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The Process of Responsible Gastronomy

January 12, 2009

lauramalinBy Laura Malin, Executive Chef, The Tatham Group

As the executive chef for The Tatham Group, my approach to social and environmental responsibility is to trust in and respect one very special process: the process of nature. I’ve done this by believing in the following principles: consider the environment first, respect the seasons, support local and organic farmers, educate your customers and never underestimate their palates. In the end, they will know a good thing when they get it.

To many of you this may sound incredibly obvious since the natural response to hunger is to ingest food – a practice in which we must all engage daily to survive. Although the process of quelling our hunger seems like a natural one, we must consider the myriad of unnatural ways we actually go about doing this. Today’s food manufacturers make it all too easy. Opting for anything “natural” in today’s world, sadly, has to be a conscious effort.

In fact, it is shocking to realize how tainted our food supply has become. Artificial flavors, colours, preservatives, genetically modified organisms, artificially engineered fats, pesticide-laden produce, hormone infested meat and dairy products, and global access to any kind of foodstuff in any season, are all accompanied by a heavy environmental footprint. All are a result of decades of unethical, industrialized business practices with profit dictating the bottom line.

The relationship in preparing food for another to ingest is, in my opinion, almost sacred. It is a special relationship between the land, the farmer, the chef and the customer. Too many people take this for granted. Some chefs, like many food manufacturers, engage in food production and it is merely a way to earn a living. As a chef, I feed people. Hence, for me, part of delivering an ethical product is to be customer focused. Ironically, however, I have discovered that this is not always achieved by giving in to the customer’s demands. Instead, sometimes this is best achieved by educating the customer.

The key to successfully building ethical responsibility into our processes is by educating people. When you educate the customer on the superiority of a local or organic product, most of the time they will opt for higher quality because improved flavor is a very tangible and immediate value. And when you choose to feed people more ethically by trusting what nature has to offer, you will ultimately get a better product.
This is the process that dictates my entire approach to producing delicious, healthy and socially responsible food.

Recognizing the ability I have to educate people about where our food comes from, what the responsible alternatives are, and sourcing and providing those alternatives is what fuels my passion as a chef. How many times has a customer asked me to put an asparagus soup on the menu in September? How about preparing some famous New Zealand lamb?

It may not sound very customer focused to flat out refuse…but that is exactly what I do. At this point I usually delight in convincing them that a squash soup from local buttercups will be better than the asparagus from Argentina that we are seeing in the grocery store all year round. I happily steer them toward alternatives with the conviction that lamb produced by farmer Bob two hours down the highway will have more authentic flavour than the one flown in from New Zealand last week. I get to tell them: not only is it the responsible way to go, it truly is the better product here in Ontario. Then I produce the food and they get to taste the difference for themselves. The customer can’t lose.

As a chef, I recognize my responsibility to deliver the best possible food I can produce. This cannot be achieved by encouraging the destruction of the land from which our food supply comes. That is why I firmly believe that if I base my ideals and practices on respecting nature and putting the environment first, good things inevitably come to my customers.