I recently sat down with Sifu Mimi Chan, of the Wah Lum Temple to chat up sustainable agriculture, immigration, and addiction. You can hear that podcast here.
I’ll give you some more details about our talk, but first let’s talk kung fu. Sifu Mimi is the face and action behind Disney’s Mulan. She has won multiple gold medals at international kung fu tournaments. She has been named Woman of the Year by Inside Kung Fu magazine. She is the daughter of Grandmaster Pui Chan, and has produced an award-winning film that details the life of her father. Pui Chan was born in China, but would later defect by jumping into the Jersey harbor and swimming to freedom. In 1968, Chan opened his first kung fu school which still exists today in Boston. He did so at a time when many Chinese people rejected the idea of Westerners being taught kung fu. Chan opened his doors to anyone willing to put in the work. He now has more than a dozen schools in four countries, with his flagship school headquartered here in Orlando. Sifu Mimi is the head instructor of the flagship Wah Lum Temple. Her husband, Sifu Oscar Agramonte, works as a personal trainer, nutrition coach, and spearheads Wah Lum Xtreme Fitness.
I started training in the Wah Lum system in 1992. I left shortly thereafter to begin my adventures cooking and traveling abroad. After 14 years away, I’ve returned to Wah Lum at the North Orlando location. I like kung fu for many reasons, but most of all, I like it because it parallels the professional kitchen in many ways. You have to be patient to master the basics. A strong foundation is key to both cooking and kung fu. If you want to be good, you have to put in the work. There’s no shortcuts. No amount of TV watching will make you good at cooking or kung fu. You have to suffer. Kung fu, like cooking, can be as intense as you want it to be. It can be competitive or leisure. Lastly, there is zero bullshit. You can not fake legit cooking. And you can not fake legit kung fu. I’ve sat across the table from hundreds of cooks looking for jobs. Anyone who watches a few episodes of Food TV, or reads through some industry books, can talk their way into a trailing shift. But once the tickets start pouring in, and the talking stops, so does the bullshit. You can’t fake what happens in your frying pan. You can’t fake the dance. And kung fu feels the same to me. When you sink into your stances and start moving, you’re either flowing with grace and power, or you're not.
Mimi and Oscar buy shares of locally sourced grass-fed beef to fill up their freezer. They’re trying to be responsible in their approach to eating, and like many of us, have a lot of questions. We scratched the surface on Mimi's podcast, but I wanted to offer up some more info for those of you who tuned in and may have more questions. Let’s start with farming systems.
We mentioned GMO crops in the podcast. I realize that we’ve been genetically modifying our crops for nearly as long as we’ve been farming. Apples, tomatoes, grapes, wheat, corn, and lots of other crops are all much different than they were even a hundred years ago. By only planting seeds of plants that exhibit desirable characteristics (size, flavor, shape, color), we are effectively modifying the genes of the species over time. I’ve got no problem with that. Where things get weird for me is when we start manipulating the genetic structure of plants so that they can withstand higher concentrations of herbicide and pesticide, or when we introduce species that would not naturally occur, like a tomato spliced with genetic properties of a fish. I’m not even opposed to you eating these things. I just want them labeled so that we can make informed choices - like the 64 other countries that require GMO labeling. Most people don’t realize the frequency of these frankenfoods popping up in the grocery store. Consider this: Biotech increased 100-fold between 1996-2012.
Many of these crops are subsidized by the US taxpayer. The US government guarantees farmers that taxpayers will pay for surplus amount of corn that the market will not bear. Currently we grow about 420 million acres of corn. It’s a cultivated crop that is visible from space. We grow so much corn that we have to feed the excess to livestock. This helps create the myth of cheap food. 90% of the cattle raised in Florida on their natural diet of grass will be trucked almost 2000 miles to the Midwest to get fattened up on GMO crop. Once slaughtered, the meat is shipped back to market (that’s a 4000 mile steak if you’re a Floridian doing the math). This is the life cycle of grain-fed beef. Even the ethanol used in the fuel to transport them is made from corn.
Livestock that are part of this industrialized system are typically confined to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Profit and bottom lines determine how the animals are treated. Pumping cattle full of GMO grains adds weight much faster than grass. But it does so at the expense of the animal’s health. The combination of an unnatural diet and cramped living conditions can spur sickness and disease in animals. To combat this, industrial farms supplement animal feed with low doses of antibiotics. This practice, born in 1946, has the added benefit of putting even more weight on animals. This time, at the expense of the public’s health. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are evolving at such an alarming rate that in 2011, the Director General of the World Health Organization issued a statement, “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.” A whopping 80% of antibiotics used in the US is fed to animals, and only 20% is used to treat illness in human beings. Now consider the power of the $1.05 trillion/year global pharmaceutical industry, nearly half of which is used in North America. Just counting that revenue, at the rate of a dollar per second. 24 hours per day, would take you 31,709 years. Those are some deep pockets that can not only influence politicians, but win elections.
