After decamping last year to Louisville for an urban edition of Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, the James Beard Foundation this month returned the advocacy program to a farm setting, giving its 13 participants the opportunity to become better acquainted with the foods they serve. But as Cypress’ Craig Deihl learned when he posted unapologetic photographs of the chefs slaughtering a goat and processing chickens, many diners aren’t yet as willing to think about where their favorite dishes originate.
“What I took away from it was life and death is part of our food,” Deihl says of the three-day experience in upstate New York. “I fully accept that. I want the people who come into the restaurant to accept that.”
Instead, Deihl says, he “got plenty of flack” from Facebook friends who were turned off by the images. (Interestingly, Twitter followers were the most accepting of the photographs. According to Deihl, fellow Boot Camper Matthew Jennings, a James Beard award nominee from Providence, R.I., reported he lost 22 Instagram followers but gained more than 30 Twitter followers after posting his pictures of the killing.)
“Some people were like ‘I don’t care to see that and I don’t need to see that’,” Deihl says of the Facebook response. “But it wasn’t like ‘oh man, look what we’re doing.’ We’ve been to farms. We know why food tastes as good as it does, and we want to translate that to customers. How can you enjoy and appreciate great quality food if you don’t understand where it comes from?”
Deihl maintains that many of the problems plaguing the food system arise from eaters distancing themselves from their food sources. The Chefs Boot Camp was created in 2012 to draw chefs’ attentions to such issues, and to help them formulate effective solutions. While the foundation recognizes that most chefs aren’t openly political, the program trains chefs to use their positions within the culinary community to agitate for positive change in the food system. Chefs in previous classes, for example, have focused on livestock antibiotics, sustainable fisheries and the farm bill.
For Deihl, one of the most pressing issues in Charleston is children’s food choices. Three years ago, he helped Slow Food Charleston launch its Chefs-in-Schools initiative; Over the course of the six-week program, Deihl spends an hour each week introducing Mitchell Elementary students to a fresh ingredient. “We understand we can’t change what we feed kids, but we can teach them about healthy choices,” Deihl says of the approach to scholastic nutrition reform.
At Chefs Boot Camp, Deihl learned strategies to extend the project’s influence.
“The biggest thing is to ask,” Deihl says. “What I’ve learned is to ask for more chefs or more funding.”
Although Chefs-in-Schools’ collard green and apple lessons could theoretically be taught by volunteers who weren’t burdened by the scheduling pressures weighing on most full-time chefs, Deihl says the students are especially receptive to chefs.
“They’re not familiar with (Cypress), but they’re familiar with the uniform,” Deihl says. “It’s an authority thing.”
Of course, adults are just as apt to respect the opinions of professionals wearing chef whites, which is exactly why the James Beard Foundation yearly convenes chefs for media training, policy lectures, hands-on sessions, strategic brainstorming and collaborative cooking. As the foundation’s executive vice president puts it in a news release, “Our goal is to expand these chefs’ leadership abilities beyond the kitchen.”