This summer, 600 chefs, farmers, sommeliers, servers and industry professionals gathered for René Redzepi’s sixth culinary symposium, MAD 6. Held over the course of two days in Copenhagen and set in a playful Oz-like environment strewn with wooden seesaws, tents dressed as forests and morning gongs—guests discussed less disarming issues facing the food industry today, from gender and racial discrimination to sexual harassment in the kitchen and environmental depletion.
Among the more meaningful moments of the conference was a compelling speech from University of Copenhagen philosophy professor Vincent Hendricks. In this keynote, Hendricks rallied chefs to determine their ideologies and causes, urging them to study the challenges set out by the World Economic Forum and choose one to address. “Food professionals have a bigger bullhorn than ever,” he said. “You’re civil actors now.”
As cooking shows beget culinary experts, emerging markets like Brazil spawn their first celebrity chefs and mainstream celebrities like Chrissy Teigen launch kitchen lines, the food world has never had a bigger loudspeaker pointed at the world or a deeper reach into its pockets. “Good business is not the same as right business,” said Hendricks to the crowd of elite industry leaders. “I certainly appreciate a good meal, but it can’t carry on forever.”
“Attention is the primary asset,” professor Hendricks said, quoting a 1971 speech by Carnegie Mellon computer science and philosophy professor Herban Simon, who aptly predicted that what would be become valuable in an information-rich world wouldn’t be money or microchips, but rather that which information consumes and is therefore made scarce: attention. “That’s what everyone in the culinary world is fighting for: attention. It’s not about the money, because if it was only about the money, what are you doing in the restaurant business?” There was silence among members of the crowd, who was clearly humbled enough by Redzepi’s brave environment to listen with just that: their full attention.
Hendricks encouraged chefs and food industry leaders (writers, restaurateurs, distillers, servers and the rest) to form a vision that goes beyond food to include social activism. “What am I serving [my guests or clients] aside from a good experience?”
Below are 10 chefs who serving society both in—and out of—the kitchen.
Noma’s former head chef Dan Giusti is the founder of Brigaid, an organization that recruits professionally-trained chefs to lead school kitchens full-time with the goal of cooking delicious meals from scratch, while still meeting the National School Lunch Program’s strict budgetary and nutritional guidelines.
Since launching in 2016, Giusti’s “brigaid of trained chefs” serves over 4,000 students in Connecticut daily who would otherwise go without consciously-created meals. In 2018, Brigaid partnered with New York City Public Schools to begin service in the Bronx.
World Central Kitchen
When Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas in September, José Andrés and his hunger relief nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, were on the ground helping. Based out of two kitchens in the hard-hit coastal city of Wilmington, as well as the capital city of Raleigh, his team worked with FEMA, the Red Cross, state emergency management agencies and the military to deliver over 80,000 meals (and water) to residents, EMT workers and first responders. Established in 2010 in the wake of Haiti earthquakes, WTC has fed victims in Guatemala, Hawaii, Indonesia, Cambodia and Puerto Rico—where the team served approximately three million meals following Hurricane Maria, an effort that became the subject of We Fed an Island.
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Chocolate, la expresión de un oficio riguroso, el motivo para crear bocados vanguardistas, deliciosos y creativos. Ella es Gaudy, tiene las millas acumuladas necesarias para ser una experta chocolatera. Es parte importante de nuestro equipo, ama el chocolate y ama profundamente hacer bombones venezolanos. . . #GenteKaKao. . . . Foto: @julio_osorio_fotografia para @kakaochocolates. . . . #SomosKaKao #KaKaoLab #AmamosLoQueHacemos #MaestrosChocolateros #bombones #bombonesvenezolanos #chocolatier #Bombón #doblementebueno #KaKao #EmprendedoresDelChocolate #Caracas #Venezuela
María Fernanda Di Giacobbe
Cacao de Origen
María Fernanda Di Giacobbe grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, where she witnessed the devastation of her family’s restaurant business after the country’s GDP fell nearly 30% in 2002 following a national oil strike. During this time, the pastry chef visited Barcelona where she noticed the local chocolate makers’ reverence of Venezuelan cacao. She returned to begin a bean-to-bar empire, starting with one sweets shop and since empowering hundreds of women to begin careers as cacao entrepreneurs. By taking the time to educate farmers and local producers on the value of this product, she has extended her success to her entire nation, bolstering one of its most important productions to date.
