Madison Park Conservatory chef Cormac Mahoney was one of 15 chefs from across the country chosen to attend the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change hosted by the James Beard Foundation. When he landed in Louisville, Kentucky for the three-day event earlier this month, a jewel-encrusted vintage limo whisked him from the airport to the art-filled 21c Museum Hotel.
Chefs are the rock stars of the food world and many are realizing that gives them a bully pulpit. Learning how to use their clout to effectively advocate for issues they care about was the main goal of the Boot Camp, where chefs spent time in the classroom, on a working farm and, of course, cooking.
The event was led by Michel Nischan, a JBF Award-winning chef and founder of Wholesome Wave, along with Eric Kessler, founder of Arabella Advisors. Wholesome Wave, a non-profit dedicated to supporting small and mid-size farms, works to improve food standards nationwide. Arabella Advisors provides strategies and structure for people who want to make change happen
Seattle chef Maria Hines attended last year’s pilot Boot Camp. She was invited back this year to talk about what the experience meant to her. As the chef/owner of three certified organic restaurants — Tilth, Golden Beetle and Agrodolce —Hines is no stranger to food advocacy. She says:
“For chefs who haven’t been participating in that, this program is an opportunity to broaden the field. It’s very forward-thinking. Today an executive chef has to cook and have media skills. I believe being an advocate for food and being able to speak articulately about the issues will become a big part of what chefs will engage in over the next ten years. At least that’s my fantasy, my hope. We just want healthy food to give to our guests.”
Mahoney shared his Boot Camp experience in an interview last weekend on KIRO Radio’s “Let’s Eat.” “It’s a really big thing to be an advocate,” he said. “As soon as you start talking like you know something, people rightfully become skeptical and it can be very overwhelming.
You say I want to improve school nutrition. Well that’s great. How are you going to do it? These guys are good at the process of how to effect the change you want. They weren’t pushing an agenda but creating a support system.”
The chefs were told that people want to hear what they have to say. They have capital to use. If they choose to use that capital to effect food-system change, it’s important to understand the issues and develop a strategy. Whatever your issue, the experts said, it’s important to be clear on your goal, know who your audience is, who your allies are, and to develop an action plan.
“It’s the antithesis of ‘Hey, let’s cook some food and save the world,’” said Mahoney. ” You’ve got to really know what you believe in.”
Mahoney believes “our food system is pretty messed up. We’re in a lot of trouble but it can be fixed.” He’s putting his money where his mouth is by starting an urban garden at his Madison Park restaurant.
Mahoney also believes food shouldn’t be a philanthropic endeavor. “It’s not philanthropy; it’s responsibility. I have a really hard time telling someone they deserve to be hungry because they only make $9 an hour.” He would like to see the country put food production on the same priority level as national defense. “Sure an F14 makes me feel safe but if I’m hungry I’m not feeling very secure. A full belly mitigates most bad days.”
“For some reason,” Mahoney says, “People want to know what all these dirty cooks have to say, or maybe they don’t and we just think they want to know, but we’re saying it.”
Listen to the full interview with Cormac Mahoney at http://mynorthwest.com/?nid=577&a=9956632&p=1065&n=Let\’sEat