fischer-Harrison
Sin: “an act that is regarded by theologians as a transgression of God’s will.” (See http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=sin)
If it is God’s will that people should refrain from enjoying themselves and learn from the experts, then I have unequivocally sinned. On a regular basis, I transgress, breaking the laws of social justice advocacy puritans, to find solace and wonder in the world of fine dining. I have been challenged, by missionaries of the food activist fight, on my penchant for fancy, elite, or inaccessible experiences in dining rooms across the country. I have also been encouraged to tell the stories of these experiences by friends and family who seem to catch my drift. Having been spoiled from the start by a family who values the ritual of eating beautiful things in beautiful spaces, it comes as no surprise that in the dawn of my adulthood, I carry on this passion for gourmet and have incorporated it into my own values. The contradiction, however, rests in the other choices I have made thus far, wanting to also be a part of the food security support system for my livelihood and to inform my politics. One would be remiss not to question the ostensibly superficial nature of my choice to indulge in the artistic pursuits of chefs and dining room divas. But, it remains clear to me, despite the riddling of guilt and extravagance that periodically peeks it’s little head over freshly pressed tablecloths, that fine dining is an integral part of the food system and one not to be poo pooed.
Here’s how I see it. Master chefs are the experts in their field. They call the shots, inspire trends, make change happen, and elicit a response, often emotional, from the people that they feed. Food is a common denominator. Nobody in the world can survive without it. We eat to live, hands down. We need to continue to be able to produce food in order to prosper as organisms on the planet earth, and at an ever-increasing rate, we are killing ourselves off by destroying the very environment that keeps us alive. It is for this reason, amongst other cultural and sensational motives, that a growing population of good food lovers are working towards educating, changing, and supporting a more sustainable model of food consumption. Chefs, zealous and ambitious as they are, champion the education, economy, and evolution of good food. They are a major link in the chain. The chefs that stand out as revolutionaries support farmers by placing orders consistently, engage in conversations with suppliers about what they want and are flexible on how they procure ingredients. Good chefs take into account all of the considerations that will enhance the food system, and do little damage along the way. They know the names of the farmers that raise the animals and weed the carrots that make their way to our plates. These chefs take the time to tell the stories on menus and chalkboards; tell the distinguishing features of the ingredients that pass the threshold into the kitchen. Hardened hands, and beaded brow show how dedicated the chefs are to their craft, working just as many hours as the farmers from which they source their supplies. Risking money, reputation, and fingertips, they add value to raw ingredients so carefully cultivated on farms, line caught in lakes, and foraged in forests. Whether they stick to historically accurate disciplines and techniques, or sport innovative ways of delivering the goods, these chefs hold the knowledge of food cultures slipping away from collective memory, ingredients that have been bred out of the gene pool, and act as the historians and anthropologists of our most basic human need.
I have grown enormously with food the foundation of multiple learning curves. Discussions of politics, relationships, security, and the fate of the world tend to take place more often than not in well-designed spaces whose sole purpose is making the guest comfortable; comfortable enough to have those conversations. Fascinating people ante up their knowledge willingly with a glass of Niagara red at the ready. Without restaurants, life would be pretty bland. By not having to worry about the shopping, preparation, serving, and cleaning up, every person at the table can participate fully. Of course, this could happen at McDonald’s or at North 44, but there is something special about the spectacle and extravagance of a fine dining establishment. Along with that hefty value laden bill, and even though I make a ridiculously low income at the moment, being devilishly irresponsible once in a while, as I blow a wad of cash (or credit, in most cases) on the things that really matter, feels, and tastes, delicious.
Zara Fischer-Harrison is a Toronto-based, perpetual pupil of all things food. She works and plays in various capacities in the good food movement. Read her blog at http://foodandpassion.wordpress.com/