Chefs Collaborative: A Network of Culinary Pioneers

28 May, 2012

It’s no accident that many of today’s top chefs are involved in the push for local, sustainable food. Some twenty years ago, a number of pioneers of this movement banded together to create a network called Chefs Collaborative—and today its members serve as models of sustainability to the culinary community and general public. Their membership includes such luminaries as chefs Rick Bayless, Dan Barber, Michel Nischan and Ann Cooper, along with sustainability pioneer Fred Kirschenmann.

“The idea came up at a conference in Hawaii that dealt with diets and the health of our food,” Melissa Kogut, Chefs Collaborative executive director, told Organic Connections. “A number of leading chefs from around the country were there, and they got to talking about sustainability in our food system. They were really ahead of their time because this was not a topic that was being spoken about, and the influence of chefs was just starting to blossom. They felt that they wanted to use their influence to help themselves, their peers and consumers understand how to make better purchasing decisions when it comes to food.”

Now 12,000 members strong, today Chefs Collaborative assists chefs in utilizing locally and sustainably produced ingredients—which many times is not so easy. “When a chef is trying to run a sustainable restaurant kitchen, there’s a lot of pressure to try to do it all,” Melissa said. “It’s really hard to do it all because so much depends on the way a restaurant sources food and whether the menu is flexible. We always say start with one thing. If it’s sourcing potatoes locally from a farmer who’s using sustainable methods, do that. Once you’ve mastered that, go on to the next thing. We offer information and inspiration so the chef can figure out how to take those next steps.”

Chefs Collaborative provides its assistance through numerous channels. Each year the organization hosts a national summit, a gathering of chefs, food professionals and media for a two-day educational and experiential conference. Through the Chefs Collaborative website, there is a wide selection of publications available for many different aspects of becoming a local and sustainable chef, including cooking advice, sourcing different items, and uses of grains.

“Our energy is focused on troubleshooting and figuring out how to help chefs bridge the barriers, such as sourcing meat, for instance,” Melissa continued. “Meat is one of the biggest challenges for chefs because they may be interested in sourcing local grass-fed beef and it just may not exist in the right quantities or at the right price points. Smaller restaurants or mid-size restaurants may address the challenge by working with the whole animal, but that doesn’t work for every restaurant menu. Following that example, we offer educational sessions on how to cut up an animal, how to use more of the parts, how to talk about it with your customers, and how to train your staff to talk about it.

The organization has also brought particular focus to one aspect that can be especially difficult—seafood. “We are probably most known for our work around educating chefs on sustainable seafood, and we’re really proud of that,” said Melissa. “We’ve collaborated with an ocean conservation group called Blue Ocean Institute to produce an online educational tutorial for chefs so that they can know what questions to ask, how to develop a menu, and how to source sustainable seafood.”

In addition, Chefs Collaborative connects chefs up to local producers. “We call ourselves ‘collaborative’ because even though the focus of our work is on helping chefs run more sustainable restaurants, we couldn’t do that without the farmers and fishermen and artisan producers that we work with,” Melissa explained. “So they make up our membership as well. At the community level we run programs where chefs and producers come together, where chefs come to learn about a product. We’ve had what we call ‘speed-dating sessions’ in which we bring farmers and chefs together. We set up the farmers at different tables and the chefs rotate around the room until a bell rings, just so that they can get to know one another and have conversations. Farmers can talk about what they provide and how they work, and at the end of the day business relationships can be formed.”

It was in 2007 that Melissa got involved with Chefs Collaborative—and it was like a dream come true. “I became executive director in 2007,” she related. “My background is in community organizing and nonprofit management, with longtime interest in food. As I was making a decision on a career change, it became clear to me that doing something to impact our food system was where I wanted to be working. I really lucked out; this is a great organization. I like the organization’s direction of change—working with chefs who are so influential.”

To Melissa, the time couldn’t be better to be involved with such an activity. “The issue is so hot right now, and I don’t mean that this is just a trend,” she said. “I really do feel like it’s here to stay for a variety of reasons—because it’s on consumers’ minds, it’s on everyone’s mind; so everywhere we look we see that restaurants are talking about where they are sourcing their food. There is a lot of interest. The awareness has never been better or deeper.

“Our vision is that, ultimately, sustainability is going to be second nature in every restaurant kitchen,” Melissa concluded. “Clearly the top chefs of our world are extremely influential, and we want them to be voices for the cause of sustainability.

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