Being a chef can be isolating work. It is easy to disappear into the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, the whirring of immersion blenders, the tapping of the knife against the cutting board. Cooking often requires so much time of a chef that it is easy to forfeit oneself to the job, losing connection with the community at large.
“It’s easy to feel like you’re just on your own little island,” says Richmond, Va., chef Travis Milton. Long obsessed with Appalachian ingredients and Southern foodways, Milton seeks out rare, heirloom ingredients indigenous to the Appalachian Mountains — strains of vegetables and grains that have slowly disappeared over time due to market demand for more universally accessible varietals.
“You’ll be looking up old recipes and realize that you can’t figure out where to find something,” he says. “It can be hard to remember that there are other chefs on your team.”
Earlier this month, Asheville chef William Dissen‘s downtown restaurant, The Market Place, played host to Milton and over 20 other chefs plus renowned writers, farmers and food justice leaders for the James Beard Foundation‘s inaugural Chefs at Work on Policy and Change Appalachian food salon. The likes of Alan Benton of Tennessee’s Benton’s Bacon, Burnsville historian and cookbook author Ronni Lundy and Kentucky seed saver Bill Best sat alongside some of the South’s best chefs during networking sessions.
Levon Wallace of Nashville’s Cochon Butcher, Anthony Lamas of Louisville’s Seviche and Ashley Christensen of Raleigh’s Poole’s Diner rubbed elbows with hometown heroes such as Katie Button and John Fleer during the salon, which was a private discussion on all things Appalachian. The aim was to allow the chefs to dig deeply into issues of sustainability, food inequality and access, and cultural heritage.
“It was an amazing group of chefs all coming together to discuss our Appalachian values, our cuisine and those traits that tie us all together,” says Dissen. “There are some pretty amazing things happening in Appalachia that the rest of the country kind of gets but doesn’t really understand. It was about figuring out how we can use our voices collectively to let the world know that we are making some serious waves in the culinary world here.”
The salon was an extension of the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Action Network, the nonprofit organization that hosts the Chefs Bootcamp for Policy and Change, a recurring gathering that seeks to connect chefs to tools and resources for effecting positive change within their communities.
“Forever, Appalachia has been a really extractive society, where people come in and take things from us,” says Milton. “Whether it is coal or timbering, it’s been a constant stream of people benefiting from our resources. So how do we as chefs in the region create systems so that the actual communities in Appalachia can benefit?”
Dissen, who has worked extensively on a national level as a representative for sustainable food systems, adds that issues of sustainability and environmental awareness have been “innately important” to residents of Appalachia for centuries. “A lot of the folks here were impoverished, so by nature, you’d never throw anything out. You canned, you pickled, you preserved. If you slaughtered a hog, you used every single part of it, not because it was a Brooklyn DIY trend of the moment; it was because if you didn’t do that, you couldn’t feed your family,” Dissen explains. “That is our heritage, and now we take those traditions and use them to create a modern Appalachian cuisine. These are flavors you don’t find anywhere else.”
Chai Pani chef and James Beard Award nominee Meherwan Irani came away with a different perspective. As an Indian immigrant, Irani notes, “I had begun to feel really stuck in what I am doing and how I’m doing it, but it was like a lightbulb just went off this week. I have the opportunity now not just to tell the story of Indian food but to really weave in the story of Asheville. It really helped to fire up the whole creative machine again.
“If an Indian family were to move to Appalachia with no idea how to access the ingredients from home, they’d still figure out a way to make the food from home with what they found here,” Irani continues. “So [the question is], how can I actually cook Indian food with what I have around me?”
Irani, whose restaurant’s motto has always been “Namaste Y’all,” adds, “Instead of that just being a nod to being an Indian in the South, I want it to become a mantra for having a sense of place in the South.”
Milton says the salon also focused on the idea of preserving a sense of place and community in food and the importance of constantly working to improve the understanding of Appalachia and the region’s heritage. He also says there was discussion of how shifting from local to regional sourcing is “a big step in the right direction.”
“We have to look at how we work with farmers. We can’t keep working in a symbiotic way anymore, but looking at it as a true partnership and understanding what it is to be a farmer,” he continues. “It gets lost for a lot of chefs that there is a lot of work that goes into that piece of squash that you ordered. There are rotational crops that the farmers might not even be able to sell, and that that’s why the price is different [for those]. So it really takes an understanding of what it takes to get the food to you and, from the farmers side, an understanding of the sheer economics of being a chef. We can all build on that.”
Dissen adds that during the discussions, a lot of energy was directed at identifying values. “Community, family, sustainability, preservation: These are bigger-picture issues that come up nationally,” he says. “What can we do to be more effective in our communities? What about food deserts and childhood nutrition?”
“We really started working with coal miners and really dealing with a lot of aspects of rural law as a way to look at how we could effect social change through the lens of food,” says Milton, who routinely works to use Appalachian traditions to bring change through food with organizations such as the Appalachian Food Summit, Grow Appalachia and the Virginia Food Heritage Project.
“A lot us had been doing this well before anyone took notice that Appalachia even had a cuisine, and now it’s getting a little harder because there is a spotlight on it,” he continues. “We just want to make sure that things are done properly, and with a lot of respect, and in a way that can benefit Appalachia as a whole and not just a single restaurateur.”