Part II of the Chef John Series, from an exclusive interview.
Chef John Somerville is all about the organic. Frankly, I don’t care so much about organic food. If I did, Twizzlers would certainly be out of my repertoire, and I can’t have that. Organic, schmorganic. That’s been my philosophy.
Not so with the Chef. He claims that he lives organically. Actually, I thought we all did, just by virtue of being alive, regardless of whether five to ten percent of our body structure is composed of licorice-like candy and Hostess treats. As it turns out, Chef John lives über-organically. His spiel on Top Chef about eating unprocessed, natural food and watching one’s finger and toenails grow at rates that rival anything Sally Hansen could manufacture, is a manifesto all should behold. He’s right, actually. There isn’t anything goofy about it. Organic is really the way to go, just don’t go for it at America’s first certified organic restaurant in D.C., an idiotically-pretentious locale which refuses to accommodate customers with food allergies. (As usual, this last bit has nothing to do with Chef John, but everything to do with me and my own lingering resentment. It is, after all, my blog isn’t it?)
Before Chef John, my experience with the organic was limited to the fruitcake couple I lived with during my collegiate days in Indianapolis. They claimed to be organics, but they routinely devoured my not-so-secret stash of Coca-Cola and Hostess treats. Think Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer. Frightening. These nutcases subscribed to that very chic version of the organic lifestyle, flaunting it at dinner parties and during the cocktail hour. They often regaled their friends with stories of rain barrels, re-purposing, composting, and henna hair dye. They lectured others about the benefits of eating wild meats, like venison, but deplored the NRA and believed that field dressing is barbaric. Fashionably Green, they embraced the more mainstream view of an organic lifestyle: all talk and even more yoga. What’s even worse is that all the while, they dreamt of stuffing their faces full of my King Dons.
Chef John, however, remains true to himself. He has created his own version of an organic lifestyle. He doesn’t practice Pilates, wear bamboo socks, or visit fake sweat lodges. He does not subscribe to the healing powers of crystals and pyramids made from semi-precious stone. And although he does spend time talking to animals and feeding legions of possums, raccoons, and squirrels from his condo in the woods, he is not a freaky-organic-hippie-shaman. He goes on fishing trips upon which the fish are killed and eaten, not thrown back in a state of supreme shock after an exhausting and horrific fight-for-life, returning to the water forever traumatized by flashbacks of hooks, nets, big human hands, camera lenses, and that final, long toss back. No, Chef John really, really enjoys his carnivorous position at the top of the food chain. From this position, he is whole-heartedly committed to the local natural food movement, often peppering our discussion with references to locally-made foods and regional purveyors of real food, as well as his support of local causes which bolster organic lifestyles. Chef John’s commitment doesn’t end there. His notion of organic foods is also tied into his hopes that this Water Winter Wonderland becomes not just a Green industrial leader, but a Green role model for other states. Clearly, Chef John has high hopes for Detroit and for the state, but he also delivers, donating time and expense for charities and organizations who also share his view of a new and improved Michigan.
However, despite his comtemplation over Michigan’s rather precarious future, his daily doses of free trade-sustainably harvested-Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee from Caribou, his frequent visits to farmer’s markets, and his love of organic Heinz ketchup, the most visible cue to his philosophy is truly, his dreadlocks.
Yes, the dreads. Hard to miss. Easy to misinterpret. They appeared many years ago, when he first subscribed to a life full of organic foodstuffs and clean, healthy living. For Chef John, his freeform, holistic dreadlocks are a literal extension of his organic axiom, one that extends from his kitchen (he believes his simple, farm-fresh ingredients should all “sing their own song”) to his own person: he lives a wholly natural life. His hair communicates. And, it is worth noting that none of the dreadlock-hippie-Rastafarian stereotypes can be applied to him. Far from it. I have heard this man talk in great detail about his very-pricey designer jeans (probably handmade in some far away place by small children) and comment on stylish clothing in terms of cut, drape, and fit. He likes to spend time in wine and martini bars, mingling with other tastemakers. In fact, Chef John possesses a certain stylish sensibility that is belied by the dreads. He’s not a Greenie-weenie either. He doesn’t drive a Smart car or even a hybrid (gasp!). Instead, in good Detroit form, he drives not one, but two gas-guzzling Mustangs (go John, let California save the ozone layer!). He uses plastic (OMG!). He likes Edgar Allan Poe (an early environmentalist undeniably known for his healthy lifestyle) and he supports the Lions (this has nothing to do with being organic, but it does demonstrate his unusual optimism).
Chef John thinks he is a controversial and divisive figure. Perhaps. He refuses to give fish PTSD. His Mustang-love single-handedly supports the oil industry. He loves animals and he also eats them. He makes a habit of cooking outdoors on park grills and his hair is longer than I am tall. Clearly, Chef John defies all stereotypes and exceeds all expectations, but America’s Organic Chef does it all his way: thoughtfully, inquisitively, and above all, friendly. One couldn’t ask to be more organic than that.
Chef John Somerville is Chef de Cuisine at the Lark in West Bloomfield, Michigan. He appeared on Bravo’s Top Chef.