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July 3, 2022

While Humm was claiming to be making this change out of concern for the environment, the allegations of food waste at his restaurant make that claim dubious at best since food waste is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions in the United States than airline travel. More than a third of all food grown in the U.S. ends up in the garbage—apparently that can happen even in the most-lauded of kitchens.

I’ve learned to be skeptical of the ways in which a vegan or plant-based approach can be used as a way to gain attention and to green-wash labor practices. Vegan companies like No Evil Foods and the vegetarian Amy’s Kitchen have both been in the news in the last year for union busting and unfair labor practices, respectively. “Plant-based food” just means there won’t be any meat on the plate. There are no requirements beyond that for sourcing of ingredients or paying staff—though they tend to be assumed, wrapped up in the warm feeling of the phrase’s connotations and pro-planet vibes.

There’s ego inherent to the pursuit of stars and lists at this level of dining. Both Humm and Guidara have characterized it as a performance on par with a Broadway show, more so than a meal one eats for sustenance, which allows labor conditions to be obscured because everyone is believed to be working toward some kind of higher purpose: maintaining three Michelin stars or James Beard Foundation awards. Yet Covid-19 revealed that every worker is expendable, and line cooks ranked as the most at-risk job. If there is a lot of danger, long hours, and low wages, serving expensive food that you couldn’t afford to eat yourself no longer takes on an air of esteem; it’s just a lot of hard work for the sake of someone else’s lifestyle.

Fine dining, at that Broadway-esque level that this restaurant once reached so successfully, is an exciting affair and does have an impact on how other people want to cook. It might be more exciting when diners can be assured that the people doing the chopping, plating, and sautéeing are making enough money to thrive in an expensive city. A complete revamping of the approach to labor and more respect for the established history of vegetable-focused fine dining could bring the restaurant back to its former glory, though there’s the chance that the world, so mired in big problems, won’t care.

When the duck left the menu at Eleven Madison Park the prestige slipped away, but when Humm talks about the impact of agriculture and food on the environment, he’s telling the truth. That truth just has to come with more than smoke and mirrors and Lemon Pledge–scented beets. Perhaps it needs to come with a bit of humility too.

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