No more chocolate, coffee or wine? ‘Last supper’ shows stakes of climate crisis

Former White House chef Sam Kass hosts a four-course dinner featuring dishes that could drastically change – or disappear

The premise sounded like a rich person’s ethically suspect fever dream: a dinner structured around endangered foods, dubbed “the last supper”.

But it wasn’t a scene out of The Menu, the movie where detestable foodies seek a once-in-a-lifetime experience steeped in privilege and exploitation. Instead of dining on obscure food on the brink of extinction, the “last supper” featured recognizable dishes – salmon, oysters, coffee, wine – that could drastically change or disappear in the coming years as the climate warms and brings more volatile weather.

No one would eat a food to extinction at this latest iteration of the last supper, in a restaurant in Minneapolis, in late January, to make a point. The point could be made with foods familiar to us, because even those are at risk of devastation in the near future.

“The reality is this is starting to play out right now,” said Sam Kass, the former White House chef and political adviser to President Barack Obama who hosts these events to drive home how food and agriculture are affected by the climate crisis.

Kass first presented the dinner concept at Cop21, the global climate change convention, in 2015. He has since hosted them at Davos for the world economic forum and in cities across the US.

The 28 January dinner hosted by Kass and the chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern in Minneapolis should have been frigid: the midwestern state is typically covered in snow and blisteringly cold in January. The festival it was part of, the Great Northern, serves to embrace and celebrate winter. But this year, Minnesota has seen an abnormally warm winter. A recent sledding rally took place on cardboard because there was no snow. The festival includes a climate series to acknowledge not just a celebration of winter, but the work needed to preserve it.

Marque Collins, the chef at Minneapolis’s Tullibee, created the menu, which read like a prix fixe you’d see throughout the US. Courses included Norwegian salmon, oysters, lamb, fingerling potatoes, sticky toffee pudding.

“It’s not something from the polar ice caps,” Collins said. “We’re not doing exotic, crazy things here. These are things that are legitimately affected by what’s going on. The overall approachability of the menu is kind of the point.”

At the dinners, Kass centers his narrative on three big foods: coffee, wine and chocolate. Among those three, “I got the whole room,” he said. All three pleasures could suffer from major crop loss with only slight warming, affecting livelihoods and ways of life.

“It’s foods that we consume every single day and bring us a lot of joy, and for some, it’s a deep expression of their very core identity,” he said. “Our ability to pass down the quality of life that we have enjoyed is at severe risk.”

Kass and Zimmern can list examples of the ways these changes are playing out now: decimated oysters in Apalachicola Bay, Florida, previously a haven for the shellfish. A massively bad year for Georgia peaches. A lack of perch for midwestern Friday fish fries, increasing costs for what was typically a cheap, easy meal.

As these foods become more rare, Zimmern noted, they get more and more expensive, exacerbating inequalities. The future could look like Charlie and his grandparents in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, passing around a chocolate bar to share, he quipped.

The dinner isn’t meant to depress diners, though. It’s meant to show both how food and agriculture are affected by climate change, but also how food systems, a major driver of climate change, can be adapted to stave off the most extreme outcomes and perhaps make a better world.

Diners asked questions about how to be good consumers, where to invest their money to make a difference, what role they can play to help out – all part of the intent to focus on solutions after introducing the problems. One woman drove the point home succinctly, saying: “When we’re talking about species extinction, we’re talking about our extinction.”

Several dozen people who paid nearly $300 per ticket won’t alone solve a climate crisis that threatens global food systems. The hosts stressed the importance of spreading the message, both to people they know and to policymakers.

“I want people to send a note to every friend in their email address book and tell them that we are at an existential hinge point,” Zimmern said. “This is a crisis that we need to actually solve.”

Amuse bouche: shrimp and salmon chips with Old Bay and dill

A small jar of crispy salmon skin and shrimp chips introduced the idea that seafoods of all kinds are particularly at risk from the climate crisis. Waters are warming, sending animals in search of cooler waters. For US consumers, this means that some, like lobster, will swim farther north, toward Canada, affecting their cost and availability.

Collins, the chef at Tullibee, chose to use salmon skin, made perfectly crunchy and seasoned, to also highlight how to use a piece of the food that’s often thrown away, a nod to a solution alongside the problem.

