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Rising to the Occasion

Chefs Are Standing up for More Than Just Food on the Plate

Katherine Miller

May 22, 2018

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2018 JBF Awards Gala Chefs
The 2018 James Beard Award Gala chefs, which included more than 30 alumni of the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change (Photo: Eliesa Johnson).

In her latest dispatch, our senior director of food policy advocacy Katherine Miller reflects on the recent James Beard Awards, which highlighted chefs working for a better food system, including efforts to tackle the potential threats of the latest draft of the 2018 Farm Bill.

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“I rise in support of equality, humanity, and Mother Earth.” With this incantation, newly minted 2018 Best Chef: West award winner Dominique Crenn challenged the more than 2,000 people attending the annual James Beard Awards in Chicago—and the hundreds of thousands watching the ceremony live on Twitter—to stand up for more than just delicious food.

Her words, and the inspiring words of Humanitarian of the Year José Andrés, punctuated a six-year-plus journey by the James Beard Foundation to train, empower, and activate chefs in response to some of the country’s biggest challenges. Chefs Andrés and Crenn were joined in Chicago by more than 30 alumni of the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change.

This community of chefs—also notable for the dozens of Beard Award nominations and wins among them—has spent decades finding ways to improve the relationships between farmers, fishermen, and chefs. This has led to wonderfully diverse meals, but over the last few years, these men and women in the kitchen have built stronger relationships with their communities, state governments, and Congress.

They are, as chef Crenn urged, standing up for more than just the food on the plate. They are working at the intersection of politics, policy, and practice, and striving to find ways to help other leaders—from urban farmers to social justice organizers to community activists—achieve a better food system for all.

Here are just a few examples of the citizen-chef excellence represented at this year’s Awards:

  • Rick Bayless, a multiple James Beard Award winner, works with chefs and small producers around the world to grow local economies and build a stronger, fairer supply chain that benefits everyone from producers to consumers.
  • Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, of Best New Restaurant nominee Kismet in Los Angeles, are lending their support to fundraising and awareness efforts around TIMESUp and the #MeToo movement and working with the industry to change restaurant culture.
  • Hari Pulapaka of Cress in Deland, Florida, is a tireless champion for the rights and voice of immigrants. Together with his co-owner and partner, Jenneffer Pulapaka, he hosted dinner for more than 300 people in Deland with a community-led discussion about immigration and the proposed travel ban.
  • Amy Brandwein, Ana Sortun, and Charleen Badman are leading examples of how chefs can work more directly with farmers, urban farm projects, and school gardens to promote greater understanding about the needs of modern farm communities.
  • Mario Pagán stood alongside José Andrés in Puerto Rico to provide millions of meals for American citizens left without food or resources after Hurricane Irma and continues to serve as an advocate for the island.

These chefs are just some of the voices that were represented on stage in Chicago. But the work doesn’t end in restaurants or at events.

It is imperative that chefs and others in the culinary community keep an eye on policy efforts underway, especially those currently going on in Washington, D.C., around the Farm Bill. 

Immediately following the Awards, a group of chefs, farmers, and small business advocates traveled to Washington, D.C., to urge members of Congress to reconsider their support of the 2018 Farm Bill proposed by the House of Representatives. Arguably the most important piece of food-related legislation that Congress will consider, the Farm Bill deserves more attention and focus than it is currently receiving.

Carrying the stories of their customers, farmers, and friends and family with them, chefs Abra Behrens, Ben Hall, Dejuan Roy, and Tiffany Derry met with dozens of lawmakers and their staffs about the nearly $500 billion group of programs that includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, funding to promote small farmers, support for transitioning farmers to more environmentally friendly practices, and support during economic downturns and disasters.

During his acceptance speech, José Andrés urged everyone to stand up and get involved: “I want you to see the world's greatest challenges not as problems, but as opportunities for us to serve. The future of a nation depends on how it feeds itself. We can improve the world one plate of food at a time. That's all it takes.”

Online and in the theater, chefs Crenn and Andres were applauded for their efforts, but they, more than most, know it will take all of us—chefs standing together with their friends, family, and guests—to push for the changes we want to see. 

We must now all answer Dominique Crenn’s call to action, and look for our opportunity to be of service for humanity and for the planet.

For more information about the James Beard Foundation’s Impact programs and the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change please follow us at @JBFChefAction.

Learn more about JBF Impact programs.

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Katherine Miller is JBF’s senior director of food policy advocacy. Find her on Twitter.