Live in Season
After graduating at the top of her class from the Culinary Institute of America, Kelly Liken opened a restaurant in Vail, Colorado, in a time well before there was an established farm-to-table movement. While running her eponymously-named restaurant, the Top Chef and Iron Chef alumna started an edible-schoolyard program that worked to educate thousands of children about sourcing and selecting food. Liken continues to support her community with culinary excursions into the backcountry, teaching guests skills like eating off the land and helping to maintain a habitat that will continue to flourish and survive.
Leo Espinosa Foundation
Leonor Espinosa is the chef behind Leo Cocina y Cava in Bogotá, Colombia, a restaurant that has received international acclaim since its opening in 2007. Espinosa is also the creator of the Leo Espinosa Foundation, which creates development initiatives in rural communities to encourage leadership in food production and entrepreneurship as an alternative to gangs and conflict. Her organization has partnered with international cooperation agencies like USAID and Oxfam to work on the GROW sustainable food production campaign across Columbia.
The Clink Charity
Chef Alberto Crisci was a catering manager when he came up with idea of employing prisoners for food service, in turn helping to break the cycle of crime, creating second chances and transforming lives. He’s since overseen more than 800 individuals who have graduated successfully from Clink Charity’s training program to find employment elsewhere. Crisci’s operates restaurants and a catering company through the charity across the U.K. and is responsible for the betterment of lives through the service of cooking.
Chefs in Africa
After working at one-Michelin-starred Schote and three-starred Aqua, Congolese chef Dieuveil Malonga started Chefs in Africa in 2016, a digital platform that connects worldwide government institutions, training centers and businesses with talented chefs and culinary students from Africa seeking work experience. Harnessing the power of the internet, Malonga has supported over 4,000 chefs from his home continent to find jobs around the world. The visibility and experience of his chefs has allowed Africa’s gastronomic traditions to spread. In 2017, he created an “African gastronomy BMA course” for IFA Paris, the first course of its kind, to educate a rising group of influencers on African ingredients and teach recipes region-by-region.
Following insights around gender in the kitchen, Daniel Patterson, chef and founder of Alta Group, which includes Coi, Alta, Aster, Alfred’s, and Plum Bar, partnered with the non-profit organization Restaurant Opportunity Centers United. Patterson and his team has since made changes to wage structure, created management teams where women are appropriately present, and standardized interview questions designed to determine values and general competence (rather than filter for similar experience and cultural background). His goal is to implement training programs that don’t assume shared cultural understandings and continue to improve the environment of his kitchens.
The Orana Foundation
Scottish-born and Australia-raised chef Jonk Zonfrillo has scouted and catalogued indigenous ingredients from Aboriginal communities throughout Australia since 2000. His goal is to safeguard these traditional communities in Australia and their respective culinary heritages. So far, Zonfrillo’s foundation has documented well over 1,000 ingredients from native cultural groups that have farmed and thrived for more than 60,000 years. Zonfrillo plans to detail these ingredients in a free, searchable online database to help give cultural recognition and market viability to local farmers and producers.
Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez runs one of the best restaurants in Latin America in Lima, Peru and expanded to Asia this summer. One of the keys to his success is his interest in highlighting the biodiversity of his country in the dishes he serves. Along with wife, Pia Léon, Martínez created a research arm of his restaurant, Central, exclusively responsible for finding and foraging ingredients from the rich and varied topography of the land. By discovering and highlighting ingredients used by a small community in the Andes, for instance, Martínez gives importance and voice to otherwise unheard stories.
Hero image courtesy of World Central Kitchen's Facebook page.