Chefs and Farmers Facing the Future

Is food activism too much to ask of chefs?


"It’s difficult to envision a forum in which a group with such diverse perspectives could come to a consensus regarding the path to tackle our food insecurity. This begs the question of when, where and how we are going to tackle these fundamental issues.” Claire Sullivan

Chefs and Farmers Facing the Future / Perhaps the greatest conceit of the recent Chefs and Farmers Facing the Future food forum was assuming that all the participating chefs would care about food security. The premise of the forum was that they would “join the cause for a sustainable local food system,” said co-organizer Dan Nakasone. One of the moderators, Chuck Furuya, spoke of the original Hawaii Regional Cuisine chefs–among them, Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi–who came together 20 years ago and fomented a food movement, planting the seed for Hawaii’s current system of diversified agriculture. He asked the chefs to re-create that synergy to boost our local food system. The difference between now and then, however, is that 20 years ago, the motivation was chiefly to elevate the level of Hawaii cuisine; food security wasn’t really the hot topic it is today.

It’s easier to get chefs on board with the idea of making better food–that’s exciting for the entire food industry. Convincing them to care about issues like food accessibility (equal access to healthy food) when a line cook makes about $10 an hour, is a bit harder. Chefs (perhaps with the exception of Zippy’s R&D chef) don’t make a living off making food accessible; as Peter Merriman said on the panel, a good role for chefs is to buy local, make the best food they can and charge the most they can. (For that matter, many farmers may also not care deeply about food security; their goal is to sell their products and make a living, hence the 47 different uses for agricultural land, with only one of them targeted for food production.)

The food movement followers know that change to the food system is necessary, but ultimately, we can’t expect chefs–at least all of them–to be like Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver leading the food fight.

Chefs are considered the “opinion leaders of the food world,” Nakasone said, on why he assembled chefs for the forum. But these days “the general public is more educated and informed than the chefs,” said Ed Kenney.

“Chefs can make a difference [but food security is a] much bigger concept than chefs and farmers can hope to solve…And I don’t think [food activism] should be a mandatory thing for chefs. Sushi Sasabune kicks ass and he has nothing to do with food security.”

Defining “sustainable” and “food security”

The goals of the forum were lofty: to move toward a sustainable local food system and food security. These are important discussions, but complex, multifaceted ones, not to mention that the very definitions of the terms are controversial; what looks like food sustainability to the Gates Foundation is very different from food activist Vandana Shiva’s vision. The forum wisely chose to focus on the primary aspect that chefs have direct control over–sourcing local products in their restaurants–but in doing so, some attendees felt alienated, preferring to move beyond the “Buy Local” slogan.

“They never wanted to speak about feeding everyone…it wasn’t about ‘let’s get food out to these communities, develop farmland that’s sitting fallow and put it into production.’ [The written program] focused on farmers, unemployment, and how farmland is being lost, but the participants didn’t directly address these issues. It was a feel-good event for Hawaii Regional Cuisine,” said an attendee who didn’t wish to be named.

Claire Sullivan of Whole Foods said, “The discussion at the food forum highlighted some divisions within the local food and agricultural community. There was a marked lack of consensus among participants on controversial issues such as the use of Hawaii land to grow GMO seed crops for export, and little time spent on the non-controversial but challenging issue of increasing accessibility of locally grown food for people with less discretionary income. While these topics certainly merit discussion, it’s difficult to envision a forum in which a group with such diverse perspectives could come to a consensus regarding the path to tackle our food insecurity. This begs the question of when, where and how we are going to tackle these fundamental issues.”

Finding common ground on tilapia

Perhaps the forum’s greatest success was the presentation of Fred Lau’s aquaponic tilapia production, which provided an example of a responsible aquaculture venture that also tasted delicious. To many, this was the highlight of the forum, and perhaps this is the sort of platform that chefs can come together on–a local food system that tastes good.

The forum’s other strength was in bringing together an impressive number of chefs and farmers, a networking opportunity that resulted in some connections formed among chefs and farmers. Perhaps this is the most a forum can hope for–connections made outside of moderated panels. In my experience and research, from the French Laundry to Zippy’s, every local food connection was the result of a meeting between a chef, farmer or rancher. This alone won’t solve Hawaii’s food security issue, but it can at least offer an entry point for chefs willing to involve themselves in the food sustainability movement.