A Cooking School That Can Change the World

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Rafa Rivas / AFP / Getty Images

Top chefs gather for the Basque Culinary Center, in San Sebastián, Spain, on July 26, 2010. From top left: Alex Atala, Michel Bras, Joxe Mari Aizega, Yukio Hattori, René Redzepi and Dan Barber. From bottom left: Massimo Bottura, Gastón Acurio, Ferran Adriá and Heston Blumenthal

It was a foodie's dream come true — nine of the world's most famous chefs in the same room. Together, they hold the secrets to some of fine dining's greatest mysteries: the recipe for the perfect ceviche, the ideal texture for an asparagus foam, the tastiest way to serve cod cheek. But when the group of top chefs — which included Spain's own Ferran Adrià, France's Michel Bras and Denmark's René Redzepi — gathered in San Sebastián on July 26 to plan the curriculum for a prestigious new culinary school, not one of them, it seemed, wanted to talk about how to make a béchamel.

Instead, the meeting of the advisory council for the Basque Culinary Center was more like a culinary G-8. Sitting around a table in the elegant salon of a mansion that was once the summer home of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, with interpreters translating their declarations into five languages, the chefs debated the finer points of public health, environmental degradation and world hunger. When the school opens, set for the fall of 2011, it will no doubt offer instruction in sauce preparation and chicken deboning. But if these chefs have their way, it will also require students in its exclusive four-year program to grapple with the world's most pressing food issues.

Headed by Adrià, owner of the renowned restaurant El Bulli, located in northeastern Spain, the all-star council's members are much more interested in shaping chefs into socially aware activists than in honing their knife skills — and they believe the new Basque Culinary Center is the perfect place to start. "We're talking about the role of the chef in the future," Dan Barber, the only North American chef on the council, told reporters at the meeting. "And in that sense, it's not the revolution inside the kitchen that matters the most."

The planning session represented a minor revolution of its own, at least in terms of a classic culinary education. The program, originally conceived by a separate board of directors comprised of many of the Basque Country's best chefs, will include coursework in food preparation, styles of restaurant service and business management, explained director Joxe Mari Aizega. But he emphasized that it was also designed to fill the gaps in a traditional curriculum. "This isn't a cooking school," he said. "It's an interdisciplinary school, with cooking at its heart."

The advisory council took him at his word. Redzepi, whose Copenhagen restaurant Noma was recently voted the world's best, argued that before students could fully appreciate the wonders of produce, they had to understand how to grow it. "They have to learn when things are in season, how plant biology works, the way how things grow influences whether it tastes good or bad," he said. Brazilian chef Alex Atala called for the inclusion of studies in anthropology, so that students could learn how cooking was used as a tool for social integration. Heston Blumenthal, of the innovative English restaurant the Fat Duck, suggested that the program bring in specialists to train the future chefs in sensory perception. (He has worked with scientists to enhance the experience of hospital meals for children and the elderly by augmenting the umami — the elusive "meaty" flavor found in mushrooms and Parmesan cheese — of foods to compensate for their blandness.)

Some of the star chefs said the culinary school should teach students to change the world from behind the stove. Yukio Hattori, founder of a Tokyo culinary school and a regular presence on the Japanese version of TV show Iron Chef, said the school had to face the problem of world hunger, which led Gastón Acurio — a celebrity in Peru not only for his sophisticated take on the national cuisine but also for his work to improve the living conditions of the country's peasants and artisans — to suggest that the Basque Culinary Center be the first to take a stand against genetically modified crops. Acurio also offered a spontaneous lesson by explaining how chefs in Peru had helped farmers living in conditions of "semi-slavery" abandon the production of coca, a source of cocaine, in favor of cocoa beans, which are used to make gourmet chocolate. "When chefs recognize that we can change the world, we convert cooking into a tool for justice," he said.

The fact that a group of chefs could see it as their responsibility to debate the big issues is testimony to the profound changes that the profession of cooking — and the way it's perceived — has recently undergone. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that a chef spent all his hours in the kitchen, concerned only with feeding his clients. But despite the differences in their restaurants and culinary styles, each of the men on the council shared a sense that the chef's obligations go beyond perfecting the mix of taste and texture. "This is the greatest change of the past decade," said Adrià. "Chefs have become involved in social issues."

Taking that sentiment a step further, Barber, who was recently appointed to President Obama's Council on Physical Fitness and Nutrition, urged his fellow council members to consider expanding their advisory role beyond the Basque Culinary Center. Taking the Council on Foreign Relations as a model, the chef of New York's Blue Hill restaurants suggested that by "launching a larger dialogue about the role of the chef in society," the chefs around the table could influence policymakers on questions of food distribution, the relationship between food and public health, and environmental sustainability.

As he walked to a celebratory dinner that night, Adriá was visibly excited about the culinary school's possibilities. "This is turning into something much more serious than I expected," he told TIME. "But it makes sense. These are all people who have changed the history of cuisine in their own countries. Get them together and it becomes clear: through cooking, you can make the world a better place."