Let Them Eat … CSB?

Chef Heinz Beck's kitchen at Rome's exquisite La Pergola restaurant is arguably one of the best in the Eternal City, serving up innovative cuisine like cannelloni with duck, foie gras in kuzu béchamel, and venison in a pistachio crust with chestnut purée and persimmon jam to a discerning international clientele. But there may soon be a new item on the menu: crème brûlée made with "CSB" and topped with pineapple gelato. Far from a trendy new acronym for the latest in haute cuisine ingredients, CSB stands for corn soya blend, the same vitamin-enriched food-ration substance that humanitarian aid workers truck through mine fields in Afghanistan and air drop from C-130s into Sudan. It is generally distributed in 25-pound canvas bags and made into mush or porridge under the dire conditions of war, famine and natural disaster. On its own, it has virtually no flavor, but it does provide crucial daily nutrition with little more than a few drops of water and even the most rustic mortar and pestle—a far cry from the culinary arsenal in Beck's Roman kitchen.

So why is a renowned chef like Beck making a gourmet dessert with something as bland as CSB? Because he's one of nearly a dozen celebrity chefs from New York to Japan who have accepted a quirky challenge from the World Food Program , the world's largest humanitarian food organization. The chefs, including TV-savvy Todd English and New York City's famed Mr. Chocolate, Jacques Torres, were invited to create something palatable on camera for their gourmet clientele, with CSB as the recipe's base. The footage will be used either as a mini-documentary or dispersed as public-service announcements to shine a light on the issue of global famine.

What the chefs came up with was astounding, from delicate flans to robust taglietelle pasta. But the heightened awareness about famine that these famous cooks can potentially stir up among the world's wealthiest connoisseurs of cuisine transcends the scrumptious recipes.

"For us chefs, it's important to recognize that there are many people who are not able to afford to pay for even bad food," says Beck. "It's not just a responsibility that we recognize world hunger, it is a duty as propagators of culinary art that we make sure even our most discerning clientele are aware of the problem of famine."

The idea to use those who literally cater to the rich to bring attention to the world's poorest people was born of a struggle to find the common ground among those whose job it is to feed people—whether they are gourmet chefs or humanitarian aid workers, says the project's creator, Jonathan Dumont of the World Food Program in Rome. "Despite the fundamental common goal of feeding people, the bottom line is that one type eats for pleasure and art and the other eats to survive," he says. At first Dumont worried that it would be hard to find top-notch chefs willing to participate. But, instead, he says, "the overwhelming enthusiasm of the chefs who have already contributed, or have agreed to contribute to the project, made me realize that this is actually a way of unifying the poorest people on the planet with the richest."

Mixing a food-ration substance normally used in desperate situations with extravagant ingredients like white truffles or fine chocolates might seem in bad taste. But Dumont believes that any criticism will only serve to bring focus to the growing problem of famine. Ideally, he believes, the initiative could prompt participating chefs to offer CSB items on their menus, with profits from those dishes going directly to food aid. (The CSB used in the recipes is not taken from food supplies that are intended to help the poor, and, in fact, the corn soya blend can be easily made from supermarket ingredients.) Dumont even envisions that some of these participating chefs might travel to areas like Darfur or Sudan—where CSB is the primary nutrient—thereby bringing even more attention to famine relief efforts. "These chefs have access to an affluent audience who tend to see food as a luxury or art form," he says. "They can potentially raise awareness about world hunger that aid organizations can't normally tap into."

Prior to this initiative, WFP launched a series of public-service ads that poked fun at foodies by asking famous chefs and connoisseurs what their last meal was. After a litany of French delights and Italian delicacies, one of the ads soberly sums up by saying, "If you can remember your last meal, chances are you probably won't be needing our services, but for the 850 million that can't, there's the WFP."

In conjunction with the CSB project, a cookbook is being written by Carla VanKampen, a former food critic who now works for the WFP. The cookbook, tentatively called "What the World Eats," will offer original local recipes from some of the world's famine-stricken nations coupled with recipes from celebrity chefs such as the Food Network's Mario Batali, who will embellish local recipes to appeal to a more food-savvy audience.

"The book is not necessarily about offering the latest new recipes, but about understanding what people in impoverished nations with few resources eat," VanKampen says. "The proceeds will go back into humanitarian aid projects, but hopefully people who eventually buy the book come away with a little more understanding about how desperate the situation is in some parts of the world."

The World Food Program's celebrity-chef-campaign organizers are not the only ones who suspect that foodies may well be the key to raising awareness—and funds—for those who have limited access to basic nutrition. Over the Christmas season, the popular food blog ChezPim raised nearly $60,000 for food aid in the developing world through a two-week online auction called "Menu for Hope" that appealed to those foodies interested in helping starving children in Darfur, Niger and Bangladesh. Likewise, the American grass-roots organization Chefs for Humanity has teamed with UNICEF and other aid organizations to mobilize culinary relief efforts in Congo and Sudan. Even in the United States, chefs who normally specialize in gourmet fare were sent to the Gulf Coast by Chefs for Humanity to help feed those displaced by the hurricane.

It is too early to tell if any of these initiatives will substantially increase donations to the humanitarian organizations that actually feed the world's poorest people. But as Mr. Chocolate, Jacques Torres, argues, even the smallest bit of awareness will help. "It may seem pretentious for us to discuss famine from the dining room of a luxurious restaurant, or to take something so crucial to survival as CSB and mix it with high-end ingredients, but we chefs can bring attention to a very serious problem," says the chef, who concocted a delectable chocolate flan from CSB. "When you have nothing, as many of these people have, anything helps."

Let Them Eat … CSB? | Culture