Arthur Potts Dawson: "Vegetables need to become a bigger part of your diet."

[[{"type":"media", "view_mode":"media_large", "fid":"57", "attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-medium wp-image-252", "typeof":"foaf:Image", "style":"", "width":"225", "height":"300", "title":"2012-09-09 11.04.47", "alt":""}}]]Part II of a discussion with chef Arthur Potts Dawson on his recently-released cookbook, Eat Your Vegetables, held during Dawson’s book signing and cooking demo at the New Amsterdam Market. In Part I, Dawson shared the story of learning to love food and appreciate the creative aspects of cooking. In Part II, Dawson speaks to his interest in sustainable, ethical food and the importance of fresh vegetables in modern diets.  By Rachel Signer

RS: Are you still working with restaurants?

Dawson: A lot of people want to work with me for a lot of different reasons . . . At some point, I realized that I need to do this holistically. I needed to look at from the soil back to the soil again. A lot of chefs think that they get on the phone, the food arrives, and then all you care about is what goes on after that. I started to piece and sew together that food is intrinsically linked to the planet and the body.

What was your first experience with that philosophy?

I was running restaurants—River Café, Soho House Group. I came to SoHo House New York. I was running restaurants for other people. And they always wanted to dictate the agenda that I would work with. And I was trying to impart this very localized system of food—but they didn’t think it had value, they didn’t think it paid. So the first opportunity I got to do my own place, I built the ecology and the idea of holistic food into the kitchen. That’s what I wanted to do. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought; I knew the food would be good, the service would be good.

But this happened to coincide with the Stern Report that was published in 2006 by Nicholas Stern. It was about the importance of a green agenda. Up until that point, people hadn’t been paying any attention to it. The British press got ahold of this thing and said, “wow, this is an important statement—but no one’s delivering it in Britain.” And it just happened that I had just started to do it. So as “green” went from zero to hero overnight, I went from zero to hero overnight. It was like, “oh there’s this sustainable chef and he’s very green,” so then I won all these awards, and I got a book deal. My first book told the story of how I went about creating a sustainable food outlet. It was a narrative with recipes—but no pictures. And the issue with that is that people want pictures—they want food porn. But for me, there’s so many cookbooks, who wants another cookbook? So I thought, okay, if I get an opportunity to do another book, I will cook all the food myself, that dish will be photographed, and then I’ll write the recipe—so that the book directly correlated with the pictures in the book.

It’s an actual documentation of a creative process.

Precisely. I wasn’t held back by “oh, you’ve gotta stick to this, because that’s what’s in the book.” I actually said, “hey, I’ve got 320 ideas, let’s get cooking, and we’ll start taking pictures.”

How long in all did it take?

Eight months—three different phases—inspiration, creative, delivery. We did a four-week photo shoot. Prior to that I did about three months of conceptual research and thinking about how I’d do the book. The picture you see is the recipe, and the recipe will work for it. Every picture in here is a dish that I cooked. You won’t find Janey or Gordon or Hugh or any top-chefs doing that kind of stuff. It’s mostly done by their ghost-writing food starters. And that’s just fucking bullshit.

[[{"type":"media", "view_mode":"media_large", "fid":"58", "attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-medium wp-image-255", "typeof":"foaf:Image", "style":"", "width":"300", "height":"282", "title":"2012-09-09 11.04.37", "alt":""}}]]The other thing that sets this book apart, other than the process by which you made it, is the emphasis on vegetables—and reducing our meat consumption.

Historically, Britain is famous for being a meat-eating country. One of the main reasons for that is that prior to the industrial revolution—moving meat around quickly—the way you got meat to market was by walking it there. Which meant that you could eat beef, you could eat beef and lamb and duck and chicken—well, maybe not much chicken but there were definitely geese and ducks. And you could fatten them up on the outskirts of the city and you then consumed the meat and it wouldn’t go rancid. It was of a very high quality, well-flavored, good for you. Moving a potato from Lincolnshire to London—one part of the country to another—was practically impossible. Now we have forms of innovation that make it much easier to have agriculture and a food industry in England. I talk about this in a Do Lecture called "The New Agricultural Revolution."

So the idea about eating less meat is that vegetables have become a part and parcel of our modern diet. Our diets have improved a million fold. But one of the major problems with our diet is cheap, processed meat. And cheap, processed fish. I would suggest that most people have meat in their diet once a day. People tend to feel ripped-off if they haven’t had any meat. If you’re able to afford meat every day—good meat, organic, free-range meat—then fine. But it’s having a fairly large impact on the planet, and I don’t think your body needs to consume that much meat. Vegetables need to become a bigger part of your diet. They have a lesser impact on the environment; they absorb carbon. Your body does better on vegetables. The book advocates a balanced diet—fish or meat once or twice a week. Also, this is my repertoire: I spent ten or twelve years on the vegetable section in restaurant—and that’s the powerhouse, the foundation, what you then base all the other food on. The veg section is the people who begin the plate. The veg, actually, is the main part of the meal. Our psychology is wrong. Meat’s the most expensive, protein-rich part of the meal, but there’s no point in just eating the protein because you need the vegetables and the minerals alongside it.

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