food and health

Freedom is choosing free from influence

Vegetarian chef Pietro Leemann, owner of Joia, the only meat-free restaurant in Europe to win a Michelin star, tells us what pursuing food sustainability means for him: it all boils down to choice. Pietro Leemann is an unusual chef whose cuisine is strongly influenced by ethical and philosophical decisions. Indeed, his vegetarian restaurant, Joia, in Milan, is the only vegetarian eatery in Europe awarded a Michelin star. He has also founded a school of vegetarian haute cuisine, the Joia Academy, and together with gastronomic journalist Gabriele Eschenazi, has launched the Vegetarian Chance, a cultural association promoting vegetarian cuisine and culture.
Leeman is particularly connected to the idea of sustainable food, i.e. that food is a tool that improves the health of individuals, as well as that of society and the environment. “The current economic system is not designed to be sustainable: the cost of ingredients, for instance, doesn’t take into account environmental impact. Whereas in reality the economy is fundamental. Foodstuffs need to be priced correctly, favouring healthy foods and taxing those that are not.
The responsibility of individuals’ choices is, for Leemann, the key to food sustainability. Taking a strong position from the ethical point of view (for instance not eating meat, as he has done in his restaurant) is difficult, but it is the key to guaranteeing our individual and collective wellness.
"It’s easy to say that shoppers are responsible for their choices, but not everyone has the capacity to choose, as they may lack information or not have the financial means. It’s interesting to point out that today it’s the middle to upper classes that lead healthier lifestyles, unlike in the past when illnesses related to excess eating were the prerogative of the rich, they were the ones to suffer from gout!
For Leemann, it is therefore politics that has to act to promote virtuous choices, raising the prices of less healthy foods or foods with a negative ecological footprint.
To be truly free to choose we, paradoxically, have to lay down some rules. For instance, ethical rules concerning animals and the environment,” he continues. “Freedom isn’t doing everything that we want, eating everything that we want. Freedom is being able to decide without external and internal influences.” One possible rule is to follow the food pyramid, a great option if you don’t want to become a vegetarian. Leemann, however, made a choice which is simultaneously healthy, philosophical and good for the environment. “At The Vegetarian Chance we want to educate young cooks in a competition aimed at making them think about the criteria for healthy food. Being good at cooking isn’t enough, you need to cook in a way that is healthy. When I opened my restaurant Joia 26 years ago, I lost six shareholders: they feared the decision to go vegetarian wasn’t profitable and viewed the business as a means of selling, rather than as a means of feeding. But if you’re consistent with your choices the results will follow: everything changed once I’d been awarded the Michelin star".
Nowadays Joia is the point of reference for a culture of healthy and sustainable food. In the future, the chef intends to have more of an impact on society by collaborating with politics and the industry, taking his opinion to these seemingly hostile environments. But to do so, he needs to build alliances. “I’m looking for alliances with neo-rural farmers who do their job not out of need but as a choice, equipped with knowledge enabling them to develop a new farming model. And I’m looking for alliances among scientists like Franco Berrino, who have studied the damage unhealthy food has on our health and who broadcast messages without compromises: if you don’t eat properly, you will get ill.

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