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We Talked to the World’s Wokest Chefs About Fine Dining and Social Responsibility

“Food is political. That's both its promise and danger”

The term “Plat de résistance”—French for “main course”—might conjure up starched tablecloths and fussy plating under a polished cloche: the ultimate in ceremonial classicism. But the term could just as readily be tweaked to meet the definition of political resistance, which a recently held event in Paris, spearheaded by restaurant guide Le Fooding, made evident.

An all-day feast, Plats de Résistance emphasized a rethinking of what it means to nourish people, the role of those who do it, and conscientiousness regarding ecological and cultural contexts. The event showcased an impressive collection of chefs—from London to Beirut to Rio—dedicated to progressive ideas and multiculturalism.

Amongst those featured, chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Arab team who run a beloved trio of Middle Eastern-inspired eateries in London, are a testament to the idea that food can be an effective cross-cultural adhesive.

Also heavily represented at Plats de Résistance were chefs who have created socially responsible programs. There was Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, who employs former convicts in the kitchen as means of facilitating rehabilitation; Franco-Vietnamese chef Céline Pham, who works to fight food waste and homelessness; and Kamal Mouzawak, who runs Lebanon’s first open-air farmer’s market, Souk El Tayeb.

We spoke with a number of the chefs to get a sense of how they felt food could be as deeply impactful as it could be incredibly appetizing.

Geopolitical Reformation to Banish Bias

Aman Jaspal’s restaurant Sarhad, founded with his wife Sameena, is very intentionally located at the border between India and Pakistan.

When Britain left the Indian colonies, it divided regions along religious lines, shattering the communities who had agreeably overlapped prior. Jaspal’s grandparents, who migrated from Pakistan to India, recounted the peaceable times preceding this imposed partition. The Indian media, however, perpetuated and entrenched a more acrimonious depiction of the cultural split. When Amal visited Pakistan for himself in 2009, he realized Pakistanis “grew up with the same two (contradictory) images of India that I had of Pakistan.” Marveling at this mirror effect, he found “huge cultural similarities between the people of both regions. People of Delhi can relate more to people from Lahore than to someone from Mumbai,” he noted. “I realized 60 years of man-made boundaries cannot reverse the thousands of years of cultural integration.”

This became a turning point: “I decided that I wanted people in India to see and experience our shared cuisines,” he said of starting Sarhad in this particular location.

For Plats de Résistance, he and Sameena prepared chicken biryani, a dish introduced to India long ago through Muslim invasion. “It is a beautiful example of how food from one part of the world becomes a part of the local cuisine,” he said. “I feel food can really be used as a tool to sensitize societies of different cultures. It’s as powerful a tool as films or art to achieve this purpose.”

Integration and Appreciation with a Feminist Bent

At London-based Mazi Mas (meaning “eat with us” in Greek), helmed by Niki Kopcke and Roberta Siao, employment in the self-described “roaming kitchen” is reserved exclusively for women who are immigrants and refugees, from Ethiopia to Turkey to Peru. “I've always been obsessed with women's cooking—the long, slow kind of cooking that women do at home, part sustenance and part choreographed social ritual,” Kopcke noted. “Cooking is an identity. It's what (one) does.”

Kopcke found that her passion for food “eventually dovetailed with a passion for feminism,” spurred all the more by “being an intimate observer of the subservient position that the women cooking this food occupied.” The raison d’être of Mazi Mas “is pulling that kind of cooking out of the home, out of the fringes, and into a public setting where it can be assigned financial value and thus greater social acknowledgment.”

The idea for Mazi Mas came together when Kopcke started volunteering in kitchens in migrant and refugee centers and she encountered women who reminded her of her Greek godmother, an avid cook. Bowled over by the rich culinary traditions the refugees imported from their homelands, Kopcke wanted to build a space in which they could “showcase their cooking, derive some kind of livelihood from it, and also gain wider social visibility.”

With no restaurant background, she started hosting pop-up events. The success was such that the group is now funded by local U.K. foundations and is developing a sister model in Australia. Her business partner Siao elaborates: “These women that I call the ‘invisible army’ inhabit all cities in the world—women who are forgotten, looking after their children and not having opportunities to live their lives the way they want and work and be independent. They can do it fantastically well if we give them the opportunity and to value this work they do for free, cooking delicious nourishing food for their family.”

In this way, Mazi Mas provides “the dignity to have a choice, to work and earn money.”

Resourcefulness for Flourishing Favelas

Brazilian chef Regina Tchelly created the enterprise Favela Orgânica in Rio de Janeiro, which educates favela (densely-populated poor neighborhoods in Brazilian cities) dwellers about eating well while minimizing food waste.

Tchelly herself was born in the countryside in northeastern Brazil, where she used to plant, harvest, and cook using everything possible. When she arrived in Rio, the sheer volume of food waste—both in public at the street markets and in the privacy of households she worked for as a maid—roiled her to action. She brokered partnerships with market sellers: they safeguarded seeds, peels, and stalks that could be repurposed as ingredients and a source of nutrients in her capable hands. “I cooked with these foods, inventing recipes and recreating some from my childhood. Over time, I kept improving these recipes, and my desire to generate impact with my food kept increasing.”

She applied to "Agencia de Redes para a Juventude," an nongovernmental organization that generates social projects in urban outskirts, and was rejected. She pivoted and gathered women from the community, delivering her first “alternative” gastronomy workshop on a shoestring budget. Her tenacious start-up sensibility prevailed. Upon reapplying to the NGO, she received funding for more workshops to “raise a voice against food waste.”

Her dessert at Plats de Résistance, brigadeiro, a traditional Brazilian sweet, was reinvented in a healthier and waste-free version, highlighting the country’s native bananas (peels included), cocoa (sans sugar), and Brazilian nuts.

She continues to work with people from outside Favela Orgânica to generate income for community activities. “I believe it is important to bring this reflection and this knowledge exchange to everyone … The concern about the food cycle, our health, our city, and our planet must be universal.” Her goal is to turn the favela into a fully sustainable hub, and then transpose this paradigm to other nearby—and eventually global—communities. “We try to inspire confidence by showing that the power of change is in our hands,” she said.

Kitchen Activism Through Progressive Food

In convening such a multifaceted array of cooks, Plats de Résistance displayed, hearteningly, that progress by means of the food world is vivid and substantial.

“Food is a window onto other cultures, for many of us the only window we will ever have. It tells the story of people we've never met, will never meet, in the most accessible language that exists,” Mazi Mas’s Kopcke says. “I didn't know anything about Iran apart from the fearmongering of American political discourse, but now I do, thanks to the food cooked by our chef Zohreh Shahrabi. Now Iran is, in some sense, known to me, though I may never travel there.”

To cynics, gastronomy as a political means might sound idealistic, but the reality is that edible signifiers matter. The plate can be a tangible entry point into social, economic, and environmental issues, in ways that convoluted policy arguments cannot.

“Food is political,” Kopcke emphasized. “That's both its promise and danger.”

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