Last week in an interview with The New York Times, chefs Thomas Keller, famous for his innovative food at the French Laundry and Per Se, and Andoni Luis Aduriz, a rising star of Spain’s cocina vangardia,created a firestorm of controversy. Both argued that their responsibility is to create inspiring food, not to save the planet by buying local ingredients or worrying about sustainability issues.
Said Keller: “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?”
Keller goes on to say it is the responsibility of government to develop policies that promote environmental values.
And Aduriz: “to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”
What we have here is an instance of a classical debate that goes back to Plato’s argument for tossing the poets out of his ideal polis. Should art be judged solely on its aesthetic value or should moral considerations influence our judgment.
Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats called the two chefs “dinosaurs” with attitudes “staler than day old bread.” And Nick Wiseman, writing for the Huffington Post, called their attitudes “disappointing”:
But focusing solely on the aesthetics and disclaiming any other responsibility altogether is a cop-out. He can’t singlehandedly change food policy but a philosophy of abdication (deferring instead to the “world’s governments”) fails to acknowledge that change needs leaders.
Crossfield and Wiseman are right that the influence of chefs of this stature goes well beyond the service they provide to their patrons, and they are thus responsible for spreading a message that devalues sustainability.
But there is a genuine conflict between their obligation to uphold the standards of their art vs. their obligation to meet standards of social ethics. For artists, the former is a serious concern, one that most of us don’t face. To claim that the attitudes of these chefs is a “cop-out” is to discount the idea that artists have obligations to their artistic practice—which I would imagine forms the very substance of their lives.
It is not at all obvious that their obligation to rigorously adhere to standards of social ethics should be a weightier consideration.
We have a long tradition of letting artists off the hook for their moral transgressions. Paul Gauguin abandoned his wife and child to pursue his art, and the great poet Ezra Pound was an avowed Nazi. The world would be a poorer place without their works, despite their despicable behavior.
But we surely cannot compare Keller and Aduriz to Gauguin and Pound. Neither Keller nor Aduriz are indifferent to sustainability issues. They both assert that they use local, sustainably-produced ingredients when they can. We aren’t talking about moral monsters here. The fact is most of us are less than maximally virtuous when it comes sustainable practices, and most of us are willing to cut ethical corners when it comes to satisfying desires.
There is a good deal of the-pot-calling-the-kettle-black in this debate.
If we want great art, we have to let artists be artists. And that means putting up with their obsessions, especially when transgressions are minor.
Keller and Aduriz can continue to advocate for sustainable practices while at the same time maximizing the aesthetic appeal of their food. To do so is not hypocrisy. It is a recognition that there really are moral conflicts that have no easy resolution.