Out and About: Altered food for thought or dining

Arms crossed over barreled chest, Georges Perrier looked exactly as one would expect of a master chef—distinguished with a shock of white hair amid his otherwise brunette mop and demanding with his set jaw line. Only one thing was missing—his toque.

The chef-owner of Le Bec-Fin, the toast of Philadelphia restaurants, had three words to tell us on a sunny afternoon at the Loews Hotel: “Leave it alone.”

Yikes, what had we gotten ourselves into?

What we got ourselves into was the Center for Bioethics’ April 10 conference, “Food for Thought: Cuisine in the Genetic Era,” which drew a crowd of 160, all passionate about the food in their supermarkets, kitchens and restaurants.

We came to hear what some of the nation’s premier chefs had to say about GMOs (What is that? we asked the person sitting next to us. She whispered back, “Genetically modified organisms.” Like modified corn and transgenic salmon. Oh, so that’s why Perrier is so peeved.)

Nora Pouillon, chef-owner of the nation’s only organically certified restaurant, Nora, was angry at what laboratories, like Monsanto, are doing to food and organic farmers.

All the splicing and cloning made her “feel like a guinea pig,” she said.

“We have made our food flavorless. We have made our food unhealthy. We have decimated species, made our water unsafe to drink, created dead zones in our oceans,” ranted Pouillon. “Why add another evil to so much evil?”

Local talent of White Dog Café fame Kevin von Klause, wearing a white-collared chef’s jacket, turned to her, smiled affectionately, as old friends would, and twanged, “You certainly don’t mince words, Nora. That’s what I love about you.”

But the loving ends there. Von Klause said as more farmers convert to biotechnology organic produce is becoming harder to come by. He and Pouillon compete over some of the same farmers in Lancaster County.

More than once von Klause has had a farmer say, “‘We had that [crop] but Nora just bought it.’” Von Klause turned to Pouillon and said, “All of it. Damn her.” The audience laughed at his situation. Pouillon shot him a smile, looking not at all apologetic.

Von Klause said he was suspicious of GMOs, about which he believed the public doesn’t know enough. Why would you eat something if you don’t know what it is? “If you haven’t tasted something before and someone stuck a spoon to your mouth, you want to recoil from it, sniff around it,” he said.

Then accusations of food elitism started circulating, first from audience member and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association Althea Zanecosky. How does the regular person have time to think about whether or not their food is genetically engineered, she asked. “I’m just trying to get people to wash their hands before they prepare their food.”

Another voice piped up from the crowd, complaining about having a difficult time just trying to buy milk that hasn’t already expired.

Bob Nelson, who teaches hotel and restaurant management at the University of Delaware and was at the conference because “my wife, the biologist, brought me out here,” said a majority of farmers favor biotechnology. The rest were just part of an elite group.

Peter Hoffman bristled at this notion. Chef-owner of New York’s Savoy restaurant, Hoffman said, “It is inaccurate to characterize [us as speaking] from an elitist view although it may be true that the price of eating at my restaurant is more expensive than (Taco Bell, interjected Pouillon). Cheap food should not be our highest value.”

But not everyone could speak with such finality. Looking a little overwhelmed and confused, the lanky owner of Philly’s Nuevo Latino restaurant ¡Pasión!, Guillermo Pernot, said. “I’m only 24 hours old when it comes to corn and biotechnology.” Same here, we thought to ourselves.

On the way out, we helped ourselves to refreshments provided by the conference. The chosen snack—a Dannon fruit-on-the bottom cup of blueberry yogurt—was satisfying, but we couldn’t help but wonder what GMO, if any, was lurking inside. Should we do the sniff test?

Originally published on April 25, 2002