I've been thinking a lot lately about how it's up to chefs like me to help everyone stay healthy. It's not just about reducing obesity and diabetes, though that's obviously a priority. It's about getting every one of us to eat the right foods. That means buying produce from responsible farmers who grow fruits and vegetables that aren't covered with pesticides or genetically modified. It means getting meat from ranchers who not only shun the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, but also raise their animals humanely in a free-roaming environment.
I'm not going soft, or, heaven forbid, vegan. I'm just trying to be more accountable to myself, my customers and to those who are farming responsibly. And if it means being nicer to animals along the way, well, that's a big bonus. Why shouldn't cows and pigs feel sunlight on their backs, grass under their feet? Fish shouldn't be jammed into tanks too full for them to even think about swimming. They should be able to exercise their muscles and feel a current. Yes, they'll be killed for food—but until then, they should have a nice stay on Earth.
You might say this is ridiculous. Why does it matter how an animal is reared, since you know from the start that it's going to be slaughtered? But I have had a change of heart. I want to be more outspoken about the treatment of animals. I care that a veal calf—yes, even one that's destined to become wiener schnitzel at one of my Spago restaurants—doesn't live out his days in a crate that's too small for him to stand. As for foie gras, my customers and I can easily live without it.
Why did I adopt this new culinary philosophy? I'd been thinking about it for some time when the Humane Society of the United States, a Washington, D.C.-based animal-welfare organization, approached me last year about changing my menu to use ingredients exclusively from humane farmers. And I thought the time was right to make the switch, to lead by example. You might say I've been living this way all my life, from the time I was a young boy in Unterbergen, Austria. We never stocked cans in our pantry. Instead, we ate summer fruit in the summer and winter vegetables when the weather turned cold, just as nature intended. Our chickens were raised to run about the property, and were fed a wholesome diet. Our cows didn't know a thing about bovine growth hormones. And the food tasted better.
This year, Spago turns 25. I am proud of how my 90-seat restaurant in L.A. evolved into a vast food company serving more than 10 million customers each year. But it's not the past quarter-century that's on my mind. It's how I will manage my company for the next 25 years that's consuming me. So here's what I promise to do for a second act. In all of my restaurants, catering businesses, licensed foods and takeout establishments, I'm committed to using organic ingredients and humanely raised meats and fish. By the end of the year, all of the chicken I buy, even for my Wolfgang Puck frozen pizzas, will have been raised cage-free. The veal on my Spago menu is now free-range. To make certain things stay above-board, I've hired someone who will police my purveyors. I want to ensure that everything labeled organic really is, and that no veal calf that finds its way into my kitchen lived its life chained inside a box.
And it won't stop with the food. Our society is too reliant on disposable packaging that sits for eternity in a landfill. I drive through the streets of Beverly Hills and can't help but notice that this city has the largest garbage cans I've ever seen. It's not that bad people live in Beverly Hills, it's just that the more affluent a society we are, the more we tend to throw away. By the end of the year, I'll replace all of my plastic to-go bags with recycled paper, and I'll use more environmentally friendly containers.
I'm hoping other chefs will follow suit. If I can get my foods from responsible ranchers and farmers and feed millions of people each year—and not raise prices—then chefs who cook for smaller audiences can do this, too. And one by one, we'll all benefit. The way I see it, our future will be filled with more chefs and fewer doctors.