Chefs’ New Goal: Looking Dinner in the Eye

ETHICS OF MEAT Chefs like Jamie Oliver and Tamara Murphy are more concerned with the way animals are raised.

Published: January 16, 2008

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’slicense, Mr. Oliver staged a “gala dinner,” in fact a kind of aviansnuff film, to awaken British consumers to the high costs of cheapchicken.

“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 thechicken, 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 aminimum 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 gotcredit simply for knowing the breed of the pigs or chickens theyserved. Pork from Berkshire pigs was the must-have meat status symbol,and chefs engaged in nose-to-tail competition to use the most parts ofthe 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 ifthey’re going to turn a pig into a plate of pork chops, they should beable to look it in the eye, taking responsibility for both thetreatment it receives in life and the manner of its death. “Thequestion is, how and why should we care about an animal when we aregoing 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 killingthem would not pose an ethical problem; a few believe in an unwritten“domestic contract” between humans and our domesticated species thatincludes killing. Others maintain that killing animals is inherentlyunethical because it cuts off their opportunities for “future goodexperiences,” according to Dr. Richard Haynes, the editor of theJournal 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,” saidCharlie McManus, the chef-owner of Primo Grill in Tacoma, Wash., whohas visited his meat supplier, Cheryl the Pig Lady, in the nearbyPuyallup River valley. “A lot of them don’t want to hear it, but that’sjust 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 happenmillions of a times a day” he said. “There was no need to make it anymore 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 culminationof a media campaign called Chicken Out. In a similar stunt, alsotelevised last week, Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall set up his ownminiature factory farm for chickens. He raised free-range chickens nextdoor, 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 standardegg industry procedure, in a chamber of carbon dioxide; stuffed birdsinto the crowded, filthy “battery” cages that house 95 percent of thecountry’s chickens, and showed a computer-altered baby picture ofhimself, grossly engorged to represent the rapid growth of a baby chickon 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 yourinsistence on cheap food. After the broadcast, as reported in theBritish press, supermarkets across the United Kingdom quickly sold outof 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 andwritten extensively about that country’s food culture. “This programwill have an effect because there is new momentum toward the idea thatwe should at least see how the food gets to us, and then we can make upour 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 simplythat you are preparing an ingredient for the table” she said. “No onethinks anything of skinning frogs and rabbits while they’re stillalive.”

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 theirslaughter. For most chefs, this level of intimacy with animals isunimaginable.

“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 porkbelly with braised greens and paprika-rubbed roasted chops. “I don’tname them,” said Ms. Murphy, who wrote a weekly blog in 2006,chronicling the short lives of some of the piglets earmarked for herrestaurant from Whistling Train Farm. “They are being raised for food,and there is a respectful distance I need to keep” she said. Ms. Murphyvisited the piglets weekly, starting the day after their birth, andaccompanied them to the slaughterhouse before serving them in a dinnerthat 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 trailerbecause 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” threepiglets last spring via a new subscription program at La Quercia, aproducer of cured meats in Norwalk, Iowa. He received a snapshot of oneof the pigs and gave them all names, Applesauce, BlackJack and Big Al.They were slaughtered in early December, and they are being graduallytransformed into guanciale, pancetta, lardo and finally prosciutto, tobe sold at Mr. Burke’s three restaurants as “our own” pork. (Othersubscribers to the program include Mario Batali,Michael Symon and Laurent Tourondel, but ultimately, La Quercia’sowner, Herb Eckhouse, said, it was not practical for each chef toreceive the actual parts from “his” pig. This year the meat is simplybeing 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 aworld of half-truths, like ‘natural,’ ‘family farmed,’ and ‘humanelyraised,’ 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 FivePoints, Cookshop and Provence in New York, who posts the names offarmers on the menus and walls of his restaurants. “It doesn’t doanything for the animal, and you can tell everything you need to knowby the meat, once you know what to look for.” adds:

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:

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  • A few NTY readers gave Follow-ups on this article.

    They are listed below.

    Thinking About Meat

    To the Editor:

    Re “Chefs’ New Goal: Looking Dinner in the Eye” (Jan. 16):

    Jamie Oliver’s sacrificial performance surely opened eyes to the intimacies of eating meat. The reality is, we depend on a world of slaughterers and butchers. The factory processors that box tens of thousands of carcasses a day have suffocated the small, independent houses that were typically the linchpins between nearby family farmers and chefs. These appropriately sized outfits tend to uphold humane ethics on the kill floor, honor animals’ lives and respect farmers’ efforts to raise animals responsibly, high standards that are all dramatically lowered with the productivity demands of mass production.

