Thursday, May 17, 2012
Food stamps. Lawsuits. Stage plays.
These are not the typical kitchen tools. Then again, the chefs deploying those devices aren’t your typical tastemakers. They are some of the best and most progressive chefs in the country, and headlining this weekend’s Cooking for Solutions food summit, which the Monterey Bay Aquarium gathers each spring to raise funds for sustainability watchdog Seafood Watch. The event spotlights chefs and purveyors doing right by the ocean and environment with waves of tastings, tours, talks and demos (see sidebar, opposite page).
From stations scattered across the country – New England to the Midwest to the South – Michel Nischan, Rick Bayless and Susan Spicer are using those unconventional means to attack big, ugly, entrenched problems like food deserts, apathy and environmental abuse. They’d like nothing more than to stick a fork in each of them – and, oh, obesity and diabetes while they’re at it.
They’re part of a generation that has seen its chef status go from second thought to super sexy, its members recast from lowly laborers best kept in the kitchen into much-pursued personalities in the crosshairs of seemingly every other camera in America. They’ve become stars, and deservedly so, but as they continue to advocate the role of healthy foods on new, much-needed fronts in bold and inventive ways, these stars may just become our saviors, too.
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Leave it to a master chef to spot the most promising piece of pie on the table.
Only this was no everyday dessert cart. It was a 2007 panel assembled by new nonprofit Wholesome Wave to parse the dense details of the upcoming U.S. Farm Bill, with help from policymakers, food advocates and analysts like Daniel Imoff, author of Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill.
Among the group was Michel Nischan, this year’s Cooking for Solutions Chef of the Year, whose farm duties as a kid informs his menu at The Waiting Room – think grilled white shrimp and grits and succulent loin cuts from heritage pig – and his James Beard Foundation Award-winning cookbook Pure and Simple and TV series Victory Garden. He had just teamed with Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of agriculture Gus Schumacher – a longtime pioneer in advancing the use of federal low-income aids like Women, Infants and Children nutrition vouchers at farmers markets – to found Wholesome Wave. Its goal: to penetrate food deserts with healthy foods.
Nischan remembers being confused by all the attention to relatively small pieces of the bill’s budget, which Imoff explored with a buffet of pie charts. To the chef, the focus trained disproportionately on finding subsidies for organic and local operations – especially since he knew farmers had tried in vain for decades to shave off 10 percent of the $10 billion in annual funding allotted for cotton, corn, soy, wheat and rice.
“I’m looking at this yellow piece that was biggest – $38 billion at time,” he says. “Why aren’t we looking at that?”
That big, yellow piece was tagged SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Nischan and Schumacher figured it might be more manageable to earn a small share of the large amount the government was spending in food assistance than it would be to navigate the lawyer – and lobbyist-heavy terrain of subsidies.
Suddenly Wholesome Wave had inspiration for its marquee mission. The double-impact idea: Route more SNAP funds to local farms and put more local fruits and vegetables in the hands and mouths of the poor.
As with his restaurant’s seasonal understandings, added inspiration for Wholesome Wave came from close to home: Nischan’s son had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. After doctors said diet would dictate the best long-term outcome, Dad wondered how many of the country’s impoverished diabetics were at risk because they didn’t have healthy food within reach.
“For me,” Nischan says, “that was a mindblower.”
While he grew up relatively poor, Nischan was never hungry, thanks to his mother’s gardens and farmer friends. Now he was observing poor communities where alternatives to Hamburger Helper and Cup O’ Noodles were not only more expensive, but harder to find.
“Coke and Twinkies are not the villains,” he says. “Lack of choice is.”
As he wrote at TheAtlantic.com, “Our food system has gone horribly wrong.”
The Wholesome Wave solution: Move away from restricting what people can buy with food stamps, and instead offer easy options – and an incentive to spend it on local produce at markets organized in neighborhoods that never had them.
