Who needs strawberries in July?
"I don't want to see asparagus in the middle of December. I don't want to see strawberries from Kenya in the middle of March. Britain is becoming a nation of lazy diners and consumers, and the time has come to prevent this by law," says the British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay, who owns restaurants around the world and has starred on the television shows "Hell's Kitchen" and "Kitchen Nightmares" in Britain and the United States, and chose to appeal to the British prime minister with an unconventional request this month.
In interviews with the BBC and The Guardian, Ramsay basically called for an end to both the shipment of raw materials around the world on demand and of the artificial extension of the growing seasons for fruits and vegetables. In his eyes, the import out-of-season strawberries from Kenya is as bad as growing tomatoes in a hothouse so that they will be available in the winter.
Ramsay's effort is interesting mostly from an ideological perspective: It seems that the time had come for a celebrity chef to join the worldwide trend advocating a reduction in fuel consumption and a sustainable attachment to the land. His is yet another voice calling for reduced consumption and with making do with local produce, in place of conditioning the earth to adjust to the whims of gluttonous diners. After the call for "ecological weddings" recently issued in Britain, which seeks to prevent holding events in distant locations, and considering the ongoing rise in the price of oil, Ramsay's call is more relevant than ever.
But will ready souls be found who are likely to agree to his initiative? Has the era of restaurants that import raw materials from the ends of the earth for the sake of quality and prestige really ended?
"Not at all," says chef Victor Gluger of the Ramat Gan restaurant Chloely's, which imports fish, seafood, wines, spices and "whatever possible," as he puts it. Gluger, who dropped out of a doctoral program in history to turn to cooking, vehemently opposes Ramsay's position. "The Industrial Revolution took place in England, the distinguished chef's country," he notes, "and the second revolution, whose intensity is equal to it, is globalization. Only someone sated can think as Ramsay does. People have always traded in food and spices. Salt was once a strong currency. Paprika is originally Hungarian, but today is grown in South America. Cocoa beans originated in Mexico, but today everything is available everywhere. A farmer who grows produce one place or another on earth can send me spices, rice, wheat and nuts, and that's a good thing, because it provides him a good means of supporting himself, and I, for my part, receive excellent goods."
So if there is a change for the green in the restaurant business, says Gluger, it will not focus on import or shipping matters.
What about exports?
Not that Gluger is without reservations. "The bad thing about globalization," he says, "is all the rest: Economic pressure creates struggles that are hard to predict; a rice grower in China grows what they want in the Western world, and afterward he collapses from a surplus supply, and there is no one to protect him. There is a need for some kind of regulator, some sort of supervision, but it's impossible to go backward."
Supervision of the kind Gluger refers to could be the middle ground between Ramsay's call and the unrestricted trade of expensive ingredients. "Until a few years ago," explains Gluger, "there was a type of lobster that lived in Israel, on an island off of Rosh Hanikra. This lobster, which was considered one of the best in the world, disappeared completely, because it was fished excessively and the lobsters ceased to reproduce. There is no sense of balance here when it comes to fishing. In Europe, fishermen receive compensation for two to three years so that they won't fish, during which time, fish are imported. It's important."
When it comes to produce, Israeli diners will not soon be seeing fruit and vegetables flown in from other countries, because of Ministry of Agriculture regulations protecting local farmers. In this respect, at least from Ramsay's perspective, Israel's situation is better than that of other countries.
This is not necessarily how Elinoar Rabin, a chef, cookbook author and one of the founders of the Slow Food movement in Israel, feels. "Clearly Ramsay's statement is not suitable for Israel and not realistic," she says, "because we also import spices, wheat, nuts and other raw materials, as well as export. Are we just to cut off this industry? Will the Arava just close for business? It's not appropriate for us. In Europe, where there is a common market and everyone grows everything, there can be a decision not to import from a given area and to grow produce elsewhere. It's less significant."
In the Slow Food movement, says Rabin, the effort it made to "to preserve cooking methods, with no shortcuts, and also to use ancient methods for raising food. We want to preserve species, so that we will always be able to use them. For example, Israel's Volcani Institute [of agricultural research] has a huge bank of stored fig seeds. It's important to preserve this, but also to export if it is necessary."
