French Chef Now A Vegetarian
Animals in a horror world of our making
October 24, 2005
Give people the facts on factory farming and they can make their own choice, writes Paul Sheehan.
"But your own vegetarianism, Mrs Costello," says President Garrard, "it comes out of moral conviction, does it not?"
"No, I don't think so," she says. "It comes out of a desire to save my soul."
- from The Lives of Animals, by J.M. Coetzee
Australian food has become so good that we export chefs and ideas and a flurry of recent stories overseas has noted the phenomenon, which we have begun to take for granted. Take, for example, this passing comment from The New Yorker of September 5: "The new cooking, which has spread from America and Australia out into the world, is almost purely melodic: the unadorned perfect thing."
The New Yorker then describes the influence of new cooking on one of the great chefs of France, Alain Passard, whose Paris restaurant, L'Arpege, has had three Michelin stars since 1996. Five years ago, Passard had an epiphany: "For most of his career, though an infinitely inventive cook, he was famous for his roasts ... Then, five years ago, he startled his diners, and his staff, by announcing that he would no longer cook red meat in his restaurant, and that he might phase out animal protein entirely ... The menu he now prefers is made entirely of vegetables.
"'I no longer wanted to be in a daily relationship with the corpse of an animal. I had a moment when I took a roast out into the dining room, and the reality struck me ... And I could feel inside the weight and the sadness of the cuisine animal. And since then - gone! All the terrible nervousness and bad temper that are so much part of the burden of being a chef: that was gone with the old cooking ... Everyone in the kitchen commented on it ... a new lightness of step and spirit that entered my life."'
The cuisine vegetable of L'Arpege expresses itself in dishes such as tomato gazpacho with mustard ice-cream, consomme of cucumber with ravioli stuffed with lemongrass and a plate of summer root vegetables dusted with couscous. Dessert is not neglected: chocolate and avocado souffle, or blackcurrant sorbet made from fruit picked that morning from Passard's garden outside Paris.
Everything is organically grown, through a system of intensive small-plot rotation that preserves the soil. No pesticides, bien sur. Cultivation is even done by horse-drawn plough to prevent the soil from being torn up too deeply, as it is with tractors.
Passard chose the village of Fille-sur-Sarthe for his garden because it is not too far from Paris and on the route of the TGV express trains. "That means we can pick vegetables at seven in the morning and have them in the kitchen to start making lunch at 10.30, and on the diner's plate at noon ... They don't have to be refrigerated and they lose nothing, or nearly nothing," he told
The New Yorker.
It's not cheap, but it's superb. And it's moral. Gone is his daily dilemma - "Every day I was struggling to have a creative relationship with a corpse" - a dilemma that is non-existent to most of us every day.
It is a dilemma that for the past two years has consumed one of Australia's wealthiest men, Brian Sherman, whose daughter, Ondine, provoked him into exactly the same moment that transformed the life and art of Alain Passard.
Together, father and daughter have created Voiceless, dedicated to the humane treatment of the animals we consume, without the shrill religiosity associated with the animal rights movement. "Animal rights activism has tended to be unprofessional, underfunded and over-emotional," Ondine Sherman told me recently. "We want to bring this up to the sophistication of the environment movement."
Don't preach. Give people facts, and thus present them with moral choices. The first substantive report produced by Voiceless is an analysis of the pork industry in NSW. It explains why pigs are so rarely seen these days:
The industry is largely foreign-owned. Ownership is highly concentrated, with the number of pig producers declining by 94 per cent in the past 30 years across Australia. Only about 805 people are directly employed in pig farming in NSW. Productivity has increased by 130 per cent since 1971 because of the rise of factory farming, where pigs spend their entire lives behind closed doors.
Sow stalls are so small that pregnant pigs cannot turn around or take more than one step. All sows in stalls are clinically depressed and have high levels of urinary tract infections. Sows are re-impregnated repeatedly, give birth on concrete, and are unable to make a nest. Piglets, which take months to wean naturally and bond closely with their mothers, are removed at eight to 15 days. Abrupt weaning causes high rates of clinical disease and diarrhoea. Pig aggression increases as space decreases. This cruelty is institutionalised by NSW government regulation.
Voiceless is also monitoring the chicken industry, which replicates the scale of cruelty of the piggeries. Our society has created a reality chasm between the pigs and chickens of children's cartoon dreams and the real world, which for most of these animals is a horror of our making.
If you had bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning, you might want to think about how that food got onto your table.