The agenda for the Chefs Collaborative National Summit, a three-day event which concludes this morning at the Seattle Art Museum, included sessions on lamb, goat, seafood and pastured beef. But two of Seattle's best-known chefs gently suggested from the stage that the sustainability organization broaden its conference programming to examine issues beyond the pantry.
"Sustainability isn't necessarily about black cod," restaurateur Tom Douglas said in his introduction of keynote speaker Ruth Reichl. "Sustainability is about health care, sustainability is about a caring workplace. Let's make sure we're talking about the entire business, and not just about the salmon coming in the door."
Of the 12 breakout sessions offered yesterday, nine were devoted to ingredients and their sourcing. Another pair of sessions addressed restaurant financing and budgeting, while the final session on the docket featured a food system reform talk by Jane Black, who spent a year in West Virginia trying to understand why Americans eat the way they do.
"I think Tom put out a good question," Chefs Collaborative executive director Melissa Kogut said later when asked about the Summit's thematic thrust. "Sustainability is not just about food. For individuals, it's also about fair wages."
At last year's summit in New Orleans, participants were invited to a session about slavery in the U.S. tomato industry. While none of the sessions in Seattle explicitly addressed human rights concerns, Kogut stressed that the sustainable farming, ranching and fishing methods favored by her group's membership are generally better for workers than conventional food production methods. For instance, "it's healthier that there's no pesticides, it's healthier the way manure is handled."
Like Douglas, Restaurant Marche's Greg Atkinson wasn't delivering a direct critique of conference programming when he offered his vision of sustainability during a plenary session moderated by the New York Times' Kim Severson. But he also articulated a definition that transcends green-lighted lists of earth-friendly foods.
"I can't enjoy a meal if I'm thinking someone isn't being treated well," he said. "Even though my clientele is the country club guy who doesn't care as long as the last member of the species arrives at his table, there is a responsibility to think about best practices. And I take the responsibility joyfully."
Grand Central Baking Company's Piper Davis, who served on the panel with Atkinson and Douglas, concurred: "For me, it's not so much about one piece of broccoli," she said. "It's about doing the right thing in your place."