When I started cooking 30 years ago, I would never have thought I would be accountable for my customers' food choices or that I would have to generate a level of trust that is only usually reserved for loved ones.
Over the years, I've become accustomed to welcoming levels of transparency that have opened my business to scrutiny and questions about its capacity to nourish the body, the soul and our planet. A chef’s reliance on the producer is stronger than ever, and is often the starting point when creating a new dish.
The simplest way to understand the position of a modern chef is as a conduit: An entity that energy, nourishment and experience flows through.
A chef is the direct link between a grower/producer and a consumer, communicating between the two in a unique position of trust. From absorbing seasonal changes and trying to express those through the dishes we create, to endless testing of flavour and texture combinations - it all comes from understanding what the producer has to offer and their capacity to produce it with quality, care and integrity.
The idea is to keep the food fresh and nutritious, to work wonders with nature to deliver sustenance and deliciousness, and in return, customers receive food that they can trust and enjoy. It is vital that the customer trusts the food you are serving while knowing you are treating the planet and the producers well.
A chef uses an age-old technique of preparing and serving that creates sensations, passion, love, communication and contentment. Through this relationship, the chef creates a connection between the producer and the consumer: This is the most important relationship. A chef’s role in bringing the two together, as closely as possible, is an important one. In some ways the chef has to disengage from being the catalyst of the experience but become the bridge that allows the two to meet. The aim is that when consumer and producer meet on that bridge, it is with mutual admiration.
In whatever form it happens - this meeting is vital. A rural producer who supplies an urban consumer is a holistic relationship and one that needs to grow stronger in future. Cutting out the middle distribution and logistics systems, reducing the distances and costs between production and consumption is one of the ways the food systems of the world can become less negative to the environment.
If a producer has a direct link to a consumer, their confidence in their business will develop, allowing them to invest and grow. Perhaps their land needs investment, or water irrigation systems need updating - additionally, packing options or marketing tools are good ways for a producer to solidify themselves. However, if a producer is beholden to fluctuations in the supermarket supply chain, where consumers who constantly seek lower prices hold the monopoly, there is no room for producers and farmers to confidently move forward.
A consumer's confidence in who produces their food is just as important - that it is fresh, local and ethically produced is vital. This sets up distribution lines that create food security direct from field to plate, as it should be. Having supermarkets decide where they want to buy their produce from due to market prices means they scour the globe looking for better deals. This destabilises local food systems and creates a false picture of the food market in that area.
It is imperative that producers and consumers are directly linked and that they talk to each other, demand support from each other and create their own business networks. We must go beyond a food system that has been created to make supermarkets lots of money and keep consumers in the dark about where their food truly comes from, and how much of a price the planet is paying for it.
Arthur Potts-Dawson, Chef and Ambassador for the World Food Programme.