Chef Peter Berley: The Power of Food

by Bruce E. Boyers

It has become clear that if we’re to survive as a species—both from an environmental and a health point of view—we must grow our food sustainably and locally. It is a torch that Chef Peter Berley has been carrying for some 40 years, and he is now dedicated to bringing the beauty, nutrition and flavor of local, seasonal food to everyone—by putting people directly in touch with food sources and teaching them how to fully enjoy the bounty of the harvest.

Peter Berley is a working chef, cookbook author and culinary instructor, whose primary concerns are the development of local, sustainable food systems and the fate of home cooking in America. He is the former executive chef of the world-renowned Angelica Kitchen restaurant in New York City and the current chef at The Culinary Loft, also in the city. He teaches classes at The Institute of Culinary Education and the Natural Gourmet Institute, and can also be seen in vegetarian segments of the Conscious Cooking series for FoodNetwork.com.

Peter’s books include The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, winner of two prestigious awards; Fresh Food Fast, which was placed among the top 25 cookbooks of 2005; and The Flexitarian Table: Inspired, Flexible Meals for Vegetarians, Meat Lovers, and Everyone in Between.

He has also been a contributing writer to Edible BrooklynFood & WineBon AppétitEvery Day with Rachel RayNatural HealthCooking Light and Fine Cooking magazines.

An Early Sustainable Introduction

Everyone who has become a proponent of locally and sustainably grown food usually has an interesting story of how they came to be that way. Peter is no different.

“In 1971 I met Michio Kushi, a philosopher and businessman,” Peter told Calmful Living. “Kushi was a student of George Ohsawa from Japan and came over to the United States at the behest of Ohsawa. Ohsawa had a school in Japan called Maison Ignoramus, which basically taught the philosophy that food can be a gateway to peace—if people understand that eating a locally grown, seasonal grain-based diet will help promote both health and economic security for people.

“Ohsawa coined the term macrobiotic, which is from Greek, meaning ‘large life.’ The macrobiotic movement was kind of a spiritual movement but based in physical health and the understanding that there is an order to nature, and that local, seasonal eating is the way to promote not only human health but human intellectual and spiritual development. I was a teenager when I got introduced to macrobiotics, and I became really fascinated with it. I also had some health issues and I was able to resolve them through changing my diet.

“After about eight years of following this philosophy, I started to get really interested in my own roots, which were from Eastern Europe—my grandparents came over to Brooklyn in about 1905 and settled here. Studying the history of food in my family led me away from the diet based on brown rice and seaweed—which is very much from Japan—to one of more whole grains, sourdough bread, dairy and meat products, and things like that. But I was always eager to know how these foods were produced and from what traditions they came. Of course, that went up against the wall of American agribusiness and corporate farming, which was all happening in the seventies and has continued to develop.

“I moved to Maine in 1986 and ran a restaurant in an area where we had some local farms. One of them was a really great one, Molly and Paul Birdsall’s Horsepower Farm, where I was able to get beans and lamb and all their produce for my restaurant. I became very involved with local eating. Scott and Helen Nearing were also a big influence with their back-to-the-land movement that they started in the sixties, which was in Maine.”

Flavor and Energy

Like a number of top chefs, including Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Rick Bayless and Suzanne Goin, Peter sees that locally and sustainably raised food wins hands down when it comes to flavor and nutrition.

“Everything relates to taste, whether it’s locally grown or grown far away,” Peter explained. “How it’s grown and produced will affect flavor. The shorter the distance between the harvest and your cooking of it in your kitchen, the more the flavor will be intact. Flavor is directly influenced by time, in good ways and bad ways. In good ways, it is mellowed by time through fermentation, but in negative ways it’s affected through decomposing. Decomposing comes from foods that are not controlled through fermentation but begin to decompose and rot. So the longer you have your produce away from your garden, the faster it’s going to decompose unless you either preserve it in some way, cook it right away or hold it in refrigeration. And the closer you are to the source of your food, the more energy will be available to you from the food.”