First course: east coast oysters, west coast oysters and marinated mussel served in the shell with a spruce-tip ponzu and finger limes

The delicious crunch and earthy taste of the first course highlighted the perils faced by mollusks in the wild. They’re not just good for food, though: oysters actually help clean the water they live in.

Oysters that used to grow naturally in wild habitats have seen major threats to their existence, like overharvesting, disease and pollution. Efforts to restore these habitats and grow oysters via farming methods like aquaculture are underway.

Oysters and other seafoods carry with them a part of history and culture, not to mention an economic impact, that is diminished when their availability falters. In places like Chesapeake Bay, which now has a massive oyster-restoration project, catching and shucking oysters is a way of life.

Second course: Norwegian salmon with romesco sauce and confit fingerling potatoes

The restaurant has a Nordic influence, much like the culture in Minnesota. Collins chose Norwegian salmon that’s farm-raised and sustainable. “I didn’t want to use exotic ingredients. I still want to be responsible,” he said.

Warming waters and less snow have made the life of wild salmon much more difficult, affecting their ability to reproduce and our ability to eventually eat them. The salmon life cycle traverses both freshwater and oceans, and the habitats in both are hurting the fish. Ocean waters are warming. And it doesn’t snow as much and instead rains, leaving less snowpack for streams and rivers.

Aquaculture programs, where salmon and other fish are grown in farms, now produce sustainable foods that can adapt to changing weather and environmental conditions.

Collins’ romesco sauce includes another food under threat: almonds. Nuts and fruits need chilly overnight temperatures and are affected by warming. Some research has shown that these trees could see more insects that destroy crops because of higher temperatures. Long-term drought also makes nuts a more difficult crop, especially in California, where water scarcity is an immediate problem.

Third course: Hidden Streams lamb with hand-harvested wild rice, fenugreek and coffee, pickled ramp vinaigrette and red wine lamb jus

Collins could have made an entire menu based on fish, crustaceans and mollusks – many of them are under imminent threat, while most land animals typical of US menus are not. He included a dish, with lamb raised at a nearby farm, with accompanying foods threatened both locally and worldwide.

Land animals may not be at high risk, but the foods they eat could be. Kass said larger-commodity crops, like wheat, corn and soybeans, would have broad impacts on the global food supply if they were to suffer even smaller shifts in crop viability than what seafood experiences.

The dish featured wild rice, a foraged food that’s a cultural staple in Minnesota, and ramps, a wild onion, as a commentary on how wild, foraged foods could be threatened by shifting weather, warmer temperatures and over-foraging. Foods grown in the wild are at the whims of nature.

The dish also includes two of the big three items that Kass uses to drive home the importance of stalling climate change: coffee and wine. Coffee needs a stable climate, with cool nights and warm days, he said. If the globe warms by 2C by 2050, half of the regions that grow coffee will no longer be suitable, he said. “I don’t know what life means without coffee,” he told the diners.

Similarly, wine suffers when weather is volatile, as climate change makes it. Kass pointed out that wine growers in the iconic Champagne, France, region have been buying land in England in preparation for making wine there in the future, as parts of France grow too warm for certain varietals.

Fourth course: coffee and chocolate sticky toffee pudding with pistachio hazelnut and vanilla chantilly

The final course showcased several foods under threat in a small, tasty sticky toffee pudding, the last word of the last supper.

Coffee and nuts, noted earlier in the dinner, featured in the toffee pudding and in a pressed wafer shaped like a leaf placed on top, made of pistachio and hazelnut.

Collins said he wanted to use flour to note how staple crops like wheat, grown throughout the midwestern US, are part of the equation, too. Small declines in these staples bring the potential for economic shocks, higher food insecurity, migration changes and conflict, Kass said, and in that sense, they’re perhaps the biggest concern.

Chocolate’s fate looks similar to coffee and wine: it has to be grown in specific areas, and warming could make those areas inhospitable to the plants that form the backbone of its economy and culture. Kass said the climate is on track to eliminate cacao tree production by 2050 if nothing changes. Chocolate production is concentrated near the equator, largely by small farmers whose work is a way of life.

Eating a chocolate bar or drinking a cup of coffee isn’t what’s driving the problem. “It’s the fact that because of the rest of our human behavior and activity on planet Earth, that is now under dire threat in a way that nobody realizes,” Kass said.

Cover photo: As these foods become more rare, they get more and more expensive, exacerbating inequalities. Illustration: Andy Wang/The Guardian