This post originally appeared on the James Beard Foundation website on October 17, 2012
"Why did you want to be a chef?" When you're a chef, you're asked this question a lot. When I started cooking 24 years ago, my response was usually that I loved any and all of the following: being creative, making people happy with delicious food, working in the fast pace and controlled chaos of the professional kitchen, learning about and honoring other cultures through cuisine, playing with sharp, hot things, and that when you work in a kitchen, you never ever have to grow up.
While my love of knives and good food hasn't lessened, in the years since I have deepened my relationship with food and my list has grown longer and more meaningful. For instance, I would add that as a chef I own my own restaurant because I want to know that every penny spent by my business goes toward supporting other businesses that are ethical and sustainable, I want to educate people on the pleasure and importance of eating seasonal, local, organic food--and I feel more strongly than ever that everyone on the planet has the right to eat this way.
I am just one of many chefs who've gone down this path. Chefs are in a unique position to play an important role in improving the food system because we have a lot of consumer trust. Our agenda is to feed people delicious food and make them happy. We want what's best for our guests and therefore strive to ensure that the most flavorful, nutritious, and creative dishes we can produce will emerge from our kitchens. What's not to trust in that?
I first became aware of food sustainability issues when I started shopping at farmers' markets many years ago. Getting to know the farmers, fishers, and foragers in the community opened my eyes to major shifts in the food system that were under way. George and Eiko Vokjovich from Skagit River Ranch taught me about the importance of grass-fed organic meats and how the soil, the grass itself, and the nearby waterways all play vital roles in raising livestock. My good friend Luke Woodward from Oxbow Farms taught me a lot about why organic farming matters and how the nation is losing farmland at an alarming rate. Today my restaurants are two of only three in the United States to be certified organic through Oregon Tilth, one of the toughest and best certifiers in the country.
Sean Brock, Michel Nischan, and Joseph Lenn in the kitchen at Blackberry Farm
Recently some like-minded chefs and I joined the James Beard Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts to explore how we can help nurture the seeds of a healthy food system. There were 16 of us in all at the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, which took place at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, this summer. The session was modeled on similar meetings that have been conducted with stars of the music industry -- a group that has successfully garnered attention for causes that matter to them.
A topic of particular interest among the chefs was the use of antibiotics in livestock. We spend much of our time selecting meats for our menus, thinking of beautiful seasonal preparations to serve them with, and trying to produce them in the best possible way. A part of that experience is making sure we are serving meat that is safe, healthy, and flavorful.
Unfortunately, there are no current government regulations on the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock production. The routine use of antibiotics and hormones to prevent and treat diseases that are largely caused by keeping animals in inhumane conditions (commercially raised livestock is often forced to stand in its own feces) has had far-reaching effects that reverberate throughout the food system, including an increased number of superbugs that are drug-resistant and are transferred to humans through meat consumption. The process is returning us to a world where it will not be uncommon to die from a simple bacterial infection. In order to prevent this, a large group of us chefs recently signed a petition created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, urging the FDA to phase out the routine use of antibiotics in livestock.
This wasn't the first time that chefs have been called to arms on an important food issue, nor will it be the last. Now, with the leadership of the James Beard Foundation to provide us with the tools we need and organizations like Pew Charitable Trusts to bring us information on the issues that concern us most, chefs have even more of an opportunity to become educated and empowered to help advocate for meaningful changes.
Now I have yet another reason to be a chef: because I want to help create a food system in which it is a right, not a privilege, for everyone on the planet to enjoy healthy, sustainable food. And I won't stop until it happens.
Maria Hines is the James Beard Award-winning chef of Golden Beetle Restaurant and Bar and Tilth in Seattle.