When Jeremy Barlow says chefs can save the world, he means it literally.
He doesn't mean chefs can save us from boring mealtimes, or chefs can save our bacon when it comes to stylish entertaining, or even that chefs can make sure we know how to put that bacon (preferably the locally cured artisan kind) atop a nice frisee salad.
No, Barlow, the chef-owner of Tayst restaurant and Sloco sandwich shop, believes chefs have the power to reduce man-made devastation of the earth. He believes they have the power to help Americans live longer. They can even help steer our kids onto a healthier path.
Barlow has put his hopes and sense of urgency into a book called Chefs Can Save the World. Venerable food writer John Egerton calls it "a manifesto of social reform that arises out of the kitchen and points us toward a fresher, healthier, more equitable food system for everyone."
Barlow, who studied philosophy at Vanderbilt before earning his chef degree from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, says he didn't originally intend to write a dissection of the American food system or a call to action. "It started out almost as a how-to guide for green restaurants," he says.
That process started several years ago when Barlow decided to make Tayst Nashville's first certified green restaurant. It was a bit like inventing the wheel (a fancy wheel of artisan cheese?) because eco-friendly restaurant supplies weren't widely available.
Barlow was already buying local ingredients, a strongly green practice, but he faced many other dilemmas.
For example: Diners want candles on the table. Candles are usually made from petroleum — not green. So where does a guy have to go to get an affordable supply of beeswax votive candles? The quest for a better candle and a greener lightbulb each earn a chapter in the book.
A nuts-and-bolts "greening of a restaurant" narrative is still the backbone of the book. But somewhere over the past few years, between all the sustainability research he had to do for the restaurant and becoming a dad, Barlow says he became focused on the big picture of the planet's health and future. And as most people who follow environmental news know, the problems are dire.
Barlow says his book isn't meant to be a primer on the environment or the dysfunctions of our food system. "My purpose is not to explain it all. It's been done in other books much better than I could do it," he says. (His book includes a bibliography and extensive footnotes.) "I just realized if we could get everybody to green our restaurants, we'd make a huge dent."
That sounds awfully optimistic, but Barlow cites interesting figures. Americans spent $1.2 trillion on food in 2010, and ate half their meals outside the home. So who controls that half of their food budget? A person in a white coat.
"If we get even 30 percent of chefs in the country to start buying only sustainable products, we'll affect the profit margin on these food production companies, we'll affect their dollars enough that they'll start catering to what we want," he says.
"The restaurant industry is the largest user of energy in the private sector, the largest producer of waste, and food waste is a huge greenhouse grass producer in dumps. If we change the food system, we automatically affect lots of other issues we're facing as a culture."
He lists various benefits: If Americans ate less processed food, and fresher, more balanced meals, it would reduce diet-related killers like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Fewer kids would be obese.
If people were healthier, economic productivity would go up. And if Americans ate more local food, we wouldn't have to import so much food from other countries, helping ensure our national security.
Almost by accident, Barlow became a devoted food activist. He works on improving school lunches, and he belongs to a number of groups including the Nashville Food Policy Council. He decided to self-publish his book, which is available at Tayst, Sloco and Parnassus Books (and is available for download at Amazon and the Barnes and Noble site).
As he says in the book, "The more time and energy I invested in this work, the more I realized that though I have started walking, I needed to be talking."