Gourmet Vegan and the Cult of Food

Question: Is it possible to be a great chef and a vegan chef?

Mark Bittman: Yes, there is a great vegan chef.  I mean, there are a few at this point and yes, I think that it's -- actually, this is an interesting story, I met a vegan chef from Japan a couple of years ago.  Tiny, tiny woman, really interesting, and not a vegan in her personal life.  But she was a vegan chef.  She ran a small, maybe 12- or 20-seat, restaurant in Tokyo and everything was strictly vegan.  And when I found out that she wasn't a vegan, I said I don't get this.  I mean why would you choose to -- it's not a matter of principle for you because you eat meat, you eat fish, why would you choose to narrow what you serve your customer when you yourself eat from the broadest spectrum possible and she said it's like pen and ink.  There are people who choose to be artists in only pen and ink because they want to narrow the world in which they're looking at so as to more fully explore it and I want to narrow the world in which I'm cooking so I can understand it better and she was an amazing, amazing chef.  She made great, great stuff.

Question: What do you think is behind the cult popularity of food and cooking over the past decade?

Mark Bittman:  I'd be guessing to answer that question and it’s a confluence of a bunch of things.  I mean, first off, I guess, is that we like fads, I mean we like trends.  So here's one that hadn't been fully exploited.  Secondly, Food Television really has had a huge impact.  I mean, cooking and eating as a spectator sport, never before in history.  So that's had a huge impact. Third, I think, is the kind of internationalization of food people -- not only people traveling and seeing food from the rest of the world, but ingredients and types of cuisines and restaurants arriving here in unprecedented numbers.

So I think I guess the short answer is exposure but it still doesn’t explain walking into a party and having someone come up to you and say, "I'm a foodie," and there's something about this sort of trendiness, it's like saying, I'm a clothes person.  Well, yes, we all wear clothes; I'm a clothes person, too. 

The thing that makes me most upset about this big fad is that more people are not cooking and that -- I think it's fine to watch other people cook but then people say, "Well, I'm too busy to cook," and they're too busy to cook because they are watching people cook on television.  It doesn’t track for me.  I think it's really, really bad.

Why a meat-eating Japanese chef limits herself to vegan cooking, and how the foodie culture has spread.

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