From the time I was a boy, I loved being around food.
Growing up, my mother was always cooking, and I was often at her side. She was a simple home cook, but she taught me how food can be used to bring people together, to remind us of where we come from. In my parents’ case, it was Asturias. When we moved to Barcelona, my mother would make big bowls of rich fabada stew made from Asturian beans to give us a taste of home and bring us a little closer to the family we left behind. I am no different. Today I prepare many of my favorite dishes from Spain for myself and my children as a way of reconnecting with home through the memory of food.
Food is a powerful thing in that way, but it can do so much more than serve as a token of our past. Eating is one thing, besides breathing, that we all do from the day we are born until the day we die. Food is really the DNA of who we are. It can be a storyteller, opening a window into our pasts and it can also be an ambassador of foreign lands, bridging the gap between two countries. Food is powerful because it has a history that no other profession has behind it. The Boston Tea Party was a great revolution ignited by food. The salt march led by Gandhi created the freedom of an entire nation. Food can and does change the world, and that’s what gives it such unbelievable power.
And now more than ever, it is critical to recognize that food—how we grow it, sell it, cook it, and eat it—is as important as any other issue we are facing, one that is vitally connected to our lives. From culture and energy, to art, science, the economy, national security, the environment, and health, everything is connected through food, and we need to start giving it the attention it deserves.
Eating has to be fun, yes. It’s a social event where you can enjoy yourself, and connect with the people you care about. But as you come together, you still can—and should—put a lot of thought into what you are eating and what food means to you.
Today we have created a world where food seems to be the cause of many of our problems, both in America and abroad. Obesity, hunger, climate change – food is always behind it. In America, we are talking about calorie-dense but low-nutrition foods and overeating. In the developing world, we are dealing with problems of malnutrition, poverty, deforestation, and failing farms. Food policy demands are all around us.
While food always seems to be part of the problem, we need to start seeing food as the solution. Food used the right way can end hunger. Food used the right way can help fight obesity and malnutrition. Food and the right farming practices will create employment in the developing world where it is needed most. Food when prepared the right way can help improve the environment. Food can be the answer.
My life changed the moment I joined my friend Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen as a volunteer. Robert founded DCCK in 1988 by doing something really simple with a refrigerated truck and a small kitchen. He gathered up the untouched left over foods after President Reagan’s Inauguration festivities and brought them to the kitchen, where he repackaged it and sent it to homeless shelters and anywhere else that people were in need of a good meal.
Today, DC Central Kitchen’s motto is straightforward. Fight hunger. Create opportunity. The organization has grown into something so much bigger than an effort to feed people. A culinary training program takes people off the streets, helping them with their drug and alcohol abuse or their sense of not belonging, and teaches them the skills to become cooks. In the process, they regained their dignity and became leaders of the many legions of volunteers who come to the kitchen to this day. A catering program has created jobs and income for the organization. DCCK’s approach to solving the problem of hunger isn’t just about throwing money at it, but by investing in solutions that can be sustainable over time. The work of DCCK is able to help people become rightful members of their community, who are then able to contribute to our society and our future. It is this kind of work that led me to create my own organization, World Central Kitchen. I will share more with you about our efforts in the months ahead. But here too we are applying smart solutions to nourish people and their communities. All through the power of food.
It was the great food philosopher, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who said, “The future of nations will depend on how they feed themselves,” and we see today how very true these words are. I am so honored to be a part of this astonishing look at the #FutureofFood with National Geographic. This deep dive into the issues of how we feed our planet could not be more important.
To eat today is a political statement, but even with the public’s growing interest in food and diet issues, politicians rarely include food as part of their political platforms. You hear so much about oil and gas as the most important fuel for the planet, but it’s not. Food is, because it’s what moves everybody, and without food we are nothing. And not so far in the future, presidents and politicians, the leaders of our world, will have to have food on their campaign platforms, on their agendas. And we as people have to start asking our local and national governments, “How are you going to be planning to feed your country? What are your sustainable solutions?”
I believe that as a chef, I am responsible for asking these questions, help find solutions, and demand change. Members of the food community, like myself, have the answers to the many problems that the world faces. From farmers and fishermen, beekeepers and cattle ranchers, day laborers and truck drivers, to chefs, restaurant owners, winemakers, teachers, school superintendents, real estate developers – we are all a part of this food chain that is dedicated to feeding our communities, our nations, and our world. And feeding our world is a big responsibility. When government leaders, doctors, scientists, lawyers, NGOs, all gather at a table to talk about issues of food security, its important that chefs should have a seat there as well.
As food professionals, we don’t just feed the few that visit our restaurants; we do so much more. The choices we make as members of the food industry are like voting; they show what we believe in and we have the influence to show people what’s good for themselves and their families, and our communities. This is a great power, and it’s a power that we need to use smartly. We need to work tirelessly to address the food issues in America and around the world, to engage our families, friends, fans and our elected officials. We especially need to be more committed than ever to the people who don’t have the means to dine in our restaurants.
There are many heroes hard at work on issues of food access and equality, on sustainability and nutrition. Great chefs such as Alice Waters, Tom Colicchio, Michel Nishan, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Dan Barber, Cat Cora, Bill Telepan, Rick Bayless, Art Smith, Nora Pouillion, I could go on and on. And that is only a few here in the U.S. So many more around the world, like my friends Luu Meng in Cambodia, Sanjeev Kapoor in India and Gaston Acurio in Peru. There are hundreds of thousands of committed cooks, working to make a difference, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, country by country.
Already, chefs have found their voices on these issues. We have a unique perspective and an ability to sway how the public eats, and I guarantee you that unless we start making good, really good, food decisions, ones that can stand the test of time and not just help people but let them help themselves, then our world won’t be healthy and we won’t be supplied with the food that we need. We are making the choices on how we feed our families part of the conversation. Part of the solution. Food has the power to do that, and that’s why I care.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.