For many chefs, celebrity status is great for selling cookbooks, packing the house at food-and-wine festivals, and launching dishware spin-offs at Target, but more than ever, some prominent restaurant-industry figures have another goal in mind: using their platforms to effect positive change in their communities and in the world. “Stick to cooking,” say critics who want to keep politics out of food, but food – and by proxy, those who make the food – has always been political, tied intrinsically to issues of race, class, culture, and the environment. Here are four food folks who have stepped up with initiatives to care for the earth and those around them. Stick to cooking? Not a chance.
In May, José Andrés took the stage – at the James Beard Awards to accept the foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year award. “People in need, they don’t want our pity,” he said, waving a tuxedoed and French-cuffed arm. “They only want our respect, and sometimes a plate of food is all the respect they need.”
Andrés is the head of ThinkFoodGroup, an empire of 31 restaurants that includes outposts in SLS Hotels in Miami and Beverly Hills, and The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Over the last few years, he has emerged as a leading advocate in the restaurant community for disaster relief through food. “I am a cook who has been trained to feed people,” he explains, “and I could take the same skills that I use to feed the few at my restaurants and apply them to feed the many, those in need after disaster.”
He channels this mission through his foundation, World Central Kitchen, which he founded after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010. When the disaster hit, Andrés was on vacation with his family in the Cayman Islands. “I knew I had to go and help out. I knew I wanted to stay involved with Haiti, so we established World Central Kitchen. What we have to offer the world are smart, chef-driven solutions; we have people, networks, and knowledge, all of which can be deployed for long-term development projects or short-term disaster relief, and everything in between.”
World Central Kitchen played a pivotal role in getting people fed in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria last year. Andrés arrived following the storm to find Puerto Rico with very little ... anything. Power, gas, and prepared food were in short supply. Andrés connected with Jose Enrique, perhaps the most famous chef in San Juan, and just started cooking outside Enrique’s eponymous restaurant in the capital’s Santurce neighborhood – simple, home-cooked, comforting food. Within weeks, a few pans of rice and sancocho, a Caribbean meat stew, grew into an islandwide effort that touched every coast and ran point on hunger relief for federal agencies and global aid organizations. “The operation grew so big that at one point you couldn’t find any sliced cheese in all of Puerto Rico,” the New York Times reported. “The team had bought it all up for sandwiches.”
Shortly after the Beard Awards, World Central Kitchen was back on the front lines, this time in California feeding emergency workers during last summer’s vicious wildfires. “[The wildfires and Hurricane Maria] are both very different and very much the same,” Andrés says. “At the end of the day, people in disaster situations need to be fed, and everyone loves the comfort of a hot meal, so our mission is the same.”
About two out of the ten pairs of hands answering phones, shucking Sweetwater oysters, and mixing palomas and mezcal margaritas at Cala in San Francisco once wore cuffs. Hiring the formerly incarcerated has been a company endeavor since 2015, when the celebrated Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara opened Cala, her first American restaurant, with managing partner Emma Rosenbush.
“Our justice system is broken,” Rosenbush says. “The idea that you serve your time and you’re done ... that’s not how it works. It’s something you carry with you forever and is so specifically oppressive to poor people and people of color. It’s just such a blaring injustice.”
Before meeting Cámara in Mexico City, where the chef owns the famed Contramar, and signing on to manage Cala, Rosenbush worked with an educational program for juvenile detention camps outside Los Angeles and for the Prison Law Office in Berkeley. “I was really interested in reentry, specifically where that meets employment.” In the run-up to opening Cala, she approached Cámara with an idea: Hire people transitioning from prison back into society.
Cámara had some previous experience at Contramar with several employees who had criminal backgrounds. When conceptualizing Cala, she had concerns that the hospitality labor crisis in the Bay Area would hinder attracting dedicated staff who could provide the experience she wanted for guests. “Emma saw the opportunity and proposed it, and I gave her the green light,” Cámara says. When Cala opened, 70 percent of its staff had been previously incarcerated.