In addition to pharmaceuticals and taxpayer funded feed, the industrialized complex relies on cheap labor from the farm to the table. Immigrants quite often fill that void, legal or otherwise. They are employed on farms, in slaughterhouses, processing plants, the transportation sector, grocery stores, and restaurants. 18% of undocumented immigrants are employed in the hospitality industry, another 5% are employed in the agriculture industry. That’s almost a full quarter of the undocumented immigrant population employed to make your food cheaper. What employer seeks out illegal help? What employer looks at two job applications, one being a US citizen, the other here without documents, and offers the job to the undocumented worker? Immigrants fill job positions that most Americans don’t want – washing dishes, harvesting fruits and vegetables, working on the floors of slaughterhouses. As I type this, there is fruit rotting in fields because we have deported the hands that harvest it and nobody has stepped forward, willing to fill the shoes.
There are 11.3 million undocumented workers in the US . Many of these people are willing to work for far less money than what American citizens are demanding for the same jobs. It’s not possible to have 2 for $1 hamburgers and a $15/hour minimum wage. We need to recognize the importance of what these people bring to the table. Deporting a full 3.5% of the US population isn’t a realistic option. So we need to find ways to stop demonizing these people and integrate them more fully into the system.
We also briefly touched on an industry wide problem that is getting some much needed attention: drug and alcohol abuse. Working in top tier kitchens can be impossibly demanding. There are long hours of intense pace, stress, and expectations. And your job as a chef is often to increase those expectations, demand more from the staff, and increase the stress level to achieve those goals. Many in the industry turn to drugs and alcohol to medicate both the physical and mental stress. And for the most part, it is widely accepted.
Most of the restaurants that I worked in offered up “shift drinks” at the end of the night. After getting your ass handed to you for 12 or 14 hours, sometimes working directly over fire, a cold beer feels pretty good. Chefs in tough kitchens often work 6 day weeks, so that’s an easy routine to fall into almost every day. And who’s not going to have a couple drinks on their day off? For me, it was just a routine thing. It became normal to have a beer or two after work and then go home and have a few more while writing out menus, placing orders, and drawing up schedules. I was able to function rather well, so I didn’t recognize it as a problem.
I took up homebrewing and went through some cicerone certifications. We’d taste wine at pre-shift and discuss what foods to pair with it. Liquor reps would frequent the restaurants to hand out samples and talk to us about the subtle nuances of different botanicals in the latest gin, or the flavor profiles that different barrels and spring water had on bourbons. In short, you’re around alcohol all the time. And for front-of-house staff, the more you taste, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you sell. And selling booze can increase check averages and put money directly into your pocket. So there’s a financial incentive to drinking too. Education and sales is a good excuse for many to keep sampling and drinking.
I hate to include marijuana in a discussion about drugs because I feel it's no more dangerous than asparagus. But I will say that it's use is rampant and also widely accepted. With the advent of vaporizers, cooks don't even need to leave the hot line to get stoned during their shift. The real issue is pharmaceuticals and hard drugs. Again, I feel like the hospitality industry uses these to escape the emotional and physical strains of demanding circumstances. We have a full-on opioid epidemic according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with Florida being at the very epicenter of it.
My first real job as a Line Cook was around 2002, and I was hired at $12/hour. And that’s the same pay rate that I was hiring cooks to staff a restaurant trying to maintain a Michelin star in 2015. The cost of food has gone up, the cost of real estate and rent have gone up, transportation and gas costs have gone up, but cooks make the same money. Breaking your back in tough kitchens with little thanks and little financial reward takes an additional toll on the hospitality industry. And alcohol and drugs numb the pain.
The tax subsidies that Americans pay out for a pharmaceutically charged, genetically modified food system has created the illusion of cheap food. Throw in labor from undocumented workers from the farm to the table and it becomes even cheaper. We need to create a better life for the people who grow and prepare our food. The changes that need to happen in the American food system are not changes that will be legislated into being. They won’t happen in the halls of Congress. We have to be that change. And that change starts with what's on your fork tonight. It happens when we reach out to the people who produce our food, shake their hands, and start asking them questions.
We need to realize that the true cost of food is a cost that rewards responsible farmers who are good stewards of their land, staff, and animals. The true cost of food is reflected on menus of restaurants that can afford to provide health care options and substance abuse programs for its staff. The true cost of food doesn’t require salaried kitchen staff to work 80-hour weeks with part-time line cooks. Or have servers that make less than minimum hourly wages coming in early to subsidize the jobs of the rest of the front-of-house staff.
Cheap food is a myth. And we’re going to pay the true cost of it one way or another. We can pay it up front and give a better quality of life to the people who produce our food. Or we can pay for it with taxes, global warming, dead zones and environmental cleanup, hospitals, and jails.
The good news is that the power of choice belongs to the consumer. Sifus Mimi and Oscar chose to combat the system by buying their grass fed beef in bulk from a local farm. They asked the right questions and made their decisions with the power of knowledge. A big misconception is that asking restaurants or grocery stores about where your meat comes from is seen as an intrusion. We shouldn't be embarrassed to ask these questions. I love hearing these questions, because I've done my due diligence. I've done the homework. I have the right answers to the questions. It's only those who don't have the right answers that don't want to be called on.
Thank you for tuning in.
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Links pertaining to podcast:
Kinasi Lodge, Mafia Island, Tanzania
GMOs In Animal Feed
Sean Brock Puts Down The Bourbon And Begins A New Quest, NY Times
Donkeys Don't Like Coyotes
Swahili kids of Utende village, Mafia Island showing off their kung fu skills.