    By overlooking the dying art of civilized slaughter and custom butchering, we risk losing a piece of history, a viable livelihood and the proper conditions that produce the meats we crave. My hope is that Mr. Oliver’s splash will be more than a splash in the pan, and that it continues to inspire reverence and economic support for those who handle our foods in their final moments.

    Sarah Obraitis

    New York

    The writer is a partner in Heritage Foods USA.

    To the Editor:

    Thank goodness for the likes of the chefs Jamie Oliver, Dan Barber and David Burke. As a former waitress, I cannot count how many simpering customers complain about having to see bones in their meat or eyes on their fish — as if the skeletal remains of a once sentient being have no connection to the fillet on their plates. If you can not look a Mediterranean daurade in the eye, you have no right to eat it!

    No less aggravating are the dainty eaters leaving piles of sea scallops (overfished) or steak on their plates because they “don’t like leftovers.” With our environment in a state of peril, we must stop subtracting our conscience from the food chain. If we acknowledge the lives and deaths of the animals we eat, perhaps we will eat fewer animals to the benefit of our bodies, our souls, the animals and the environment we all inhabit. Mary Hammett

    New York

    To the Editor:

    On the same day that The Times gave front-page coverage to the F.D.A.’s approval of cloned chickens, cows and pigs for our tables, your section discusses the trend of chefs getting close to the animals they eventually slaughter. In either case, the animals are dying for our taste buds. Maybe it’s more honest to get to know the animal, but it changes the outcome not one bit.

    Wayne Johnson


    To the Editor:

    Are we to believe the chefs who have the courage to look the animal in the eye before killing it are more compassionate? Killing innocent life is killing is killing is killing. A plant-based diet is better for human health and spares the chef the agony of the betrayal of the animal she or he looks in the eye before killing it.

    Vegetarians and vegans have better physical health and mental health because our consciences are clear and free of guilt. That is something the chef can look right in our eyes and see.

    Kathryn Dalenberg

    Valley Head, Ala.
  • Thank you for contributing to the conversation. Open dialog is what will make this forum a unique home for our industry and members concerned with all aspects or our diverse culture.

    IMO - As feeders of the world - we have a responsibility to educate and be educated regarding that which we prepare and produce. good or bad...Knowledge is power!
  • I hear your point on activists, and don't like having opinions shoved down my throat either. However there is a lack of education in the world about the food supply and how it gets from pasture to package. Most people prefer that animals are treated humanely, period.
    Conventional farmers are under pressure to produce poultry as quickly and cheaply as possible - which means birds live short lives, in cramped conditions, without ever seeing natural daylight (light excites the birds and gets them rowdy). They commonly develop severe injuries and disabilities, associated with unnaturally fast weight gain and restricted movement. The Ag industry tries to control this by (as KlickKitchen mentions) adding antibiotics and growth hormones into the mix. And that all happens before they reach the slaughter process.

    You are correct on the cost of free range, organic, and all natural - there are many inefficiencies and more steps involved with these processes and so there are more and higher costs. As in any supply and demand model, however, the more educated people become about their food supply, the more demand there will be for these products. More demand means costs will come down as more farmers convert, and we are seeing this already .

    Bon Appetit!
  • I think that there is a market for people just like you who appreciate more natural foods. The fact that a natural food industry has popped up in the US and other countries is testament to that, and the fact that we're not a bunch of cold, caulous humans.

    I support any business person who sees a potential market, then fills it with a product, such as free range chickens. I just get nervous when I start hearing the "activists" trying to impose their sensibilities on the rest of the world. While they're trying to ease their own guilt by making others conform to their view of what society should be, they create a world that is so expensive to exist in, that it's not possible for people with less money.
  • agreed - I just like knowing my chickens got a little exercise before loosing their head..and i prefer my meat with out a huge dose of antibiotics or hormones.. I get enough of them from my doctor and wife :)
  • I think it's a ridiculous expectation to think that people should be willing to pay more for food so an animal gets treated better. I know I sound cold, but let's snap back to reality. Sure chicken is relatively cheap, but there are many people in the world, and even in the U.S. who can't afford chicken. Does raising a cow like our own child really make us more humane? Frankly, I think it's sadistic to think you should give an animal the same dignity you would a person, then kill it.

    I'm not against people learning how animals are raised, and slaughtered, but before we go running to the government for further regulations that raise the cost of meats, let's remember that MOST the people in the world still can't afford to eat these animals, and these animals ARE NOT more important than those people.
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