Yesterday evening the Strand hosted a discussion between Momofuku's David Chang and British writer, television host, and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The talk was centered around the work of Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has become known in the UK for his efforts to raise awareness about sustainability and ways of eating and cooking that counteract industrialized food systems. On this particular occasion, the interlocutors used Fearnley-Whittingstall's book Veg as a jumping off point to talk about the importance of weaning ourselves off meat, how basic cooking skills will help people avoid commodified foods, and the contradictions and intractable problems that come with the effort to promote sounder ways of eating and producing food. Oh, and also, how Chang is having a pork belly dilemma these days. Here are some of the best snippets of the conversation:
Chang on Fearnley-Whittingstall's influence: "I've always complained to others why we don't have people like Hugh in New York and in the United States. He's not a zealot."
Fearnley-Whittingstall on one of his programs: "We used to show every part of the life of the animal until slaughter on the TV show, so you would understand that you can't have meat without killing animals. The underlying message is that we need to take meat very seriously — it's a precious food — and we need to know where our food comes from. And we need to question whether we can go on with this industrial scale of creating meat as a bland commodity. Food grown by people with names has a resonance."
F-W on how to counteract commodification: "The answer is that we just need to eat more vegetables. We're not going to talk people into eating more vegetables. We need to cook them and make them delicious to convince people."
F-W on New York embracing vegetables: "I see it everywhere. It's not just Union Square. It's springing up throughout the city, and it feels like this is an idea whose time is now."
Chang on the importance of understanding where your ingredients come from: "It's the most powerful lesson you can teach anybody. I always try to teach cooks, even when they're cooking vegetables, that someone has put in time and seen through a process. Do you want to disrespect that? People in the office here think I'm crazy, because I don't like to promote people until they can go to a farm and kill their own animal. I know it's crazy, but I feel very strongly that it makes you a stronger cook. I don't like cutting off ends to square off a piece of beef anymore, because growing up as a cook, you think everything just comes ready and in a bag."
F-W on the flavor potentials of vegetables: "They play second fiddle, the supporting role. As soon as we decide to put the meat and fish aside, we can really explore the possibilities of flavor they have that some of us don't expect. Vegetables are a much more diverse set of ingredients. The caramelization of flesh is a really appealing flavor, but it can be one-note."
F-W on meat substitutes: "I have no patience for a bean protein or something of the sort that's been made to smell like bacon. I just want to make those beans taste as beany as they can. The appealing umami flavors don't only come from meat. You can get those same notes with vegetables."
Chang on the recent work of his culinary lab: "We've been rotting stuff for a really long time now, and most of the stuff that has been coming out of our culinary lab is vegan. That's the biggest joke amongst us — that we're turning into a vegan commune. The most delicious flavors we're finding were right under our noses. We used to scoff at the notion that barley could be more than just porridge, but you can ferment it and turn that extract into a chip, for example."
Chang on contradictions and realities: "I was giving away turkeys for Thanksgiving in the city, and a woman told me she didn't care where the turkey came from. She just wanted to feed her kids. That changed my perspective, because of course she can't spend $30 on a chicken when she can get six chickens for the same price. For all the terribleness of commodity farming, it's a dilemma I haven't been able to resolve."
F-W, reacting to the turkey anecdote: "That is the dilemma we face, but we can't keep ramping up the production of livestock. One of the solutions has to do with the way we produce food and moving away from commodification. No one needs to eat meat three times a day. But the other thing that we overlook is the simple need to know basic cooking skills. The industrialization of food basically exempted a generation from having cooking skills. The obvious way back, that will affect how food is produced and affect mass produced food, is if people begin to learn how to cook."
Chang on contradictions: "I've had this argument with friends of mine who are vegetarian: we were at a wedding in Rhode Island, and they refused to eat the lobster, which was local. They ordered the white and green asparagus, and that's coming from Peru. The farming conditions for the workers can't be good. It's August. There has to be a more cohesive strategy."
Chang's pork belly dilemma: "We buy a lot of pork belly at our restaurants, and even though it comes from good farms, it's only two pieces of pork belly per pig. I swear some of my cooks just think it comes in a box. I'm grateful for pork belly, but I'm trying very hard to wean my customers off it. I think it's about encouraging balance. But how do we do it? I have 700 employees, and this is a big bread winner for Momofuku."
F-W on chefs and awareness: "More and more chefs are visiting the farms that supply them. For a long time, city chefs were cooking in a bubble and knew next to nothing about where their ingredients were coming from. If you introduce the story of provenance and its impact, and you push those stories back to your diners gently, that lets the ingredients work for you."
F-W on elitism: "Of course we don't have all the answers, and there will be people who say this is irrelevant, but aspects of this conversation are universal. The basic cooking skills discussion is one element, for example. And, bottom line, it's important that this conversation is simply happening."