The result: A pilot program in a nutritionally isolated place like Maryland’s Takoma Park, where populations with little food independence were given the chance to double the value of their food stamps if they were spent at farmers markets. The carrot (boosted spending power) proved wildly better than the stick (restrictions against soda and candy), partly because it was a locally grown, often-organic carrot.
“It was so successful we stepped back and said, ‘We need a plan,’” Nischan says.
That plan: In five years, bring SNAP-friendly opportunities to 10 states and 50 farmers markets.
Five years arrives next month, but WW has already reached 28 states and more than 300 markets, with 2,200 farmers and 40,000 federal benefit recipients affected.
Key benefits include more income for farmers, who in turn increase acreage and diversify plantings. State and local agencies – like California’s Roots of Change and Monterey County’s Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association – steward the exchange of SNAP for tokens that farmers redeem for cash. Agencies able to meet tracking requirements are being added to Wholesome Wave-affiliated programs and partner agencies all the time, including Peninsula-based Everyone’s Harvest.
“It’s a regional manifestation of Wholesome Wave’s national goals,” says ALBA Development Director Gary Peterson, “a chance to expand the base of people exposed to the best produce in the world, here locally.”
This Wednesday, May 16, in fact, Nischan was set to tour ALBA, meeting farmers, tasting produce and discussing the vision with local officials like County Supervisor Simon Salinas, Monterey County Health Department Medical Director Lisa Hernandez and local SNAP funds chief Henry Espinosa.
When the 2012 Farm Bill was approved by the Senate Agricultural Committee last month, Nischan and Schumacher had worn in their speed-dial pathways to Washington, D.C. contacts. Emerging news was delicious: Despite decreasing budgets across the board, SNAP funds emerged largely intact, and included a $100 million marker for Wholesome Wave-type programs. (The bill’s now on to the Senate and then the House.) They’ve also urged the feds’ Food Nutrition Services to dedicate $4 million to emerging Electronic Balance Transfer technologies at farmers markets to make using food stamps even easier, and have created ways for SNAP funds to go toward community-supported agriculture. Allowing local partners to innovate around obstacles remains a priority too.
“The program creates all-good things people are looking for, especially in today’s tough economies,” Nischan says. “It’s a big win-win.”
Like having your slice of the pie and eating it too.
Famed New Orleans Chef Susan Spicer wasn’t in it for her piece of the pie, and she said as much in her first interview after taking on one of the world’s biggest and best-equipped bullies, BP Oil. She had just filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of other restaurants and fish purveyors in the wake of the then-still-gushing Deepwater Horizon spill.
“I hope that my motivations will not be misinterpreted,” she said. “It’s more about solidarity in this region than about getting my piece of the pie. I can’t say I expect to see a dollar. I am just angry.”
As oil pumped like black pus from a bottomless zit at the base of the Gulf of Mexico, soaking sea life into dying aberrations of themselves and recasting the ocean’s surface as an ugly reflection of our fossil fuel fixation, the scariest thing to Spicer wasn’t the sights, it was the sounds. Of acceptance.
“There seemed to be no sense of urgency,” she says. “It was denial, people saying, ‘They’re going to get this thing taken care of,’ but the oil kept coming.”
She might’ve carried on conducting business at her landmark Bayona restaurant in New Orleans, where a heavenly garden setting and items like sautéed wild redfish with chanterelle-leek vinaigrette and chorizo-stuffed rabbit roulade have earned her a James Beard Best Chef award, or her dream-come-true Mondo New Orleans, which started servings its contemporary international fare – Chinese braised duck leg, pulled pork pupusas – not long before the catastrophe was uncorked.
But the very nature of her approach prevented her from standing by and watching from the shore. Fishermen are the fabric of her gulf-to-table existence. Grilled Gulf shrimp over black bean cake and Gulf oysters stuffed with spinach, fennel and Italian sausage are her signatures.
“We definitely get what guys pull in,” she says. “They come with a cooler full of shrimp and fish and soft-shell crab.”
In the fishermen she saw a community that had worked to build a life force around food. She also saw something she had worked at tirelessly herself.
“Twenty years is a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” she says, “creating something that would be a long-term thing.”
Spicer’s suit touched off another gusher: of attention. TV crews from as far as Poland and Japan immediately surfaced at her restaurants. The New York Times and roughly half the world’s food websites published pieces. CNN and Anderson Cooper came calling.
Headlines spotlighting her suit meant justice wouldn’t be as oil-spill slippery – and, as it turns out, Bayona’s business barely dipped, so she sidestepped to allow other parties find remuneration.
“We didn’t suffer to the extent we thought we might,” she says. “So we took a backseat to other plaintiffs.”
Just as her name matches a city known for its seasoning, Spicer’s knowledge equips her well to be a spokesperson, and she has been for a long time. As a board member of the Gulf Restoration Network, she was meeting with stakeholders long before Katrina hit.
“I’ve been talking with Louisiana seafood board, shrimpers, fishermen,” she says. “I’m really, really advocating for the fees from BP to get funneled back to restoration of the gulf.”
There is work on other fronts. Earlier this spring the Gulf Restoration Network sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, objecting to inaction in addressing run-off pollution that causes the “dead zone” along the coast. They’re also pressing Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to reconsider his enthusiastic allegiance to new drilling in the Gulf.
As a result, while Top Chef alum Spicer seeks to teach eaters to embrace the act of cooking as much as its outcome – “New Orleans can teach the country to love the process, discovering the whole sensual part of it,” she says, “that’s what it’s all about” – and will participate in everything from CFS’s Gulf Breakfast Saturday morning and the Sustainable Seafood Challenge later that day, she also preaches the importance of accountability. She reminds everyone to stay vigilant about what’s close to their stomachs and hearts.
“The thing to remember right now is that our seafood is being tested rigorously,” she says. “It is safe to eat, but we need to make sure we’re keeping the focus and demand there.”
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When the sweet product hit his lips, celebrity chef, cookbook author and food TV pillar Rick Bayless knew he needed more. Only the farmer who grew the spinach didn’t have the capacity to provide it in the quantities Bayless’ relentlessly popular Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo needed.
The simple-but-perfect plan that resulted has meant a regional small-farm revolution of sorts. But Bayless’ latest coup is even more original: Describing it as “serious drama” would be both accurate and a bit of an understatement.
But the spinach came first. One-time national James Beard Chef of the Year Bayless is often honored by Cooking for Solutions for the same reason he is adored by tastebuds hungry for his contemporary Mexican cuisine, which he approaches with anthropological passion: He stocks his plates with the best and freshest sustainable ingredients, adhering to a philosophy Thomas Keller shared during another Cooking for Solutions. “If I can get better ingredients than you,” he said, “I’m a better chef than you.”
Bayless believes Snug Haven’s spinach is a sweet dream because of the natural sugars the plants produce to prevent from freezing as temps dip. A superior spinach environment happens despite fickle Midwestern climes courtesy of a solar-heated, plastic-covered hoop house. Bayless learned his farmer would need another hooper to meet demand.
So Bayless lent him the green to add one, asked to be repaid in greens, and the seed for what today is the capital-grant-giving Frontier Farmer Foundation was sown. Family farms apply for that piece which will get them over the profitability hump – a tractor, a silo, a refrigerator – and Bayless’ team reviews the request. One farmer drove three hours immediately after hearing his grant application had been approved to thank them personally and tearfully.
“Small family farms are always right on edge of going broke,” Bayless says. “I want to keep them going. They enhance everybody’s quality of life, whether at the farm, or the downtown farmers markets. You get to know them as people, which is important when we are so disenfranchised with our food.”
Marty Travis of Fairbury, Ill.’s Spence Farm was able to rescue Iriquois corn from the edge of extinction with help from Frontier.
“There is an ever-growing demand for what small farms can provide, not only to chefs but consumers in general,” Travis says. “All are yearning for a solid connection with the producer of their food. We see it every week. Rick has been at the forefront of this for years.”
Even as Frontier is constantly helping people reconnect with their food – and another season of his popular Mexico: One Plate at a Time is shooting in Oaxaca, ambitious updates of his thriving restaurants were just completed and a guacamoles-cocktails-and-snacks cookbook is about to leave the oven – Bayless craved another way to enchant with eats. But few saw his latest project coming, in which food became fodder for theater, and plot took place on the palate as much as the stage.
“When you bite into any fast food burger, it hits you with salt, fat, sugar, acid and umami,” Bayless says. “There’s no subtlety, no freshness. It’s just led us to a kind of deadness in the full senses we have, so we went to work on creating a theater piece that will awaken people.”
Cascabel, a collaboration with Chicago’s prestigious Lookingglass Theatre, wrapped last month. Rabid critical praise followed a drama in which Mexican mole, the complex and rich regional sauce made from a range of dried peppers and chocolate, was a main character. Audiences were greeted with bites of guacamole and a spoonful of artisan cheese at opening curtain and then mole and dessert during the show. Bayless plays a boarding-house cook, marshalling aromas of toasting nuts and simmering mole as the show unfurls.
“We want to offer people the opportunity to see what exhilaration tastes like,” he says. “They get exhilarating flavor in your mouth, and magical things happen on the stage. Yes!”
Food’s potential to trigger emotion stars, crossovers between cultural genres mingle like flavors on the plate, but he says it comes back to good sourcing, the very heartbeat of Cooking for Solutions.
“Great food, like all art, enhances and reflects a community’s vitality, growth and solidarity,” Bayless blogs. “Yet history bears witness that great cuisines spring only from healthy local agriculture.”
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Bayless does a smoked Royal Red shrimp pillow in a jicama “pillowcase” on a bed of microgreens from Frontera’s rooftop garden. Spicer creates an oyster, spinach and Italian sausage gratin. Nischan composes a smoked trout mousse with fava puree and trout caviar.
The dishes seem as divergent as the regions each calls home. So can the civic missions they take personally. But at the same time, they all are reflections of the same thing: Food served with impeccable ingredients from people they know well nourishes the most.
And though the textures and combinations they create may wow a tastebud or 2 million, there’s more at stake. As Nischan says, “It’s about more than blowing people’s minds.”
Not that profound flavors aren’t significant – nobody would be listening to these chefs if their food was flat – but “it’s more than fuel,” he says.
It’s a humanizing, civil right. “It’s not about elitist ‘I must have my organic,’” Spicer says. “Everyone has to have access to it, school kids, seniors, poor.”
“We must grow boutique farms into midsize farms so they can produce food in a more economical way and distribute it more widely,” Bayless says. “It’s what we have to grow to.”
They each acknowledge that a Cooking for Solutions climate can be galvanizing, but also a little deceiving – there’s oh so much to be done.
“We’ve seen a major change,” Bayless says. “And we like to have everything fast, everything changed, but it takes a while to settle into your soul.”
Fortunately soul is where each of these chefs operates from. Like the best foods, the best causes are almost involuntary. They are a reflection of conscience – and consciousness.
“People have to cook from their heart,” Bayless says. “It always reads the loudest, because the cook loves the food and loves to share it.”
Even as they rise to powerful places – punching down diabetes with fresh produce, holding oil companies accountable and reawakening relationships with food through theater – they aren’t far from the fundamentals. That’s also part of the reason chefs have earned the authority to address our pressing issues: To be good at what they do with any staying power, they have to maintain close, honest and honorable relationships with earth, ingredients and eaters.
“I’ve always been less concerned with differentiation than with genuineness,” Nischan says. “It’s about helping people find a way to value how much better the world can be if we put really good food on the table.”