LAST Friday, in front of 4 million television viewers and a studio audience, the chef Jamie Oliver killed a chicken. Having recently obtained a United Kingdom slaughterman’s license, Mr. Oliver staged a “gala dinner,” in fact a kind of avian snuff film, to awaken British consumers to the high costs of cheap chicken.
“A chicken is a living thing, an animal with a life cycle, and we shouldn’t expect it will cost less than a pint of beer in a pub,” he said Monday in an interview.
“It only costs a bit more to give a chicken a natural life and a reasonably pleasant death,” he told the champagne-sipping audience before he stunned the chicken, cut an artery inside its throat, and let it bleed to death, all in accordance with British standards for humane slaughter.
Mr. Oliver said that he wanted people to confront the reality that eating any kind of meat involves killing an animal, even if it is done with a minimum of pain.
How far will chefs go to display their empathy and respect for the animals they cook? All the way, it seems, to the barnyard and the slaughterhouse.
Leading chefs like Mr. Oliver, Dan Barber and David Burke seem to be wallowing in — and advertising — a new intimacy with the animals they cook. Not long ago, chefs got credit simply for knowing the breed of the pigs or chickens they served. Pork from Berkshire pigs was the must-have meat status symbol, and chefs engaged in nose-to-tail competition to use the most parts of the animal. Now, it seems, intimacy with the animals during their life — and preferably, their death — is required.
Many chefs believe absolutely that meat from happy, healthy animals tastes better. But it’s not all about what’s on the plate: they also believe that if they’re going to turn a pig into a plate of pork chops, they should be able to look it in the eye, taking responsibility for both the treatment it receives in life and the manner of its death. “The question is, how and why should we care about an animal when we are going to bloody eat it?” Mr. Oliver asked his audience.
Some agricultural ethicists believe that if animals could lead comfortable lives and die completely free of fear and pain, raising and killing them would not pose an ethical problem; a few believe in an unwritten “domestic contract” between humans and our domesticated species that includes killing. Others maintain that killing animals is inherently unethical because it cuts off their opportunities for “future good experiences,” according to Dr. Richard Haynes, the editor of the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.
Chefs feel they are in a prime spot to grapple with the issues. “It’s our responsibility and our privilege to educate our customers,” said Charlie McManus, the chef-owner of Primo Grill in Tacoma, Wash., who has visited his meat supplier, Cheryl the Pig Lady, in the nearby Puyallup River valley. “A lot of them don’t want to hear it, but that’s just sticking your head in the sand.”
Following the broadcast, Mr. Oliver was both praised and attacked by animal rights groups for the killing that took place on stage. “It’s nothing that doesn’t happen millions of a times a day” he said. “There was no need to make it any more dramatic than it is.”
Mr. Oliver and his compatriot Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a chef, farmer and butcher known for his intimacy with food sources, made last week’s broadcast the culmination of a media campaign called Chicken Out. In a similar stunt, also televised last week, Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall set up his own miniature factory farm for chickens. He raised free-range chickens next door, making comparisons as the chickens grew, were killed and eaten. Like Hillary Clinton, his eyes welled up on television last week — in his case, while killing unwanted birds in the factory unit.
In Mr. Oliver’s show, “Jamie’s Fowl Dinners,” he served up many shocking moments: he suffocated a clutch of male chicks according to standard egg industry procedure, in a chamber of carbon dioxide; stuffed birds into the crowded, filthy “battery” cages that house 95 percent of the country’s chickens, and showed a computer-altered baby picture of himself, grossly engorged to represent the rapid growth of a baby chick on a factory farm.
But the most shocking of all may be his revelation that price wars have squeezed the profit margin of the modern poultry farmer to about 6 cents a bird. Mr. Oliver’s message to supermarket shoppers is clear: the only reason for the miserable lives lived by most chickens is your insistence on cheap food. After the broadcast, as reported in the British press, supermarkets across the United Kingdom quickly sold out of free-range eggs and chickens.
“People in the U.K. really do care about animals, but we are also used to an incredibly low food cost,” said Fuchsia Dunlop, a British writer who has lived in China and written extensively about that country’s food culture. “This program will have an effect because there is new momentum toward the idea that we should at least see how the food gets to us, and then we can make up our own minds.”
Ms. Dunlop said that intimacy with live animals and killing is taken for granted in Chinese kitchens and food markets. “There isn’t a sense there that you’re killing an animal, it’s simply that you are preparing an ingredient for the table” she said. “No one thinks anything of skinning frogs and rabbits while they’re still alive.”
A very few American chefs, including John Besh of August in New Orleans and Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York, have managed to raise animals for their own tables and oversee their slaughter. For most chefs, this level of intimacy with animals is unimaginable.
“For years, all I saw in kitchens was Cryovac steaks, chops, never anything to remind you that this was once an animal,” said Mr. McManus.
But more chefs are trying to bridge that gap. Tamara Murphy, the chef at Brasa in Seattle, took delivery of 11 freshly killed piglets last Friday, destined for dishes of pork belly with braised greens and paprika-rubbed roasted chops. “I don’t name them,” said Ms. Murphy, who wrote a weekly blog in 2006, chronicling the short lives of some of the piglets earmarked for her restaurant from Whistling Train Farm. “They are being raised for food, and there is a respectful distance I need to keep” she said. Ms. Murphy visited the piglets weekly, starting the day after their birth, and accompanied them to the slaughterhouse before serving them in a dinner that was called a Celebration of the Life of a Pig.
“The hardest part of the slaughter was the betrayal,” she said. “The pigs get in the trailer because they trust you, they get out of the trailer because they trust you, they go into the pen because they trust you.”
The chef David Burke, already the proud owner of Prime 207L, a bull who lives and breeds at Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, “bought” three piglets last spring via a new subscription program at La Quercia, a producer of cured meats in Norwalk, Iowa. He received a snapshot of one of the pigs and gave them all names, Applesauce, BlackJack and Big Al. They were slaughtered in early December, and they are being gradually transformed into guanciale, pancetta, lardo and finally prosciutto, to be sold at Mr. Burke’s three restaurants as “our own” pork. (Other subscribers to the program include Mario Batali, Michael Symon and Laurent Tourondel, but ultimately, La Quercia’s owner, Herb Eckhouse, said, it was not practical for each chef to receive the actual parts from “his” pig. This year the meat is simply being evenly divided.)
“The chefs trust me and I trust the farmer, and those piglets had as good a life as any I’ve seen,” Mr. Eckhouse said. “For the most part, we in the meat industry live in a world of half-truths, like ‘natural,’ ‘family farmed,’ and ‘humanely raised,’ and the only thing we can really trust is what we see.”
Must we all now come face to face with the animals we cook? “I think it’s a pathetic fallacy,” said Marc Meyer, the chef and an owner of Five Points, Cookshop and Provence in New York, who posts the names of farmers on the menus and walls of his restaurants. “It doesn’t do anything for the animal, and you can tell everything you need to know by the meat, once you know what to look for.”
Would you support a more enthical treatment of livestock if it meant a significant increase in food cost? A tough balance, I would and currently do: