Friday, November 10, 2006

Friday Food Politics: Are Chefs More Likely to be Libertarians?

Note: I wrote the following last May for a now-stalled blogging project. I thought I'd repost it here as part of my Friday Food Politics series.

In 2004 California passed a law banning the production and sale of foie gras by 2012.

"I hope I'm retired by 2012," said Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Per Se in Manhattan, who believes the government should not tell people what to eat. "If force-feeding a duck is cruel, then packing chickens in a cage is cruel, and then the veal and the beef. We are all going to be vegetarians soon if they have their way. We should probably start converting now."

Mr. Keller might have been joking, but animal activists are not. Their opposition to the force-feeding of ducks and geese is just the beginning of a campaign against what they consider inhumane farm practices.
Charlie Trotter, who stopped serving foie gras in his eponymous restaurant five years ago because he did not like what he had seen on several foie gras farms, said he is not an animal rights activist but is opposed to interference from the government.

"When I took foie gras off the menu I was not trying to make a political statement," he said. "I am certainly not gleeful about this. I am very much a libertarian." And he added: "I don't think government should tell people not to smoke in restaurants."
From Wednesday's New York Times.

I can think of two reasons why chefs are more likely to be libertarians:

1. Chefs, and in particular the best ones like Trotter and Keller, are basically in the hedonism business. With many on the right and the left calling for greater regulation of personal choice, a chef might feel that his livelihood is threatened and identify with those that defend personal freedom. Libertarians are on the forefront of that battle.

2. Chefs and restaurateurs must deal with government regulations that are often ineffective and arbitrarily enforced. See for example, this article on New York City's crackdown on sous-vide, a technique where food is cooked very slowly under vacuum to create incredibly tender and flavorful results. The chef's think they're doing it safely, but since the local authority has no specific rules for the procedure, chefs like David Chang have had to destroy thousands of dollars worth of food at the order of the city inspectors. (David Chang is a friend of my cousin's, and I've eaten at his restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in New York City. It's really damn good.)

Does the best cuisine develop in areas with the least regulation? A large grant to do some field research to answer that question would be nice.

Update: The blog (Marginal Revolution) and blogger (Tyler Cowen) I seem to reference more than any other has had two posts that go some way towards answering my last question. See here for reasons why lax regulations help the barbecue in Lockhart, Texas be arguably the best in the country. See here for the effects that labor market regulations and taxes are having on French cuisine.

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