There’s a lot of good that can come from the sharp end of a chef’s knife, the blunt pressure of a rolling pin or the flash of a deglazing pan. But more and more these days, the culinary greats seem to be taking off their aprons and stepping outside their kitchens to help shape their communities — and in some cases, the world.
Most recently, Asheville chefs Katie Button of Cúrate and Nightbell and William Dissen of The Market Place Restaurant joined other chefs in lobbying for changes to national and international food policies.
In October, Button found herself in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio, whose Plate of the Union initiative invites chefs to “work with the lobbying group Food Policy Action to push for some clear objectives, like growing more organic, investing in clean water and healthy animals, fighting hunger and food insecurity, revitalizing land and reducing food waste,” she explains. Twenty celebrated chefs went to Congress to speak with representatives and senators. Button was partnered with Steve McCue of San Antonio’s Cured and “Top Chef” competitor Joy Crump of Fredericksburg, Va.’s Foode, to meet with 11 elected officials or their staff, including U.S. Reps. Alma Adams and David Price of North Carolina, to talk about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
SNAP, Button notes, is covered by the Farm Bill, a bipartisan piece of legislation dating to 1933 that was a direct response to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and weaves together farm subsidies and food stamps into a fused partnership. That bill is up for renegotiation in 2018, and one proposal would cut SNAP funding by $193 million. “There were rumors going around Capitol Hill about SNAP benefits getting cut or block-granted to states, putting the cost burden on states rather than being a federally funded program,” she says.
Chefs have a unique perspective on the Farm Bill, as their work is affected by almost every aspect of the legislation. “Our businesses are usually in urban areas, so we work a lot with people who are trying to find jobs in a city,” Button points out. “But we also work with farmers and the farm community, so we hear their concerns and problems and what is affecting their livelihood, and are sensitive to that as well.”
According to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities, there are 1,470,862 SNAP recipients in North Carolina, two-thirds of whom are children. That number also includes over 61,000 veterans and 151,000 seniors. Button pays her staff a living wage, so presumably most of them do not require assistance, but she has still seen the positive effects of food stamps in her own kitchen.
“I have employees that were on SNAP, and they needed that program in order to find a job,” she says. “The jobs that a lot of these people are looking for are entry-level jobs — dishwashers, prep cooks — those are good jobs and a good way to start working your way up, but they take a lot of energy.” Cúrate does a four-hour working interview to see if potential employees can keep up with the pace of the restaurant. “I can’t imagine doing that if I didn’t have access to food. How am I going to work on my feet all day starving? That just makes it harder for you to get the job even when you are perfectly capable of doing the job.”
Button says that as a business owner, she understands how to balance a budget, but cuts shouldn’t be made to areas that are necessities. “Food should not be on the table for that conversation,” she says. “A basic need of everyone like food should continue to be a fully funded federal program.”
Meanwhile, just up the road at The Market Place, Dissen took a break this fall from opening his new Haymaker restaurant in Charlotte to represent the United States at a United Nations gathering. Based on his three years of experience with the American Chefs Corps, a partnership between the James Beard Foundation and the U.S. State Department that enlists American chefs to travel as culinary diplomats, the JBF tapped Dissen to represent the U.S. at the U.N. for negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goal 2‘s Chef’s Manifesto.
The SDG2 manifesto is a set of objectives intended to guide the culinary and hospitality sectors in achieving the lofty goal of eliminating hunger and developing globally sustainable agriculture by 2030. “If the U.N. is working to update their global food policy, what better than to have chefs act as advocates because we work with the whole food system, the entire supply chain, on a daily basis,” says Dissen, who has advocated nationally on issues ranging from sustainable seafood to GMO labeling.
About 30 chefs from around the globe initially met in New York City to begin developing ideas, followed by a second session in early October in London, where they cooked, ate and discussed how to take the manifesto to the next level. “We were there to focus on these elements and say, as chefs, we stand for ingredients grown with respect for the Earth and its oceans, protection of biodiversity and improved animal welfare, investment in sustainable agriculture and farmer livelihoods, no food loss or waste, the celebration of local seasonal food, a focus on plant-based ingredients — eating more vegetables — education on food safety, diverse diets and nutritious cooking, and ensuring that high-quality food is accessible and affordable for all,” Dissen says.
Although there was a focus on driving the local food movement, more pressing matters came to the forefront. “You have a chef from Brazil saying, ‘Yes, that is important, but people are dying because they can’t eat,'” Dissen recounts. “Poverty and access to food is our number one goal. That’s something we all already understand, but when you talk to somebody who is at the root source of it, it’s really eye-opening.”
Nearly 100 top chefs from around the world have added their signatures to the manifesto, which seeks to find common commitments for both developed nations and developing countries. “It was great to go be a part of that conversation in London because we do live in a bit of a bubble here in Asheville,” Dissen notes. “We argue about who has the better CSA box here, but you go to another city and they’re like, ‘A CS-what?’ But in London, there were chefs from Brazil and South Africa and other places that have a different perspective of where their food comes from. Right here around Asheville, you have one of the largest food deserts in the Southeast, but we still have access as a country to food that other places don’t.”
But for these chefs, the concerns don’t stop within their communities, because outside their food sheds are more hungry mouths to feed and solutions that may not actually be that far out of reach. “The ultimate goal is to say that we want them to take our voice and ideas and apply it to U.N. regulation that people will use to craft food policy across the world,” Dissen says.