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Once viewed as a “renegade lunch lady,” Ann Cooper directs food services for the Boulder Valley School District and created the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation. Nowadays, she says, people really care “about the food supply and what we’re feeding our kids.” (photo courtesy Boulder Valley School District)

Food Ambassadors

By Kate Jonuska

Who do we trust? Only 41 percent of us answer “the government,” according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual report that measures consumer confidence. Not the media or business, which are trusted only slightly more. But even in these trying times, there is a somewhat surprising group whose credibility has increased and held steady: chefs and other food and beverage professionals.

“Five years ago, I never would have said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be an advocate and be on Capitol Hill talking to Congress,’” says Jax Fish House chef Sheila Lucero, “but now the opportunities are there and people are listening.” Lucero (in white coat) is shown with chefs Susan Feniger of the former Border Grill and Steven Phelps of Indigenous. (photo courtesy Sheila Lucero)

“Chefs are one of the most trusted role models in society today, even more so than doctors and attorneys,” says Sara Brito, the Boulder-based cofounder and president of the Good Food Media Network. As the new trusted “white coats” on the scene, she says, chefs have expanded their role from one defined by serving and preparing food into the realms of advocacy. “With this trust, by feeding people, chefs have also started to feed them new ideas about health and the world, and even politics.”

“People have latched on to chefs as celebrities and do, for some reason, trust us,” agrees Sheila Lucero, executive chef at Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar. She points toward celebrity chefs who advocate for sustainable farming or the environment, and at chefs like José Andrés, who put boots on the ground to feed millions of Houstonians after Hurricane Maria. “[This advocacy] has opened up a lot of cool opportunities outside of being inside cooking for guests 100 percent of the time.”

For Lucero, advocacy has at times taken her out of the kitchen and into the offices of representatives and senators in Washington, D.C., where she’s spoken with interested legislators about the importance of sustainable fishing and preserving the standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

“If you had asked me five years ago, I never would have said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be an advocate and be on Capitol Hill talking to Congress,’” she says, “but now the opportunities are there and people are listening. That makes me really hopeful for the future.”

Fringe to Mainstream

Sustainable seafood may be Lucero’s prime issue, but other chefs who choose to be educational ambassadors have their own values. Some attempt to teach Americans how to improve their health or the environment through food choices; others work toward eradicating food deserts in cities or making sure no child goes to bed hungry.

Chefs are one of the most trusted role models in society today, even more so than doctors and attorneys. By feeding people, chefs have also started to feed them new ideas about health and the world, and even politics.
—Sara Brito, cofounder, Good Food Media Network

Ann Cooper, director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District, has been at the forefront of the chef-to-ambassador revolution. In her career, she’s worked with notable chefs, opened successful restaurants and fed many happy diners. But around 2000—when she wrote and published Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Danger in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It—her career began to shift more and more drastically toward activism, including the creation of the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation, which aims to give every child daily access to fresh, healthy food.

“At first, people quipped that I was a renegade lunch lady. There was a lot of pushback against me for challenging what was the norm,” says Cooper, who explains that as chefs became celebrities, they realized people wanted to know their ideas about more than just cooking. “We really started to see people caring about the food supply and what we’re feeding our kids. Almost 20 years after Bitter Harvest, I had been seen as the crazy person on the fringe and have now become mainstream.”

After all, many chefs now have nonprofit foundations. The James Beard Foundation partners with advocacy groups like the Chef Action Network to makes chefs leaders in today’s many food-related conversations, and Cooper’s alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, now teaches more than just classic French techniques. The institute partners with Harvard Medical School to teach future doctors about the effects of food on health.

Farmworkers Can’t Afford Fresh Food

By 2017, the idea of chefs as forces for good was so established that chef advocacy itself has gone through trends, starting with health-focused topics, moving through environmental issues and now also taking aim on inequality and human rights.

Sara Brito in Des Moines for Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation weekend. (photo courtesy Good Food Media Network)

“I think 2018 is the year of worker sustainability in food,” says Brito, who helped found the Good Food Restaurants List, where restaurants voluntarily report how they source the food they serve and where diners can find restaurants that line up with their values. She points toward recent industry conversations about farmworker healthcare or the $15-minimum-wage and no-tipping movements in restaurants.

“We need to ensure that the people producing and picking our food can actually feed that food to their families,” she says. “It’s not right that they have to go home and in many cases, feed their families highly processed foods, often wrapped in plastic in a package, when they spent all day in the heat, in the sun, picking fresh food.”

But any way you slice it, whatever food issue is at the forefront, the role of the chef in the 21st century is fundamentally different and broader than it has previously been—and that expansion is likely both here to stay and a good development for everyone who eats.

“Everyone’s doing it differently, but it’s a time and place in the world where chef’s aren’t just high-end cooks anymore,” says Cooper. “It’s a really interesting time, and I think chefs have the potential to do tremendous good.”


Kate Jonuska is a freelance writer of fiction, features and food, and the author of a recently published novel, Transference. Follow her online at www.katejonuska.com or @katejonuska.