Food sustainability: a chef's point of view

Food sustainability: a chef's point of view

November 13, 2020

Food sustainability: a chef's point of view

Interview with Chef Pietro Leemann, owner of Joia, the first European vegetarian restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star in 1996.

The main star of healthy eating is nature itself, of which our body is an integral part, the chef is the intermediary between nature and the diner”. Chef Pietro Leemann, owner of the Joia vegetarian restaurant in Milan, explains how food and nutrition can be “friends of man and the planet” by taking an approach that focuses on vegetarian cuisine and science, “taking nutrition, philosophy, society, health, psychology and farming into account”. 

What does sustainable nutrition involve for a chef?

Undoubtedly it involves searching for the right ingredients and buying them as close as possible to the place where we live and work. Choosing the right food, however, is also fundamental to ensuring sustainability. Going for the vegetarian option, as I have done, helps the environment because it has a much lower environmental impact than an omnivorous diet. We shouldn't then neglect the energy aspect, which can be improved by focusing on energy from sustainable sources and induction systems to optimize consumption. Finally, there is the age-old problem of plastic: we are overwhelmed by plastic packaging that is not very recyclable and disposable. Personally, I am committed to using as little plastic as possible and even in my private life I try to remind consumers and retailers to limit the use and consumption of plastic, using alternative packaging or removing unnecessary ones.  

But perhaps making these choices is still too expensive...

Unfortunately yes, but precisely because the true environmental impacts of food production are not calculated. Food grown in a certain way, which is also respectful of the environment, actually costs more: I can improve this impact by shortening distances. I buy at a fair price directly from farmers, rewarding them for what they do and paying less thanks to the shorter supply chain

It is important in my view that everyone should feel responsible for our precious environment and for what lies behind it, in order to safeguard it. The time to delegate is over. We need to stop asking questions and take action, and it’s time for everyone to assume their responsibilities.

Could “rewarding” farmers for what they do - thus giving the right value to food - also be an incentive for young people to return to agriculture?

We are indeed seeing some young people returning to agriculture. They are often highly educated people with university degrees, who have studied agronomy and decided to take the plunge with a more scientific approach, which allows them to grow organically and sustainably with optimal yields. There is a philosophy around modern agriculture which is to opt for sustainability and apply a more technical form of cultivation

As regards food systems, another important aspect is manufacturing companies: many are moving towards sustainability, from choosing products to reducing packaging. We’re only at the beginning of the journey, but things are undoubtedly moving in the right direction.

One of the weaknesses of existing food systems is food waste. What action can be taken to change this situation in which a third of the food produced is lost or thrown away?

Shortening the supply chain definitely has an important impact, but there is no doubt that food education is essential. At home, I can make my small contribution because I know how much I eat and therefore plan what I buy, especially the most perishable foods such as vegetables and dairy products, so I reduce waste. When we go to the store, however, we often get caught up in a shopping fever and end up buying too much. To increase awareness about this, I feel it is important to understand how much money is wasted by doing this. More prudent shopping can save you a considerable amount of money and these savings can perhaps be invested in buying higher quality, healthy and sustainable food

We therefore need education on healthy and sustainable nutrition. Who should be responsible for disseminating this knowledge and what tools should they use?

I believe that stores, especially supermarkets, should be the first to educate people about food. The principle of “the more I sell, the more I earn” that many apply today is short-sighted and doesn’t fulfill the need for health and sustainability. 

Chefs can also play a part, perhaps by participating in television broadcasts to spread the message of tasty cooking that is good for health and for the planet. The many cooking programs now broadcast have created a food culture, with many people taking an interest in cooking, experimenting and understanding how dishes are prepared. People are cooking more (we also saw it during the lockdown) and this is another way to work out what to buy and how to save money: knowing exactly what you eat helps you avoid waste and shop in a more informed way

Other than in a restaurant run by a famous chef, how can catering (school and company canteens, restaurants, bars) transform and improve their sustainability?

When you have large numbers of people to feed it definitely isn't easy. I’ve worked with school canteens and realized that children often have their “standardized” tastes and it’s difficult to get them to eat other things. In Milan, however, interesting initiatives are already being taken, such as serving a vegetarian meal in school canteens once or twice a week. I think this is a good starting point. Even in company canteens, there are transformations taking place, with an ever wider vegetarian offer

Insisting on an exclusively plant-based cuisine might be “scary” and therefore have the opposite effect, putting people off making this choice. What is the right approach?

A gradual approach is inevitable, but it is also the best one not only for your health, because a sudden change in nutrition inevitably leads to imbalances, but also from a cultural point of view and to ensure a proper transition. Think for example of flexitarians, an increasingly large group of people who choose to drastically reduce meat and animal products, without completely eliminating them. 

We also need to be careful about transitioning too quickly, because there is a very high risk of overdoing carbohydrates and sugars when you decide to give up or suddenly reduce animal proteins. It is no coincidence that dietary imbalances today are mainly linked to an excess of sugars. We are faced with a paradox here because choosing vegetarian should also be a healthy choice.  

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the World Food Programme. What do you think about that?

Food as an instrument of peace is a beautiful concept. I think the most important thing is to help the poorest people produce their food independently, returning to traditional crops which are suitable for the environment in which they live. Hopefully by helping people to grow food we can make them independent and help them defeat poverty, triggering a virtuous circle. 

You wrote: “Food is a way of sending a message”. What do you think this message is?

Essentially, my aim, my purpose in life, and the reason for which I run my restaurant, is to serve my guests food that is both health-friendly and planet-friendly, and therefore good for all its inhabitants, not centered on human beings but inspired by the principle that we are all beings who have to live together in harmony. 

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