I had a chance to chat with Peter recently about the growth of organic farming in the U.S., the much-discussed British organic food study, and the food safety regulations passed in July by the Obama administration. Much to my glee, Peter’s answers gave quite a bit of food for thought.
Q: With your background in dentistry, what led you to organic farming?
A: I’m both a practicing dentist and an academic dentist. I have a degree in pharmacology all that training and experience is about focusing detail. The French Laundry is all about detail and striving for perfection, so I fit right in.
We bought the farm twenty-eight years ago. It was a piece of property owned by a friend that came up for sale. It was already an orchard with 128 fruit trees, many of which we’ve replanted over the years. We fell in love with it as soon as we saw it.
Q: The Food Safety bill that was recently passed in the House covers new regulations for small farms and food producers. Do you think it will be beneficial or more of a hindrance for those farmers affected?
A: I don’t follow it in much detail – and I tend to be more of a conspiracist. I always worry about what the government does. In my experience, whenever the government gets involved, very large industry gets involved, and, inevitably, the regulations get twisted to fit the big guys. When larger corporations involved, they’re able to craft the regulations so they become a disincentive to their competition. Small organic farmers do not win.
However, I believe food safety is important. For instance, the contaminated spinach scare, and other food safety epidemics, are bad experiences, but at the same time they’re utilized by big industry to manipulate regulations.
For instance, in order to currently have a slaughterhouse, meat processors have to provide a bathroom and office specifically for the use of U.S. inspectors. Smaller slaughterhouses just can’t comply with that. Many food safety regulations are incredibly complex and very difficult for smaller processors to even consider, much less comply with..
I appreciate the food safety intentions of the new regulations, but with the details crafted by larger producers, they are often a disincentive to smaller farmers.
Q: Is the US food system leading the pack or lacking when it comes to organic regulation?
A: I’m the kind of person that believes the concept of ‘leading the pack’ is like trying to predict the future. If you want to predict the future, the best way is to invent it. If you’re not living on the edge, inventing, you’re taking up too much room.
If I want to see what the future holds, I look at fringe riders, the one’s who are out on the edge. Fringe riders are classically folks like Michael Pollan and the people he writes about. And authors like Eliot Coleman in Maine – that’s where new ideas are going to come from. The government regulations almost invariably thwart that kind of experimentation. I’m not a big biodynamic guy, but I love the concept of biodynamic because of the philosophical idea of thinking of the farm, farmer, plants and animals as an all-entwined organism. That kind of rethinking will transform agriculture.
Wendell Berry, a remarkable farm philosopher, notes that for us to return to the way farming was done in the past, we would need 50 million new farmers. And that will not happen in a traditional “buying the farm” way. But if we look closely we are probably adding a million new “farmers” a month with all of the new urban farmers – the kind who person who cares about food and community. They are redefining the term ‘farmer’. If the trend continues to grow, perhaps we will get our 50 million farmers we need to return to a healthy, fair, community centered food system.
Q: There was a recent study asserting that organically grown foods are no healthier than their traditional counterparts. What’s your take on it?
A: It’s an interesting concept, because there are a lot of different assumptions. What’s the definition of “healthier”? Are we talking healthier for the individual taking a bite? A large definition of health has to do with the community and the planet. If we’re talking about the nutrient value of food, most of the time they’re going to be equivalent. but bioequivalency is not my definition of healthier, nor my real motivator to encourage organic vs. conventionals. A healthier community, a healthier plant. Those are a bigger definition and that is where organic has a major edge over conventional.
Q: During Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Portland, he ranted that diners miss out on the true idea of cooking and eating when they start to focus on how the food is produced and grown. With your involvement in the restaurant industry, do you feel it’s the responsibility of the food service industry (and folks like Bourdain who are more in the public eye) to increase awareness of the benefits of organics?
A: I think Bourdain is certainly a character – that’s what he cultivates, characterness, and I enjoy, immensely what he has written and the shows he has made. I would have to acknowledge, he’s not wrong if your focus is only cooking. Thinking about the source of your food and how it was grown, diverts your attention away from the chefs responsibility relative to flavor and preparation. I also think that Anthony is reflecting on the past and his comment provides a viewpoint that is traditional and historical, it does not reflect the future.
Most farmers have never eaten at The French Laundry – they don’t have a clue about high-end restaurants. Therefore, the restaurateurs are the thought-leaders for many people regarding food and the chefs have the responsibility to understand what they create within the wider community. They need to have an idea of the wider needs of the community, and support the community and the adventure of food.
Many many chefs in the United States and the world are realizing their role as leaders and are making a big difference in our food systems.
A great idea is for restaurateurs and chefs to bring recognition to the farmers they receive their product from, rather that just offering a note on their menu that their produce is sustainably grown, when possible. Something like “Our produce was supplied by these farmers…” It doesn’t cost more, but it celebrates, in a very real and appreciated way, the hard working women and men who supply the food.
Q: Are you encouraged to see the growth of more organic farming across the country? What suggestions do you have for new organic farmers?
A: Yes, I am encouraged. What I am encouraged by is the fact that people are focusing back on creating their own food systems, taking charge.
In the 50s, 60s, the medical community said, “Take this and it’s good for you.” Now, people are much more involved with their personal health, they only take meds they want and understand, they have taken back the responsibility for their health. The same is happening with our food systems, we are taking more responsibility for it and our health.
We used to just eat whatever was in the grocery store. The next level is that now we’re thinking more about the grocery store. People are taking that evolution of responsibility for their food and are now turning to their own backyards or their neighborhood farms and developing their own food systems. It’s not necessarily always certified organic farms that they are turning to, but I really like that there’s a trend of increased involvement in what’s produced and what we put into our mouths. That will evolve into people who purchase their own farmland, or create their own backyard planter and evolve it to be more organic and sustainable, over time.
What I would say to people thinking about it – follow your gastronomic bliss! Most people are doing it because they want to nurture themselves and their friends. It just feels right and they enjoy it. Keep on enjoying yourself. It is right living for our time.
Q: What are your favorite items to harvest this time of year?
A: Right now, it’s the ultimate nectarine – the Gold Mine nectarine, which is very high in acid and sugar. When you bite into it, it’s a little bit like leaning up against your stereo speaker and turning it on full blast. Your taste buds just scream, I love this feeling! It is always such a great treat to get those gastronomic taste blasts. But – the Gold Mines – if you look at them sideways, they bruise, so they don’t travel far from the tree. They just aren’t available in any grocery store and seldom available in any farmers markets.
Next, I love the Red Haven peach. And then the figs come in and I love them too. Now and every summer is the summer of love.
Q: What’s your go-to restaurant for a great meal?
A: (laugh) It’s a bit in the ‘duh’ category. For me, it is The French Laundry. The last time we ate there we had Hamachi tuna under a puree of cucumber, with Korean mint blossoms. Those are the kind of memories of culinary imagination and taste that stay with you.
Also, I love Rotisario and their Roli Roti chicken at the Oxbow Market in Napa Valley. My real go-to restaurant is any restaurant where the chef cooks with a passion for the ingredients and the enjoyment of food. Where the meal reflects their excitement, and their desire to connect with the diner.
Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender