“Like most consumers, I thought of food as, well, just food. I came to realize that food is one of our most personal and political daily acts.”
Katherine Miller, in “At the Table”
If you’re like me, you spend a considerable portion of your day thinking about food. We all must eat — so, whether we identify as food-obsessed or not, we all interact multiple times a day with the complicated web that is our society’s food system.
A vast network of growers, processors, transporters, policymakers, content creators, and others contribute to this system that feeds us and occupies our minds. And it’s a system that is both vulnerable to and partially responsible for the hazards of our changing climate. That means that the people who have power over our food system have an opportunity to shape not only what and how we eat, but also our climate future. And a group of people with considerable power in the food world, as well as cultural clout and sway, is chefs.
“For decades they’ve been leading on the plate,” says Katherine Miller, an author and food-system advocate and the former vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation. “Like, there is a reason we all eat kale, right?”
When she was working with the James Beard Foundation, Miller (who was recognized on our 2017 Grist 50 list) helped launch the Chef Action Network, a nonprofit that offers bootcamp trainings and support for chefs who want to use their influence for social causes. She found an audience of natural leaders who were hungry to build their skills outside of the kitchen to become agents of change.
“There’s only so much you can do on the plate. I think chefs want to figure out how to go beyond that — and that ultimately will take them into a policy world that is very complicated,” she says. Miller wrote a book, out last month, to help demystify that world for chefs and other would-be food-system advocates who want to make their voices heard. At the Table: The Chef’s Guide to Advocacy offers numerous examples of chefs who have found creative ways of using their platforms to raise funds and awareness and influence policy for issues they care about, as well as resources for those who are still figuring out the best way to become advocates.
We caught up with Miller to chat about some of the themes in the book, the unique skills that chefs can bring to the climate fight, and how anybody can participate in efforts to shake up the food system for the better. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What made you want to write this book — and frame it as a call to action?
A. I’d been working with chefs in the food system for about 10 or 11 years. When I left the [James] Beard Foundation, there were probably somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people on the waitlist for the Chef’s Bootcamp for Policy and Change. I kind of knew at that point that there was no way any one organization was going to reach all of those people who were curious about how they might become advocates.
When you look around the country, there are dozens of culinary schools and hundreds of thousands of independent restaurants. So, you know, I really — all pun intended — had a little bit of a hunger to reach the broader audience of chefs who were curious about advocacy. And it is a book that’s written for chefs and includes examples of all types of chefs who have done advocacy — but I kind of hope that if you’re an eater, or if you’re someone who is curious about the industry or has a certain viewpoint about restaurants and food, that it might pique your interest about how leaders in a particular industry can step up.
Q. From your experience running the bootcamp and your knowledge of the industry, would you say there’s a growing number of chefs who want to do more advocacy work?
A. I definitely think so. [Chefs are] deeply embedded into all of our communities. On practically every street corner, there’s a restaurant — whether it’s a mom-and-pop shop, or it’s fancy fine dining, or it’s a wine bar — they are everywhere. And I think there’s a growing trend of chefs who want to be seen as something more than just that person who plays with sharp knives and makes delicious food. I think they really are stepping up and responding to this time in our history that is demanding leaders to lead.
But they don’t know how to do it. These are people who are typically used to sort of barking orders and people falling in line in the kitchen — advocacy requires a different style of leadership. You don’t get to walk into a congressman’s office and yell at them, right? Really the job here as a chef or a community leader is to: One, make that decision that you want to lead. And two, learning how to do that effectively is the same as going to culinary school and learning how to make delicious food. There are skills and temperaments and things that you need to exercise to be an effective advocate.
I see every day that chefs are asked to do these things, and they really feel like they have a responsibility to step out of the kitchen and use their voice.
Q. For chefs who don’t have the time or the desire to start an organization (like World Central Kitchen or Zero Foodprint), what are some creative ways they can use their existing businesses and platforms for advocacy?
A. I think chef advocacy, and actually all of our advocacy, happens sort of in three places. It’s the stuff that’s closest to home — so for chefs, that’s the plate. It’s the way we form authentic, and not transactional, relationships with local organizations. And then it’s the longer-lead policy stuff.
And you can do all of those things at once and at varying degrees; it doesn’t have to be linear. You can dip into policy and then dip into community. But I do think it requires focus. What I always talk to chefs about as they start their journey is, what is the thing that means the most to you?
We started auditing restaurants to see how much they were giving [to charity], and restaurants were giving on average about $50,000 a year — but they were giving it to dozens of causes. If you were a $50,000 donor to any one organization, you would be, like, the top donor at the organization, right? You would have a totally different relationship with that organization. My first thing to anyone who wants to step into advocacy is to pick the issue that is closest to your home or your heart, or the thing that you feel the most passionately about, and focus on that.
