Editor’s Note: These Chefs Are Changing Food | Civil Eats

Editor’s Note: These Chefs Are Changing Food

Chefs are a key ingredient to changing the food system; they are influencing the way we eat, what we grow, and are shaping the conversation about how to fix food. For many, they also provide the first point of contact to seasonal food from local farms. And they can have an incredible impact, not on only our palates, but also by raising awareness and changing the way we think about food.

A few chefs in particular forever changed my life. More than a decade ago while working at the New Yorker, I first met Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, and Peter Hoffman, then of Savoy, now of Back Forty West. They were preparing a “Friday Night Dinner” as part of the annual New Yorker Festival, a three-day literary and arts celebration. In that moment, I only wanted to know the story behind the glorious food they were preparing. And it was this storytelling that started me on a path to agriculture on which I have now been for more than 10 years.

Since we started Civil Eats in 2009, we have heralded chefs and their work, noting that they wield an influence far beyond the people they feed in their restaurants, and are putting a stake in the ground on social issues.

Michel Nischan, President and CEO of Wholesome Wave, seeks to increase access to healthy food. His organization has had huge success to date through doubling the value of SNAP–food stamps–used at farmers’ markets. Chef Ann Cooper, also known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” has been working to improve public school lunches from the inside, first in Berkeley, and now in Boulder, Colorado. Bradford Heap decided to make the menus at his two Boulder, Colorado restaurants 100-percent free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

We have featured the writing of chefs, because we feel their voices are so important to this conversation. Kim O’Donnel has written critically acclaimed stories for us about how cooking is the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture as well as a rally cry for us all to get in the kitchen. Kurt Michael Friese has been a long-time contributor, sharing his unique perspectives and ideas. We’ve also featured the work and writings of Bryant Terry, one of the nation’s first eco chefs and food justice activists.

We’ve covered the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change, a semi-annual convening hosted by the James Beard Foundation and Chefs Action Network, a relatively new group working to develop a national network of influential chefs and restaurateurs committed to drive change. (And tonight is the James Beard 2015 Restaurant & Chef Awards and we’re rooting for all of you!)

Chefs have also organized themselves through the incredible work of the Chefs Collaborative, which seeks to inspire, educate, and amplify the voices of chefs who care about sourcing, cooking, and serving better food to change the way America eats and fix our broken food system.

They’re also changing how we think about flavor and food production. Sean Brock is working with grain company Anson Mills to resurrect the flavors of the south, and in doing so is re-establishing heritage varieties of grains, legumes, and oilseeds in the region. Sean Sherman (“The Sioux Chef”) offers his customers “pre-colonization” cuisine. Tanya Holland is cooking up community as well as sustainable comfort food in her Oakland restaurant, Brown Sugar Kitchen. And Pastry Chef Emily Luchetti has launched a campaign aimed at getting us all to re-consider the role of dessert in our lives.

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Dan Barber is taking a radically holistic approach to food and farming in his book, The Third Plate, sharing his vision for a sustainable way to eat for the 21st Century, while spotlighting the massive problem of food waste in his recent pop-up dinner experience, wastED. Samin Nosrat, who famously inspired Michael Pollan in his recent book, Cooked, encourages people to cook so they can take better care of themselves and each other, among many other community endeavors.

Chefs are also often on the front line of innovation. In California, they’ve been working to adapt to the constraints of the historic drought. Anthony Myint and partners are creating a living pantry meant to spark conversation about the many connections between food and climate change at their new restaurant, Perennial. In order to reduce waste, Kelsie Kerr of Standard Fare Kitchen and Pantry, is selling meals to in reusable ceramic containers. Maria Hines used her restaurant as center stage for telling the story of food politics, designing three courses based on food policy bills in Congress.

We owe so much to the chefs who played an important role in our successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign. Chef José Andrés offered to donate a dinner at one of his restaurants and to cook a dinner at his home. Lowell Sheldon of Peter Lowell’s made a significant donation that changed the game in our campaign. Deborah Madison, who works to build vegetable literacy with her latest book, also offered a home-cooked meal.

Former chef and now owner of Bi-Rite Market, Sam Mogannam, not only significantly donated to our Kickstarter, but also gave away his book, Eat Good Food. Kim O’Donnel and Samin Nosrat offered cooking classes. In addition, the chefs and owners of Chez Panisse, Gather/Verbena (Now Reverb), Penrose, Pizzaiolo, and Piccino, all generously donated free meals. “Cheftivists” Tom Colicchio and Alice Waters now sit on our advisory board.

There are so many chefs, cooks, and culinary professionals we have yet to cover, and whose work in and around sustainability is critical to mention: Grant Achatz, Hugh Acheson, Michael Anthony, Rick Bayless, Mario Batali, Roy Choi, Traci Des Jardins, Thom Fox, Jose Garces, Suzanne Goin, Mary Sue Milliken, Jamie Oliver, Daniel Patterson, Nora Pouillan, Andrea Reusing, Lorna Sass, Barton Seavor, Annie Sommerville, Heidi Swanson, Bill Telepan, and so many more.

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I raise my toque to all of these chefs and their inspiring, positive visions for just how vibrant and delicious our food system can be.

Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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  1. nancy Matheson-Burns
    it would great to see an article on chefs partnered with authors that are changing the way we look at food and food systems-- Nicolette Hahn Niman / DEFENDING BEEF with Adam Danforth or Dan Barber
    connect the dots revealing the significance of raising harvesting and eating food; not only for the health and wellbeing of the world’s people , but for the health and wellbeing of our deteriorating environment as well - SEAVER - GREENBERG another good match ect,,,,,,,,,,
  2. Karyn
    What an excellent compendium of the chef leaders in the food justice conversation. How about those of us who love to cook but aren't chefs? I'd be grateful for a similar compendium of the thought and movement leaders in the non-chef space so that I can direct my time and resources wisely. Thank you for all you do!
  3. Given the political climate in Washington, it's easy to feel discouraged about the possibilities of effecting lasting sustainable change.

    Your article fuels hope, and I thank you for sharing links and information about so many chefs and food writers making a difference.

    I'm passing along one of the links tomorrow--Kim O'Donnell's article, "Cooking as the Cornerstone of a Sustainable Food System" on Civil Eats--because it is a subject close to my heart and seems especially appropriate on Mother's Day.

    I'll share others as time goes by.

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