Lead, follow, or get out of the way

In a recent interview with the New York Times, French Laundry Chef Thomas Keller created a stir when he disavowed any responsibility for the direction of national food policy. Chefs, he said, are not responsible for sustaining local farmers or fixing climate change.

Not surprisingly, his comments drew a sharp rebuke in some arenas (Civil Eats, Huffington Post.)  Should they have?

His comments raise two questions. The first is whether or not chefs can be agents of change in our food system, particularly with respect to local food. Clearly they can. I’m fortunate to work with several chef and food artisan friends who are our “local local heros”… People like Tim Kilcoyne, Rachel Main, Kate Dunbar, Julia Crookston and James and Manuela Carling of Ventura Limoncello. Customers are responding to their work, other restaurateurs are following their lead, and food and farming are receiving more attention than ever. These people are leaders and they make a difference.

The second question raised by Chef Keller is whether he personally has an obligation to lead within the food movement. He says “No” and I agree with him. He has built his career around food as art, not food as activism. He is entitled to pursue his vision, as are we all. Even if I wished for his leadership, it would be a futile desire on my part. You can not assign leadership to the unwilling. Not if you expect results, anyway. In fact, I’m glad that he risked the predictable backlash by being honest about his views, rather than assuming a false mantle of leadership.

The Marines have a saying: “Lead, follow, or get out of  the way.” Chef Keller has opted to get out of the way. That’s fine. There are a lot of great people like the ones I mentioned above who can and are leading already.

Those are the people we should be talking about.

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