Stories / Impact

The Power of the Chef Community

Insights from our first Chef Action Summit

Katherine Miller

October 29, 2019


Paul Reilly at Chef Action Summit photo David Chow
Photo: David Chow

The word chef is imbued with incredible power: in kitchens around the world, restaurant workers say “yes, chef” dozens of times each night. There are times when that power has been abused. For years, kitchens where chefs yelled at line cooks were the norm, crying in the walk-in was considered a rite of passage, and harassment was commonplace.

But chef doesn’t mean “tyrant” or “fearmonger.” In fact, its root is in the word “chief” or “leader.”

Chefs are leaders. They are leaders in their restaurants, their communities, and, increasingly, in the offices, hearing rooms, and halls where policy is made.

Earlier this month, we held our Chef Action Summit, gathering together more than 200 chef-leaders, activists, artists, farmers, fishermen, scientists, and policy experts to create a plan of action for elevating food policy in the 2020 election season.

Chefs traveled to Princeton University from around the country—including James Beard Award winners, Top Chef and Food Network stars, and global ambassadors such as Maneet Chauhan, Ashley Christensen, Roshara Sanders, Hugh Acheson, Tanya Holland, Andrea Reusing, Emily Luchetti, Sherry Yard, and Mary Sue Milliken. Of course, chefs from California and New York were there, but so were chefs from Illinois, Texas, South Dakota, Washington, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Iowa. All of the attendees walked into each conversation and workshop representing their employees, producers, and customers, prepared to be challenged by progressive leaders from across the food system.

For three days, they met with farmers and fishermen, such as Roger Noonan and Amy Grondin, and talked about the impacts of sourcing decisions. Grondin called on chefs to “reconnect the ocean and the land together. They are not silos. They influence each other. Take care of the ocean, and it will take care of us.”

They heard from organizers such as Niaz Dorry of Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and National Family Farm Coalition, Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit, and Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action. Watts advised that we all keep an eye on the long-game: “If we’re going to get involved in activism, we have to make sure we’re doing things that prevent us from burning out—because this is a lifelong effort.”

Chefs at the Questlove panel Photo David Chow
Photo: David Chow

They worked with leaders from Service Employees International Union, the Female Farmer Project, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and their fellow chefs and owners to navigate wage and workforce policies. With the help of community leaders, the chefs came up with actionable solutions to help accelerate positive change in our food system.

The chefs also committed to host community meetings, write their congressional representatives, and attend town halls and other meetings throughout 2020 to highlight the food system issues that are most important to them, their customers, and their communities. Chefs such as Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken will use their voice to support a living wage. You’ll see others get more active on immigration reform. Many chefs pledged to double down to help tackle climate change and also support family famers.

These chefs, part of the larger army of chefs and restaurant owners the James Beard Foundation has trained since 2012, are able to reach more millions across social media. They are ready to work with their staffs, suppliers, purveyors, and customers to help keep issues such as school lunch, mental health services, providing a living wage, and curbing climate change top of mind during the next political season.

In 2020, 469 congressional offices, including the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate, will be on the ballot. Hundreds of state legislative seats and 13 gubernatorial races will be decided. And the entire country will have the chance to vote in the Presidential election. As Representative Earl Blumenauer (who spoke to the chefs twice over the course of the Summit) told the attendees, “people coming together to share a meal is a common denominator that is extraordinarily powerful. I can’t stress enough how you are part of the salvation in terms of bringing people together on things that matter, that don’t have to be red state, blue state, or partisan.”

This is the time to act in support of the issues we care about—the time for sitting on the sidelines is over.

As a non-partisan organization, the James Beard Foundation is focused on ensuring that every chef, restaurant worker, farmer, and fisherman—everyone who works in our increasingly complicated food system every day—is informed, inspired, and engaged in the important debates and discussions, and in the development of solutions.

We need every active and engaged citizen, including chef-leaders around the country, in the fight for a better food system for all. We hope you’ll join the chefs in this work and use your voice in 2020.

To get information on webinars, Issue Summits and other ways to engage, please join our Impact mailing list.


Katherine Miller is vice president of Impact at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @Table81.