And then the other is, don’t go create your own nonprofit. Please don’t form a new nonprofit, because there are plenty of experts out there who have done the research, built the infrastructure. As a chef or a leader, your job is to accelerate change.
Q. Speaking of homing in on a particular issue, do you think chefs are uniquely positioned to address climate change and the many ways it intersects with our food system?
A. The food system is one of the number one contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. I think that chefs, they sit in the middle of this giant food system as an ambassador and as a translator. And they also very practically deal with it every single day.
About five or six years ago, we started working on food-waste reduction. Globally, we waste a tremendous amount of food. The estimates range, but it’s about $1,500 a year that [an average household] is just throwing away — and that was happening in the restaurant industry. In a business that has such narrow margins, the idea that they were throwing away thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars of value was something that hadn’t occurred to them. And some of it hadn’t occurred to them because the system’s not set up — there’s no composting in their city [for instance]. But we really saw movement among chefs to build those sort of three pieces of advocacy.
So you look at somebody like Steven Satterfield, or Mourad Lahlou, or Tiffany Derry — they were three of the many chefs who started to do stuff differently in their restaurants. Steven always tells this great story about how he would save up all of the liver from the chickens that he got from his farmer. And when he got to a certain point, he would make this delicious chicken liver mousse, and he would juice [leftover] kale stems and make a gelée. And he would reuse the previous day’s brioche — he would make this beautiful chicken liver pâté with a kale gelée and brioche toast, and he would charge like 14 bucks for it [at Miller Union in Atlanta]. So it was like, found value on the plate and no waste.
But then he also put operations in place in his kitchen around composting, working with the city in Atlanta, all these pieces. And then he came to Washington, D.C., a number of times and helped secure the funding for the Farm Bill in 2018 that was the pilot project for food-waste reduction.
Chefs are so uniquely positioned to be able to tell that story of why that matters. They’re able to demonstrate it on the plate. They have access to their city officials, so they can talk about local and regional solutions like composting and digesters — and they can really help make a more effective case to policymakers.
Q. Climate impacts also threaten our food system in a number of ways. Do you think chefs are feeling that, and becoming more aware of the need to adapt?
A. I definitely see a growing trend among chefs and restaurants, from a small and independent perspective, who are prioritizing their local and regional food systems first. If there are silver linings in COVID, it was this illustration that some of our larger food system breaks, but our farmers next door are still there, our producers are there, our fishermen are there. There was really a reintroduction to that local food system, and I see that lasting.
Q. For readers who aren’t chefs themselves, what do you recommend they do to support or encourage advocacy for a more just, sustainable food system?
A. I think, much like chefs, our first steps start with our pocket books. If you value businesses or policies or decisions that have an impact on climate, go support restaurants that are sourcing more locally and regionally. If you’re a home cook, find a community-supported agriculture deal near you.
Use your money in the same way with restaurants as you would with any other part of your life: Make sure that it reflects your values. I think that’s number one. Number two is make sure that they know that’s why you’re there.
We always talk about this related to policymakers — that policymakers are people, too. And so you always have to thank them for the meeting, thank them for the time. Do the same thing with a chef or a restaurant. We have been locked in this really extractive world with chefs and restaurants, like they are there for our pleasure, and so we rarely say thank you.
Q. What are some of the key things you hope people will take away from the book?
A. I have been really struck by the number of people who have said to me, “I didn’t realize that food was a system.” And that the restaurant itself is a hub [within that system]. Restaurants are employers, they’re purchasers, they’re training grounds, they’re community influencers, they’re the place where the politicians come to have dinner.
Like climate change, our food system is so complicated and really hard to understand, and it’s built off decades and decades of policy decisions. And you can’t rip it out like a rose bush — you actually have to figure out how to redirect the root. And so my hope is that this book makes it a little easier to understand a hugely complicated system and all the things that go into it.
— Claire Elise Thompson
Read more in Miller’s book, At the Table: The Chef’s Guide to Advocacy
- Read: more about the growing trend of chef advocacy in this essay by chef and mathematician (and Grist 50 Fixer) Hari Pulapaka (Grist)
- Read: an opinion piece calling on chefs to participate in climate leadership, by Anthony Myint, founder of Zero Foodprint, and yet another Grist 50 Fixer (James Beard Foundation)
- Read: why the recipe site Epicurious announced it had cut out beef in 2021
- Read: ^^an investigation into how well Epicurious has lived up to its commitment (HEATED)
- Read: about the many restaurants, large and small, that activated to feed frontline workers in the spring of 2020 (Washington Post)
- Explore: our Future of Food issue, including the “Climate Future Cookbook” of recipes (and drabbles!) inspired by current trends toward more sustainable eating (Grist)
A parting shot
Silo, a zero-waste restaurant in London, hosted an invasive-species dinner series this summer. The meals focused on turning invasive plants and animals into trendy dishes, with the hope that eating them could help to cull their populations. Here, a chef prepares a crayfish tartlet.