TV chef Raymond Blanc has kicked off a storm by praising McDonald’s and attacking the organic food movement. But with fast food improving in quality while the costs of organics stay sky-high, could he be onto something? asks Ed Power.With tongue perhaps ever so slightly in cheek that is one interpretation that may be applied to controversial remarks by celebrity chef Raymond Blanc, who has lashed out at organic food as ‘elitist’ and congratulated McDonald’s for investing in quality ingredients.
In proper TV chef fashion, Blanc, owner of a Michelin two-star restaurant in Oxfordshire in the English Home Counties, merrily put the boot into the organic industry, suggesting free-range producers have placed themselves beyond the reach of the majority of the public by not paying attention to their cost base.
“It has shot itself in the foot by creating a movement that has become elitist by being so expensive,” said Blanc.
Conversely, he lavished praise on McDonald’s, a chain he previously disparaged as standing against everything he believed in. “I was amazed,” he told a UK newspaper. “All their eggs are free range; all their pork is free range; all their beef is free range.
“[They show that] the fast-food business could change for the better. They’re supporting thousands of British farms, and saving energy and waste by doing so. I was as excited as if you had told me that there were 20 new Michelin three-star restaurants in London or Manchester.”
You might expect foodies - of which there is no lack in Ireland – to grumble at his observations. Actually, many seem sympathetic. Yes, we’d all love to eat organic, they say. But, with non-factory farmed meats and artisan veg costing multiples of the no-frills variety, it is hardly a surprise that a huge number of us don’t. It isn’t the principle – it’s the cold, hard cash.
“I don’t think it is fair to refer to the organic food movement as elitist. Nonetheless, I do agree that organic food is prohibitively expensive,” says Sheila Kiely, author of popular cookbook Gimme The Recipe. “As a mother of six, I would love to be buying and using all organic ingredients. Of course, it simply isn’t practical: it is impossible for an organic onion to compete with non-organic on price level in the supermarket, which is where I do most of my shopping.”
In his outburst, Blanc may have touched on the wider issue of how much we should expect to pay for food in the first place, says Ian Marconi, the chef behind Dublin’s Parlour Games pop-up restaurant. We have come to rely on cheap consumables, not understanding the true costs of low-price foodstuffs. This should worry us all.
“Without going into the organic movement as such, I do feel that as consumers we have lost touch with the cost of producing the food we eat on a multitude of levels. The price of feeding the growing number of mouths in the developed world is not being paid for by the consumer. We are offered, and therefore demand, lower and lower prices for our food. Someone or something is paying the price somewhere in the chain, whether that be in suffering for the battery reared animals, lower and lower prices for farmers from the multiples or the [compromised] purity of our food from growth hormones etc.
“I think what is implicit in organic food offerings is a return to smaller scale. That is, natural production methods which will obviously incur higher costs, yield less and be relatively expensive compared to what people expect to spend. However, if you went back 60 years, I expect an organic chicken for €15 would have been a great deal as most people could afford this luxury rarely, if at all.”
The key is finding a balance, he says. “It is about compromise. We can’t and or don’t want to spend all of our income on groceries if at all possible and, with unavoidable bills coming from all sides at the moment, the cost of eating organic everything is out of reach. I agree that the quality [of organics] is not always great and it can be by default elitist in that it’s not available everywhere at a price everyone can afford. I don’t think that’s a choice the organic movement has made. There are examples of great and bad value to be had in organic food as much as in non-organic.”
If Blanc erred, it was in lumping all organic producers together, says Bill Gunter of Slow Food Dublin. Sometimes higher prices are unavoidable. On the other hand, it can’t be denied that gouging does occasionally occur.
“Is organic food elitist because it’s more expensive? Or is it more expensive because it’s perceived as elitist?” asks Gunter. “The farmer down the road growing organic cabbages is in all likelihood just passing on costs; the company flogging organic muesli is probably cashing in on the organic label. It is apparent that Mr Blanc is a strong proponent of organic-growing principles and techniques. I do find it strange that the head chef of a restaurant with £40-£50 main courses would complain about elitism.”
Not everyone agrees. “The increase in the amount of small producers has been staggering in the past few years and the range of high-quality products available, especially in supermarkets,” says Dee Laffan, editor of Easy Food magazine. “The value has risen significantly. It is a very competitive market. I think there is enough variety in the products and prices to suit every budget. More people are cooking at home every evening and using these ingredients to create delicious home-cooked meals.”
In a few years, Blanc’s complaints may seem quaint suggests Juan Manteca, who blogs at Juan’s Food Journey. While organics may be (comparatively) costly now, the trend is going in one direction – towards lower prices.
“I can understand what Raymond Blanc said and agree that organic food is pricier that the non-organic alternative,” he says. “It is not a question of elitism or not. Rather it is a question of basic economic supply and demand laws: because the production is smaller, the prices are higher. It happens with any other product in the market.
“In the last 20-25 years prices have fallen as the appetite [for organics] grows. And they will continue dropping and dropping as, in my opinion, people are eating better and buying with greater responsibility. I hope this continues. Eventually the prices [for organic and non-organic] could be the same and the benefits, both for us and for the planet, would be enormous.”
As to Blanc’s assertion that McDonald’s – bete noir of gourmands globally - could serve as an example to other restaurants… well, who can take issue with its move towards sustainable dining? “I have no hesitation in munching into and enjoying a 100pc Irish beef burger,” says Sheila Kiely.
“I think he wanted to be provocative by exaggeration, so he named McDonald’s,” says Ian Marconi. “I am not saying that McDonald’s has unhealthy food, but I don’t think their food represents [Michelin-quality]. If that was the case, then Blanc could use the same ingredients and drop his prices 90pc. I’m sure he uses much better quality ingredients that McDonald’s, and that his dishes are more expensive as a result.”