How chefs became the new policy wonks

Chefs are increasingly politically conscious organized

Beall and Thomas

Chefs are increasingly politically conscious organized

Beall and Thomas

Tracing the evolution of an unlikely constituency.

We may never return to a time when we can eat without giving a thought to where our food came from, who made it, how it got on our plates, and whether or not it arrived without undo harm—to land, sea or soul.

Our plates are now inherently political, says Claire Benjamin, executive director of Food Policy Action, an organization co-founded in 2012 by chef Tom Colicchio, to hold legislators accountable for their votes on issues related to food and farming. “The truth is, food is political,” says Benjamin. “The cost of food, how many grocery stores you have access to, the fact that a head of broccoli is more expensive than a cheeseburger—those are all decisions that happen in Washington, year in and year out, that affect our lives.”

You employ hundreds of people, generating millions in local revenue. You’re exactly the constituent that should be in conversation with legislators.

This feels like common, like-it-or-not wisdom now, but politicians aren’t necessarily the right people (nor are they regularly close enough to the ground) to get the message across to voters who’ve checked out on the old “vote with your fork” clichés. The time is ripe for a set of unexpected policy influencers to enter the fray. And chefs, as it turns out, possess three key attributes that make them very appealing political change agents: 1.) Buying power, 2.) Built-in followings, and 3.) Access.

Katherine Miller, senior director of food policy advocacy for the James Beard Foundation, puts it to chefs this way: “You employ hundreds of people, generating millions in local revenue. You’re exactly the constituent that should be in conversation with legislators.”

Not that long ago, chefs limited the consequences of their powerful decisions to the back of the house. And those decisions were “local” in the truest sense of the word: relating to running the front of the house. But navigating the daily business of dining service pits a chef against some of the thorniest issues we face in local economies: labor, wages, taxes, pricing, food access, purchasing and sourcing. It’s only natural that chefs would seem attractive advocates—and even better translators—for the roster of urgent issues on the food system overhaul agenda.

So, what to do with these highly-invested-but-not-totally-sure-what-to-do community leaders? Organize them and build a network. In July of 2012, the James Beard Foundation, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, led the first Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change in Walland, Tennessee. It brought together 15 chefs with restaurants of note next to their names. Maria Hines from Tilth and the Golden Beatle Restaurant & Bar in Seattle; Sam Talbot of AOL’s GMC “Trade Secrets” in New York; Hugh Acheson from Five & Ten in Athens; and Rock Harper from DC Central Kitchen were in the first cohort to learn policy, advocacy and media skills that would help them become effective champions for their chosen food system causes. There have been 10 boot camps since, each with a different theme, from food waste reduction, to access and affordability, to antibiotic reform and child nutrition.

You think of NGOs and you think, okay, half the money is going for red tape. How much actually gets to someone?

And James Beard isn’t the only organization that’s been instrumental in helping chefs to, well, organize. “Chefs Collaborative has been doing this work for twenty years,” says Benjamin. “But we’ve seen real growth [in chefs going to Washington] over the last five years.” She thinks that has something to do with consumers skewing more political, and how visible some big name chefs have become in lobbying for change. “Tom [Colicchio], Hugh Acheson, Jose Andres…” she says. Their names are now as familiar for food policy issues as their short ribs, fried chicken, and migas (respectively).

For some chefs, thinking of kitchen-as-platform has been a transformative experience. Asha Gomez, chef-owner of Spice to Table and the Third Space in Atlanta, says that after she took a learning tour with the international NGO CARE three years ago, she had one of those moments where policy and plate collided. The tour was focused on issues that related to empowering small farmers. “I think you get so jaded, right?” she asks. “You think of NGOs and you think, okay, half the money is going for red tape. How much actually gets to someone? But I realized through that process that policy was so important. It was beyond my limited scope of understanding at the time.…For anything to change we have to get to Washington, D.C. and walk the halls of Congress and knock on senators’ doors.”

Chef Asha GomezCourtesy of Asha Gomez

Every time chef Asha Gomez walks into a congressional office, she introduces herself as a representative of a constituency that includes her employees, her customers, and the farmers she sources from

Chefs may have had their eyes opened. But have they yet internalized how just much power they’ve got, not only in tax and revenue generation terms, but also in terms of access? “So many chefs for the last two decades have been the faces at advocacy events,” says Miller. “Producing a bite for x organization and making x amount of dollars that will go to this charity or that cause.” The nature of their work often puts them right in the presence of big-name politicians and in prime position to get face time, even if it’s brief. Says Miller: “I’ve had chefs say, this election season, ‘I’ve got Hillary Clinton coming in. What do I talk to her about?’”

Gomez knows: you talk about the voting block you represent. “For whatever reason, we’ve been given this platform,” she says. “No matter what congressional office I have walked into across the United States, when I walk into the office, the first thing I say when I introduce myself to someone from the Senate or a committee or Congress is, ‘My name is Asha Gomez. I’m here representing 8,000 of your constituents or 5,000 of your constituents. You’ve got their attention immediately.’”

It translates to seven chefs having a $7 million-plus impact.

You also talk about how deeply your dollars are invested in the community. In 2014, Sara Brito, then executive director of Chefs Collaborative, undertook an economic impact analysis with seven Denver-area restaurant owners (running a total of 12 locations) to examine the effect of chef purchasing power on the local economy. The study found that those seven chefs alone were responsible for a combined $7.4 million economic impact just from the foods they purchased locally. “We acknowledge this is a small survey. But still, it translates to seven chefs having a $7 million-plus impact,” Brito told the Denver Business Journal. “If seven chefs … could make a $7 million impact, then imagine what we could do if we came together across the country.”

And at those times when you’re not talking to politicians, you talk to eaters. Because they vote. And you’ve got a following. “I went through so much of my life wanting to make a difference but not really knowing how to impact change, and it’s only very recently that I’ve come to realize that my voice matters,” says Gomez. “That I can impact change just by bringing awareness to certain issues that are near and dear to me, to my restaurants, to the people that I interact with, to the community that I live in, work in, play in. That these conversations that we have around our dinner tables with friends and family and our guests that come to our restaurant are what creates the change.”

The James Beard boot campBeall and Thomas

At the James Beard Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, chefs learn policy, advocacy, and media skills

And sure, sometimes people want just a plate of food without the side of politics. Chefs can serve that up, too, perhaps more passively, as part of the giving and receiving ritual. “I have realized that my role to play is that I speak at every opportunity I get about these things that I believe in, and I do it through food,” says Gomez. “Food is my medium to be able to start these conversations. Because when I’ve served a piece of chicken, I will start talking about where I sourced it from, and why it was important that I sourced it from where I did, and then I take it on a global level. That simple conversation of where that piece of chicken may have been sourced from can turn into a really, really powerful conversation. “

Chefs are cluing into the fact that, over dishes of pasta and braised greens, say, politics can be much easier to swallow. As Gomez observes: “It can change somebody’s mindset.”

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.