How A 'Final Table' Chef Took on the World's Broken Food System
“Bite by bite we’re eating the planet.”
Colombian culinary artist Charles Michel hates competition. He much prefers cooking and preparing meals in a collaborative spirit, working with people to find new ways to serve food.
But when Netflix called and invited him to compete in the series The Final Table, he realized it was a rare opportunity to spread a positive message about the problems facing the global food system and the many ways it can be made more sustainable.
“Today’s food system is one of the greatest ethical dilemmas in the history of humans,” he told Global Citizen.
“It’s OK to eat beef,” he added, as an example. “But what is not OK is the way we get beef on the plate. For centuries we had this ethical relationship with beef — they would provide dung for fertilizer so we could grow vegetables and it was a virtuous cycle. But now we’re in this dark cycle of unconsciousness, literally bite by bite eating the planet and destroying its resources because of a broken food system.”
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Michel eventually agreed to compete in the series with his friend Rodrigo Pacheco, the founder of the food and ecotourism venture Boca Valdivia, and the pair became a fan favorite, beloved for their generous rapport and insightful reflections on sustainability.
From the very first episode onward, the team wasted no time educating the audience. In the opening challenge, the chefs were asked to prepare a meal inspired by Mexico, and Michel and Pacheco featured crickets at the center of their dish. They brushed the insects with gold, a flourish of grandeur that upended the notion that insects are gross pests, not worthy of being on a plate.
“The first thing that we get taught from an early age is that insects are dirty and that’s really ingrained in our psyches,” Michel said. “When it comes to food makers, the best chefs to start-ups, we have a massive responsibility to change what we put on our plates.”
Charles Michel (left) and Rodrigo Pacheco (right). Adam Rose/Netflix
Insects, as it turns out, are an environmentally sustainable source of protein. As health and environmental organizations call on countries to produce less red meat, insect farms are growing as a source of food for both animals and humans.
Overcoming people’s aversion to eating bugs could be a challenge, Michel said, but he added that advocacy groups are promoting insects in the wrong way. Instead of hyping the environmental and health benefits of insects, chefs should highlight their delicious potential.
“The results of [our] research show that telling people that it was healthy for you, good for environment, telling people of nutritional properties, made it seem even less palatable,” he said. “What worked and made it be rated as having a better flavor was telling people that other people were eating it.”
“We need influencers, someone like Kanye or Oprah, to eat insects and say it’s cool,” he added.
Michel also said that the shame-based attempts taken by animal rights organizations to change how people eat can be counterproductive, and advocacy groups should instead focus on gradually shifting consumption habits by providing tasty alternatives.
“A lot of behavioral research shows that if you blame people, they will eat it anyways, but if you surprise them with something beautiful, they’ll change,” he said.
In another episode of The Final Table, Michel incorporates “forgotten vegetables” — the leaves, stems, and other obscure parts of produce that often get discarded — into a dish to highlight food waste.
When he and Pacheco were invited to craft a dish with pumpkin, they served it in several ways to showcase its versatility and how parts that would normally get thrown away can be used in delicious combinations.
Repost from Rodrigo • « Creating under pressure with Charles, an extraordinary experience, a legitimate competition with oneself, surrounded with a multitude of talent and ingenuity from different parts of the world. A celebration of good food that allows us to express our worldview and the nature that surrounds us. An opportunity to share a message of sustainability, respect for humans, for life, and for the profession. » • « Creando bajo presión junto a Charles, extraordinaria experiencia, una legítima competencia con uno mismo, rodeado de mucho talento e ingenio culinario proveniente de diferentes partes del mundo, una celebración a la buena mesa que nos permite expresar nuestra visión acerca del mundo y de la naturaleza que nos rodea,una oportunidad de transmitir un mensaje de sotenibilidad, respeto por el ser humano, por la vida y por la profesión. » • @bocavaldivia @tanusas.hotel @tanusas.villas @fundacionamor7.8 @dontwatchhungry @grant_achatz @charlesxmichel #bocavaldivia #pushtheboundaries #thefinaltable #sustainable #cosmovision #creatividad #consciencia #giveback #calabaza #ancestral #thefinaltable
Globally, one-third of all food that’s produced gets wasted. Recovering this food could mitigate world hunger and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Michel thinks ending food waste and hunger go hand-in-hand, and both require a multifaceted approach. For one, countries can invest in regenerative forms of agriculture that promote the health of soil, forests, and sources of water to produce more and better quality food.