And in general, says Rabin, "I don't believe that Ramsay doesn't receive ingredients from other countries that he doesn't have there. We are not living in a time of rationing. We've passed the era where we tell people what to eat and what to drink. We import by the season, so as to satisfy customers' demands, and there's nothing wrong with that."
A trip to the market
Chefs who do cook according to the principle of the seasonal kitchen are more likely to identify with Ramsay's position, but may still prefer more optimistic and calmer approach to the question. "Imports won't stop, and we will continue to be surprised by the length of the season for certain fruits and vegetables," estimates Galia Cohen, an owner of the seasonal bistro Floyd, adjacent to Tel Aviv's Carmel Market.
"Nevertheless, I feel the seasonality in the market. It's true that even now I can get strawberries, but obviously there's a difference between strawberries from the beginning of the season, in the spring, and from the end of the season, which is now. I walk around the market a lot before we build a menu: We have dishes that are available today, such as a snow pea salad with pistachio sauce and peaches, and by the end of the month, they won't be around.
"Ramsay's call is very romantic," says Cohen, "but if today someone advocates not using cell phones, will anyone listen? This is the same thing, as far as I'm concerned."
And yet, in the culinary world quite a few are deliberating over how to contribute to the battle for the environment, reduce consumption and eat healthier and more natural foods. Chef Ezra Kedem, who was on his way to Eilat film his TV show "The Kitchen," agrees with Ramsay's call. "I think that the kitchen should reflect the place where it exists," he says. "It doesn't seem to me appropriate to eat dishes made from products that originated in places thousands of kilometers away. It's wrong as far as the climate is concerned, and in every other respect. The same goes for vegetables: I certainly can manage without tomatoes in the winter, and I'd be happier knowing that no one is working to give them a longer shelf life, filling them with unnecessary substances and bloating them with water. If someone wants to eat and cook oysters, there's room for that too," he concludes, "but for me it's inappropriate."
"Clearly this is an idea that deserves some thought," says chef Haim Cohen, who recently finished two cookbooks devoted to seasonal fruit and vegetable recipes and to local fresh meats. "A kitchen belongs to the land where it is situated. I won't import lobsters, but why shouldn't there be restaurants that do import them? And in general, why stop here? After all, in Israel they grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and it is not a variety that grows in Israel and there's no limit to this. I like to cook local food and also to eat lobsters and oysters when I feel like it. I believe in natural selection. I buy vegetables from a grocer in Jaffa that sells local produce and it's important to me to buy from him. I believe that you have to support the residents of the city near you and the farmers in your country, but I also believe in free choice."
What about leftovers?
These days, it is molecular gastronomy that is at the forefront of ecologically minded cooking. In a successful book, chef Ferran Adria and his young assistant, Daniel Picard, managed to turn almonds into cheese and asparagus into bread, with the help of natural ingredients. According to Picard, a chef who visits Israel often, one of the objectives of the technique is to increase the use of raw materials.
Further careful use of raw material is proposed in the book "The Kitchen Revolution: A Year of Time-and-Money-Saving Recipes" by Rosie Sykes, Polly Russell and Zoe Heron, published this month in Britain. Sykes and Russell are experienced chefs; Heron is a producer at the BBC, who helped developed the method and served as a taster. According to the authors, around a third of the food cooked in British kitchens gets thrown out at the end of the day. To prevent waste, the book suggests a method for using leftovers to prepare meals later in the week.
Critics wondered aloud whether there was really a need for a book that explained what to do with leftovers, but the three authors have generated a lot of interest in the blog they set up as well as in their Facebook site, which includes a huge database of recipes for exchange. What was in the past considered a desire to simply not throw away food is experiencing a revival as an ecologically beneficial effort.
And after all this, one can visit Gordon Ramsay's Web site (gordonramsay.com) to review the local products he uses in his restaurants. In his California establishment, for example, the local goods he uses are fish, lobsters, vegetables and wines from varieties that grow only in the surrounding area. Given the detailed and rather hedonistic list, it seems that life is simply easier for a chef, especially if he happens to be in California.