‘At the Table’ Is a Guide for Chefs Who Want to Lead Outside the Kitchen | ‘At the Table’ Offers Chefs an Advocacy Guide for Outside the Kitchen

‘At the Table’ Is a Guide for Chefs Who Want to Lead Outside the Kitchen

Katherine Miller drew from her work with the James Beard Foundation to craft a guidebook to help chefs and restauranteurs advocate for change within the food system.

Katherine Miller, author of

Chefs and restaurateurs are inherently versatile. In any given week, they may find themselves designing a menu item, cleaning a grease trap, and re-arranging their employee’s schedules to accommodate a sick worker.

When Katherine Miller was asked to train chefs for the James Beard Foundation’s Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change in 2012, she didn’t think these skills would translate to food justice activism. But she soon learned that she was wrong.

“Why not use that ready-made platform to talk about something more broad, more powerful?”

In her new book, At the Table: The Chef’s Guide to Advocacy, Miller offers tools and tips for chefs and restaurateurs interested in using their innate skills as leaders, storytellers, and celebrities to make substantial policy changes in America’s food system.

Prior to her work with the foundation, Miller spent several years working with philanthropic funders, including the United Nations, to tackle such international issues as climate change, vaccination, democracy reform, hunger, and food justice. Chefs were new to her, but Miller says, they are uniquely prepared to push for broader societal changes.

As she writes:

“In the food system, few people are as well connected and naturally networked as a chef or restaurant owner. Chefs have most of the attributes sociology experts point to as signs of highly networked individuals, including ‘a genuine interest in other people, a desire to help others, patience, a future focused mindset, and a focus on quality over quantity.’ Most would agree that, except for patience, these are also common personality traits for a successful chef or restaurateur.”

In 2016, that realization led Miller to take on the role of senior director of food policy at the James Beard Foundation, where she had the opportunity to support chefs across the country seeking to use their platform to address issues such as food insecurity and healthcare equity for restaurant workers.

Civil Eats recently spoke to Katherine Miller about the book, building an alternative to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), and how chefs can harness their passions and gifts to engage in effective advocacy.

Take us back to 2012, when chef Michel Nischan and James Beard Foundation trustee Eric Kessler approached you about designing and leading the advocacy training for the Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change. What was the impetus for your first foray into this work with them?

They found me and they were like, ‘Hey, would you like to do this? We really need a trainer. Someone who could come and do this for a couple of days.’ I thought it was quite frankly one of the stupidest things I had ever heard, because what was this community going to offer in the halls of policy advocacy? Then, after 24 hours with this group of amazing folks, the penny dropped for me.

“What we saw is that if you give folks the tools and the framework to make sense of how to take that step into true leadership, they’ll do it.”

In every community in America, there’s a chef whose restaurant is someone’s favorite place. It is the place where they celebrate a birthday. [Customers] know who they are. They look to them for guidance on what’s delicious, what they should be buying, what they should be trying. Why not use that ready-made platform to talk about something more broad, more powerful?

Chef Tanya Holland sets the tone for At the Table with her foreword, identifying the leadership it took to be instrumental in policy on taxing sugary drinks and how you helped guide her in that work. Can you share your thoughts on the challenges chefs face becoming community leaders?

The transition and the mindset that I want to encourage people to make is this move from chefs as celebrities to chefs truly embracing the idea [of being leaders]. We have gone through an arc of food culture that glamorizes everything. In reality, these people are making decisions about how to run their restaurant, who to source from, how to serve, what hours to be open, the vibe that they want to do and have in their restaurant. Every step of the way, they have an opportunity to lead.

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If we look to them to be leaders, I think they’re prepared to step into that. What we saw is that if you give folks the tools and the framework to make sense of how to take that step into true leadership, they’ll do it.

But our food system is daunting. It has a root structure that is really complicated, and that we kind of have to rip out and replace. I think it’s daunting for the chefs, who are like, ‘Where do we even start?’

At the Table encapsulated how the worlds of food justice advocacy and the restaurant industry coincide and, at times, conflict. How can restaurant owners seeking to be advocates overcome the obstacles posed by the industry?

Policy advocacy takes time. You can immediately make the decision that you’re going to remove straws from your restaurant or figure out that $20 is the minimum wage that you should be paying. But it’s not so easy to figure out how to be an effective spokesperson on those pieces.

“Figure out what your narrative and your story is and why it matters so much to you.”

For a long time, the restaurant community was really dependent on the only organization that existed for them, the National Restaurant Association. But when people became more aware of the things that the NRA was using the money to lobby against, [like raising the federal tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers], they’re like, ‘What the–?’

It’s also kind of like a racket. The NRA collects dues. They collect money through a ServSafe program that almost every restaurant in America puts their employees through, which is all about protecting the health and safety of the customers. Then that money goes to lobby against the very interest of the workers and even the business owners.

We helped set up the Independent Restaurant Coalition when I was with the James Beard Foundation in the early days of the pandemic. To see that become an alternative lobbying force is exciting to me. It’s focused on the business end of it, the tax breaks and credit card fees and rentals, which is also the step people in food systems don’t think about. In reality, these are businesses; there’s no such thing as a sustainable restaurant that’s closed. If that business is not open, it’s not paying wages; it’s not paying its farmers; it’s not paying its taxes at the end of the day.

You provide several examples of chefsfrom Guy Fieri to Ed Leewho have been able to leverage their passion for food into actionable justice work. How can these success stories become blueprints for up-and-coming restaurateurs?

The book breaks it down into something that’s easy for chefs to start to take baby steps toward advocacy.

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The idea is that you think about the issue that you care most about, prioritize that, and learn to say no effectively. Part of your responsibility as a leader is to do the work, learn who the [existing advocacy] organizations are, and get the education. None of us are effective advocates if we’re finger-wagging all the time. We’re effective advocates when we understand the issues.

Figure out what your narrative and your story is and why it matters so much to you. That is where I think the art [aspect of being]  a chef is really helpful. There’s no better salesperson than a farmer for what they sell, and no better salesperson for a restaurant than a chef.

I love Paola Velez and the story of Bakers Against Racism. That movement and community of practice was born out of anger around social justice after the murder of George Floyd. [Baking to raise funds] has been a practice since the Civil Rights Movement—it’s this idea of community sales of food to finance movements.

What I love about Paola is that they turned it into something that anybody could take part in, an open-source toolkit. All you had to do was identify as a baker against racism. You could bake cookies. You could bake cakes. You could give [the funds you raise] to whatever [cause you like]—and I think that’s important, too. The idea that there’s one way to do this work is wrong. The tools and the tips in the book are designed to help a chef, a farmer, or anybody who loves food, to make their own way in this.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Over the last 15 years, Stephanie Toone has accumulated bylines in publications such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Tennessean, Chicago Tribune, Virginian-Pilot, and more. Outside of journalism, she's worked in nonprofit communications in spaces that champion sustainable food systems, voter rights, and disability justice. She lives in Atlanta with her son and enjoys a solid hike or karaoke night on the weekends. Read more >

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