Peter has also observed that soil has much to do with the final product. “The soil is where everything begins,” he continued. “The quality of the soil depends on locale, weather conditions and geological foundations. It depends on everything connected to the terroirterroir being of the place that you’re growing something.* It’s the characteristics that come through the food. The nature, the quality and the personality of the food are an expression of terroir, and those can only come from the locale in which the produce is grown; and if you live within that locale you’re going to experience much more of that terroir than you would if you lived far away and the produce had to travel to you. So that’s the argument for eating locally.”


Of all of his endeavors, Peter especially enjoys teaching. “Oh, it’s been a ball,” he said. “There’s just more and more interest year by year. People are really very concerned with making personal connections to where their food comes from.”

In fact, Peter is so committed to teaching that he is now constructing his own school. “I’m building my own culinary studio where I’ll be teaching, and also filming classes and creating books. It’s going to be in Jamesport on the north fork of Long Island, which is a wonderful farming community. We have many fantastic vineyards and vegetable farms, and we’ve got pastured beef cattle and poultry being raised now. We’ve also got local scallop and oyster farms; there’s a whole movement toward people having their own oyster beds, which clean the water and prevent pollution from affecting us as much.

“I’ll be opening in mid-April, and I’m going to have a 1,000-square-foot four-season garden so that I can grow crops for my kitchen year-round.

“I want to develop an online community of people who can take classes, people who can’t come to me. The classes are going to be very small and will be focused on food crafting, do-it-yourself projects for people to take home, such as fermenting vegetables—sauerkraut, kimchi and that kind of thing; sourdough bread baking; pickling; canning, smoking and preserving meat; and curing ham. The cool thing is that I can run workshops where people can see the whole cycle. For example, artisanal bread baking requires at least nine to ten hours at a minimum to be able to culture your dough, ferment it and bake it. We’ll have that kind of time.

“I’ll also be teaching people how to cook with wood. That’s very important for me, as I feel that wood is the best fuel for cooking—it’s a much finer and more even energy.

“Really, the whole model of my cooking now is very local. It’s based on a garden, nearby farms, a cellar in which I can age and cure, a wood-fired source of heat that I can cook with, and a beautiful kitchen that is just full of light—it’s lit overhead with skylights and it has windows all around; the air smells nice and you can hear the birds, unlike an industrial setting in the city.”

To the Remainder of Society

Peter sees the societal switch to locally and sustainably grown food occurring at the personal level. “It’s my belief that the route is person to person, like what I’m doing now. I think it stems from the grassroots community. I don’t have as much faith in political movements, in sweeping economic philosophical changes. I see much more power in local community-based change. To me, that comes from your own dinner table, your own kitchen, what you put in your pot, and how you share that with your friends and your family. So my vision is sort of a change through personal gardening and personal cooking, and that’s why I’ve set up what I’ve set up on the north fork. It’s basically a place where people can come and see that I have a garden, that I have a cellar, that I have a kitchen, and that I’m sustaining myself through my relationship with my local environment. I’m hopeful that this will inspire others to do the same wherever they live, whether they are in a city or in the country.

“Other people are also now coming up with all sorts of ideas for this type of thing. I just returned from the TEDxManhattan conference. One person who was there started this whole window-box hydroponic system for growing plants in your apartment. Talk about local—I mean that’s right in your own apartment. I don’t see this as an answer in terms of growing enough food to really sustain yourself, but at least you are creating a connection to where you live and where some sustenance is coming from. Elsewhere, people are growing food on their roofs and even in their automobiles. There’s a guy who just did a movie called Truck Farm—he put a little garden in the back of a 4x4. More and more people are finding ways and means of planting food wherever they are. So I think that’s the grassroots movement that could possibly bring about some changes.

“I really believe in the power of food, because ultimately the basis of war, the basis of economy, is all food—resources and food. When people don’t have access to soil, or it’s been taken away from them or it’s been polluted, they get angry for a good reason and things start to change. So I think our relationship to food is really the gateway to changing our world.”

All photos in this feature © David Leach Photography. For more about Peter Berley, his activities and books, visit his website at www.peterberley.com.

Terroir is originally a French term relating to wine, coffee and tea, used to denote the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain region bestow upon particular varieties.