Subsidies that currently go to meat production and monoculture farming could instead be directed to more sustainable forms of food production. Factory farming should be abolished, Michel believes, because of its ethical, environmental, and health liabilities. Finally, food distribution networks can be better managed to prevent waste, and supermarkets can be reoriented to support healthy eating.
In a later episode of the series, Michel drew attention to the problem of overfishing by highlighting the plight of tuna, one of the world’s most overcaught fish in the world. Wild tuna populations have reached critical lows in recent years. Along with warming and acidifying waters, and various forms of pollution, overfishing poses an existential threat to the world’s marine animals.
Michel never made it to the final round of the competition, but if he had, he said he would have made a dish centered on chlorella algae.
“[Algae] basically absorbs carbon and turns it into a delicious flavor of the ocean,” he said, adding that the plant is also highly nutritious. By featuring it in the final episode, Michel hoped to spark investment in algae farms, making the food both more popular and available.
When people buy algae, he explained, they’re helping to change the global food system in a small way. Collectively, these kinds of choices can transform how food is produced and sold around the world.
“We have to realize that every time we spend a dollar on a food, we’re voting for a particular organization of the food system and every dollar is a vote,” he said. “We’re actually voting for climate change or against it, and there are a lot of options today such as regenerative agriculture, if we vote for it we can have systems that are actually absorbing carbon and saving the planet.”
The problems facing the global food system are formidable, and it often seems like the planet is barreling toward desolation. But when Michel sees the emerging generation embrace climate action, sustainable consumption, and ethical practices, he realizes the future is in good hands.
“When I see people like Greta Thunberg speaking out and getting attention, I think the generation that’s coming is the solution,” he said.
“After us, there’s this cohort of incredible humans that are born in the age of the internet, and also of species disappearing and climate change,” he added. “They’re climate change kids — they’re going to be the ones to make a difference.”
We should talk more often about ethics. • The word ethics comes from Greek (hē) ēthikē (tekhnē): ‘(the science of) morals’. • Ethics is how we define what is right from what is wrong. Today, the set of “laws” that define what is morally correct encompasses human rights at the core - but fails to acknowledge the whole of life on our planet, and the symbiotic interconnectedness of everything. From a biological and evolutionary standpoint, why would an animal (us) have more rights than any other life form? • Many are the animal species that humans - through our lack of mindfulness - are threatening today. Often without knowledge. Scientists say the sixth mass extinction event of the history of earth is well under way (google it). While this is largely due to climate change, a significant part is due to humans’ food habits. From the Ocean, think Tuna, wild Salmon, even Whales. Think about Sturgeon (that give us Caviar) whose wild population is critically endangered... Tuna is such an important fish in the ocean’s ecosystem, that I have personally stopped eating it years ago (both fresh, and canned). From a “nature’s rights” perspective, it is highly unethical to consume the species mentioned above... but they’re so delicious, right? Deliciousness for deliciousness sake can be highly unethical. I feel even that ethically sourced ingredients add meaningful to delicious. • Thankfully, a whole generation of cooks are awakening to this, and conservation can also be synonym with deliciousness. But it is up to you, all of us, to awaken and be very mindful of the choices we make at the supermarket, and the restaurant. • Living an ethical life is, in theory, living a good life for you, while respecting everything and everyone that surrounds you. #foodethics #compassion • (Continues in comments ⬇️)