Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting a group of talented chefs while teaching a fermentation workshop in Mexico. Although I have been privileged to work with chefs before, since several notable restaurants in Seattle have my fermenting vessels, the experience in Yucatán has solidified my admiration for chefs as professional artists who practice and embody an ecocentric moral lifestyle.
The story of how I came to meet Chef Eugenio, Chef Charly, Chef Luis, Chef Patricia, Chef Selene, and Chef Mauricio is in itself an InFerment adventure. Three years ago, I received an order for a fermenting vessel from Alex Ferri, in Playa Del Carmen on the Yucatán peninsula. The order led to an interesting email correspondence with Alex, in which he wrote about his and his family’s vegan choices. His next order included a fermenting vessel, bottles and bowls, but this time the vessel was damaged during the voyage, likely as a result of the box being opened at the border. I immediately sent Alex a new big size vessel, which he happily received unscathed.
Fast forward to last summer, June 2019, when I was looking for a place to scuba-dive in warm waters with my sons. I remembered where Alex lived, and so I emailed him for some advice on where to go. Alex responded the next day – with a generous offer. I didn’t know until then that Alex manages the Sandos resort chain. In grateful response, I offered in return a fermentation workshop for his chefs. And so, in July we made the journey to explore the ancient cities, cenotes, coast and cuisine of Yucatán.
Our experience in Yucatán – both above and under water – was of course amazing, but I’ll focus here on my experience with the wonderful group of artists I met in the workshop. I was delighted to learn that, in addition to their culinary talent, each one of them is profoundly concerned and engaged with the environmental challenges that are facing our communities around the world. Chef Charly has a vegan taco restaurant on the boulevard in Tulum. Chef Mauricio is the vegan cuisine cook of the new Sandos resort. Chef Eugenio is a leader in the Mexican culinary world and a wizard of mindful gastronomy. Our host Alex, his wife Issa, and their daughters have been vegan for several years.
Chef Eugenio and I decided to ferment local vegetables with local ingredients, supplementing with produce grown in central Mexico, necessary since the tourism industry has eliminated much of the agriculture in Yucatán. In the workshop, I began by sharing the history of food preservation, and the immense impact of probiotics in fermented foods. It wasn’t long before we jumped right into the chopping. At certain moments the combined artistry and expertise were breathtaking. The chefs’ hands danced rather than worked, and yet at a startling speed the vegetables were cut and arranged in beautiful shapes and color combinations.
Simultaneously, culinary ideas were flying as fast as the vegetables. I still get a strong feeling of joy as I remember the energetic creativity blended with wisdom and knowledge. The chefs paid careful attention to detail and documented each of the experiments. Their practical mindfulness made it possible for us to follow up for weeks on social media – coming to conclusions and creating ideas for improvements.
We are passing through an extraordinarily challenging time. So much has changed even since I began to write this post. The global pandemic continues to change our lives in unexpected ways, and a great passionate cry for justice and equity is ringing out across the world. One effect of recent changes is that restaurants in our communities around the world are closed. Many of those who work in them are struggling to put food on their own tables. In times of trouble we look for new sources of inspiration and leadership, and we begin by looking close to us, in our communities. We often find inspiration and leadership among those who are most affected.
The influence of the chef as an innovator, leader, and ethical pioneer has been on the rise over the last two decades. There is good reason for this rise. People have come to understand that the chef stands at a nexus, in a liminal place where the resources of our planet are transformed into a personal meal that we take into our body. The chef is a creative genius of the experience of eating – an experience that is universal to all creatures. What we eat and what we don’t eat is central to questions of ethics and even human survival. Cooking and eating connect us – to our earth, to our ethnic heritages, to the change of seasons, and most importantly to each other. Each of us can remember long and significant discussions around the table as we eat and drink together. The chef is working at every level and location in society. There are chefs in your neighborhood, in restaurants and food carts. There are chefs in industry, creating products for mass consumption. There are chefs in the military, in schools, universities, retirement homes, country clubs, resorts – the White House.
Today’s chefs are making a difference by changing and rebuilding our relations with our landscape, animals, and microbiome. Chefs have been emphasizing the origins of the food that is displayed attractively on our tables. In recalling the sources of the ingredients, we can become conscious of the workers who bring them from planting to harvest to shelf. In remembering the people who contribute to our health, comfort and pleasure we are reminded of their humanity and right to equality. Please join me in engaging and supporting your local chefs.
As a ceramic artist, I enjoy the privilege of joining the effort to raise the consciousness of our right place in the world. With each functional ceramic art piece that is displayed on your table with fresh vegetables, or a complicated culinary recipe, comes thousands of years of culture – connecting you and the food to its origin in nature and to its producers.
I invite chefs from all places to work together with us in the studio to manifest the full sensory experience of taste ethics and beauty. (In my next post, I will discuss ethics and aesthetics in ceramics).
I wish you all peace and long moments of tasty, healthy eating with any company that is currently available to you, including the birds outside and your ceramic vessel.