Cala partners with organizations in the Bay Area that work with the reentry community. The relationships are informal, with an open dialogue. Sometimes a group in the network will contact Cala about a candidate they think will make a great addition to the team. Sometimes Cala sends out requests for applicants. And while there are challenges – early on in the program, working with individuals in recovery from substance abuse in a restaurant environment was “the hardest thing we faced,” according to Rosenbush – the successes have greatly outweighed the setbacks. A back waiter, for instance, moved up to a server position, then became a shift supervisor on his way to management. For Cámara and Rosenbush, it’s about identifying where these employees want to go within the company and saying, “Let’s make a pathway to get you there,” Rosenbush explains. “It’s about creating opportunities and seeing restaurant work as a potential career.”
“Social responsibility should be a consideration for all of us,” Cámara says, “but as a chef and restaurateur, you constantly make decisions that can be of great influence.” Cámara feels strongly that circumstances often make it difficult for some to “find their way” in the beginning, and she’s a big believer in second chances, in hard work, and in creating the right environment.
“I want to work with people who are passionate about what they do,” she says. “I want that to be a shared value in my restaurants, and I’ve had extraordinary experiences with people starting to care about things when someone cares about them. That’s what I work for every day: caring.”
Dan Barber had a beef with butternut squash: "All the hoops we have to jump through — all the butter and brown sugar we add — to make a butternut delicious, not to mention the pain it is to chop," says Barber, whose Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, regularly tops lists of the best restaurants in the country. Around 2010, Barber was laying out his gripes against the popular vegetable to Michael Mazourek, a squash breeder and horticulture professor at Cornell, and jokingly challenged him, “If you’re so good at breeding squash, why don’t you shrink that thing down and make it taste good?”
Mazourek’s reply – “In all my years of making thousands of different varieties of plants, no one has ever asked me to breed for flavor” – led to his creation of the personal-size, intensely sweet Honeynut squash. It’s an agricultural Cinderella story, going from the boutique fields of Blue Hill to the produce aisle at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s within a decade. Mazourek and Barber are banking on repeating the Honeynut’s success with Row 7 Seeds, which debuted earlier this year. “If one palm-size squash could disrupt the industry, why couldn’t one small seed company do the same?” Barber says. “For the most part, the seed industry is controlled by a few very powerful chemical companies. We’re hoping the Row 7 community kickstarts a culture” – one in which chefs, farmers, and consumers will influence and change the agricultural complex. If that task sounds insurmountable, think of whether you could buy grass-fed milk or organic yogurt in Walmart 20 years ago.
Barber is one of the restaurant industry’s foremost authorities on the local, organic food movement. At Blue Hill, set on Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture’s 80-acre farm, the tasting menu unfolds in a dozen graceful acts, starring flora and fauna grown and raised on-site and on Hudson Valley farms. Though the chef grew up in the processed-foods heyday of the 1970s, summers spent on his grandmother’s farm in the Berkshires “provided a more powerful education, one that impressed upon me a responsibility to the land and an understanding that good food is inextricably linked to good agriculture,” he says.
Industrial agriculture breeds produce for endurance. Can this tomato withstand a long drive on a truck from Mexico to Boston or Bismarck or Biloxi? Can it hold up in cold storage at a supermarket? Can it live for a week on the shelf and still look good? To Big Ag, flavor is a fair sacrifice for appearance and stability, which is why many chefs who are thoughtful about the environment and obsessed with taste have long sought alternative sources for produce, from buying at their local farmers’ markets to tending backyard container gardens. Barber took this approach to its logical conclusion: starting a seed company.
What Row 7 does is known as participatory plant breeding – in which chefs, breeders, and farmers work in tandem. It’s still a relatively new trend, according to Barber, and Row 7 is in the vanguard. “Our varieties are bred to be delicious, but they’re also bred to support organic growers by having improved disease resistance and resilience,” Barber says. A naturally strong plant helps negate the need for pesticides and insecticides that can infect the surrounding soil for years. “If a vegetable doesn’t perform well in the kitchen and the field, it doesn’t have a place in our catalogue,” he adds.
There are seven varieties currently available on the Row 7 website, including the Upstate Abundance potato, a spud “so buttery it doesn’t need butter,” according to Barber; the 7082 cucumber, inspired by the ultra-fragrant breeds in the Middle East; and a thicker-skinned evolution of the Honeynut that started it all. More than 50 chefs in the U.S. (Renee Erickson in Seattle, Mashama Bailey in Savannah) and abroad (Yotam Ottolenghi in London, Ben Shewry in Melbourne) have partnered with farms in their regions to test Row 7 seeds – first in the fields, then on their menus.