Being a chef today means dealing with an unending flow of solicitations from charitable organizations which want fancy food for their parties; restaurant gift certificates for their auctions and cooking demonstrations for their benefit events. "The only group I've seen asked to do more is R.E.M," says Hugh Acheson, who in 2000 opened Five & Ten, his first restaurant, in Athens, Ga.
All photos by Beall + Thomas
Acheson tries to do as much for his community as his travel schedule allows: The Five & Ten homepage currently features a link to buy tickets to the Athens Local Food Awards, an event sponsored by a non-profit agricultural advocacy group. But as a recent participant in the James Beard Foundation's first-ever Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, he also believes chefs should start setting their own agendas to reshape the nation's food system.
"Chefs have a lot of great ideas," Acheson told me when we met up this weekend (I know Acheson through the Southern Foodways Alliance; he'd like you to know he's in town for the circus.) "We just need to be more systematic about how change happens."
Sixteen invited chefs, including Acheson, Maria Hines of Tilth and Golden Beetle and Cathy Whims of Portland's Nostrana, gathered earlier this month at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. for the two-day program, jointly sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Although the schedule included sessions on the farm bill and antibiotic use in livestock, the boot camp was more generally concerned with coaching chefs on how to become stronger advocates for the causes which matter to them, and exposing them to the resources at their disposal.
"If I need to get a grant, I can get advice from afar," Acheson says of the services volunteered by Pew. In addition to ideas, Acheson has plenty of contacts in the culinary world, but now knows where to find a "professional helper who will say 'pointless' or put together a start-to-finish cheat sheet."
Logistics aren't the only barrier to advocacy, Acheson admits: The French Laundry's Thomas Keller this year created a small stir by telling the New York Times that it wasn't his job to save the planet. "With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?," he asked.
Even boot camp alums are split on the question of food advocacy in the dining room. "I don't think it's necessary if they didn't come for that message," says Hines, who prefers to confine her explicit advocacy to panel discussions and board meetings.
"The most important thing is that I don't view food advocacy as political," he says. "I don't think I would ever emblazon my restaurant with Obama posters, but that 'Eat Local' sticker on our front door to Five & Ten is not really spelling out my political leanings, just pointing out that I am supportive of the community of food in our area."
He adds, "There's a line eventually I'll draw, but can I help explain how many antibiotics are in food? I can do that. There are people who listen to what I say, and I can harness that following.'"
It's not clear what the boot campers will decide to do next: "It was more of a planting a seed gathering," says Hines. Acheson hopes the chefs will think about adopting measurable goals for their advocacy efforts.
"Everybody was like 'wholesome food', and I was like, 'could you be more abstract?'" he says of the chefs' discussions. "Call me a realist, but I want to see a goal that's achievable, not aspirational."
No matter the outcome of the Chefs' Boot Camp, Acheson credits the James Beard Foundation for tackling issues that never would have been raised in previous years, when the group fancied itself an arbiter of epicures.
"Before it was like, what do you do?," says Acheson, who won the foundation's 2012 awards for Best Chef Southeast and Best Cookbook. "You hold dinners, which we love, but then we're hitting ourselves on the head when it costs $12,000 and one of our cooks gets arrested. They've taken it to another level."