Here's Why Chefs Are Bringing Politics to the Dinner Table

Chefs and restaurateurs doing this kind of thing is not at all a new phenomenon. Food has always represented a platform, a vehicle for change, as much as a necessity and nourishment.

Photo: Courtesy Foodhini

To anyone who finds it unpleasant or out of place whenever a chef, a restaurant or its ownership declares their convictions to the world — from Chef José Andrés helping feed Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria to restaurants raising money for the ACLU and other causes — Julia Turshen's new book Feed the Resistance has something to say about that.

Political activism, she writes, is like any other human endeavor. Food sustains it — or, at least, the people behind it. But it's also more than that. You look closely enough at a food enterprise — a food truck, coffeehouse, a farm, anything — and you see something of the larger world reflected back at you.

"Being interested in food, really caring about it, has a domino effect," Turshen writes. "You start caring about where it comes from, what it means to the people you are feeding, and what it means to be fed."

The subtext, of course, is that your ambivalence and neutrality are diminished when you start to care more about what you eat and the people who make it. Which is why it's such a short leap from there to activism. To using the platform of something like a food business to raise money for a cause; to rally political support; or even just to say something to anyone who'll listen. That's really all that The Pullman, for example, was trying to do when the neighborhood dining spot in Glenwood Springs, Colo., added a message to customer receipts — a reminder to diners that your food was prepared by immigrants.

In response to that, one customer took offense and left a note on the restaurant's TripAdvisor page a few weeks ago that sniped, "What was with the political statement? We were there to EAT."

James Beard award winner and Seattle chef Renee Erickson thinks that point of view — that chefs should stay in their lane, that they should feed us a meal, not an opinion — is, in a word, "bullshit."

Chefs and restaurateurs doing this kind of thing, to be sure, is not at all a new phenomenon. Food has always represented a platform, a vehicle for change, as much as a necessity and nourishment. But there may be a particularly fresh urgency now to taking a stand. Especially with so much of consequence that's manifested itself on the local and national stage, when politics becomes a sideshow, when people and communities feel threatened — why shouldn't the people who put on aprons and keep the kitchens in America's restaurants humming, why shouldn't they get to have a say in what everyone can see happening anyway?

It's why Erickson decided to close her Bar Melusine in Seattle on Inauguration Day this year to host a party to raise money for the Anti-Defamation League. Doing her part for The Resistance.

When she sent out word of the event, she recalls getting almost a dozen hate-calls along the lines of, "How dare you?"

"When it comes to something that impacts my employees or even just is flat out wrong … it's sort of like with Kaepernick," says Erickson, whose company Sea Creatures is the umbrella for four restaurants, a donut shop and a bar. "People want him to perform, but they don't want him to have an opinion.

"I don't believe we live in a world where you get to dictate how I behave in the world. People really, really, really want to maintain their perceived power. And I think that's gone now. And I'm thrilled. I think the tide's shifting to people having to, like, take their blinders off and see what's really going on."

The tide is shifting, but it's still a current that chefs and businesspeople have to swim upstream against. And it's not even just because of the people who don't agree with them. There's also that retort of, wait — who do you think you are, to specialize in food and yet wade into this arena?

When Mike Sherwood, the owner of Pizza Nea in Minneapolis, shared a post on his pizzeria's Facebook page earlier this year in support of President Obama that began "I listened as they called my President a Muslim," let's just say it wasn't received with nods of agreement by everyone who read it.

He heard from customers who swore they'd been coming into his establishment for years and would never be back over this. His response? Come in, and let me at least buy you dinner—but do one thing in return for me. Bring me a list of all the companies you shop with and what causes they give money to.

"If you can do that, then you can tell me, you know, what I can and can't say from my pulpit in my little 1,400 square foot restaurant," Sherwood says. "You just try to make change in your little corner of the world. It's got to start locally, I think."

After the Orlando mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Sherwood got a group together to raise $10,000 that was then sent on to entities like the Orlando victims fund and Everytown for Gun Safety. Starting locally.

When attorneys scrambled to airports earlier this year to help travelers caught up in the immigration ban, Chicago's Metropolis Coffee Co. was among a few restaurants and vendors sending food and drinks to the legal volunteers at O'Hare International Airport. Metropolis co-owner and co-founder Tony Dreyfuss said it was because of his abiding philosophy that "no human being is illegal," and that discrimination over gender, sexual preference, race, it's all the same to him — and moreover, doing something about it is a perfectly natural thing for a coffee entrepreneur to do.

Something about, to borrow a line from the poet, every man being a piece of the continent, a part of the main. And if you really believe that, you do something about it. From your little corner, wherever it is.

Jessamyn Rodriguez's corner is Hot Bread Kitchen, her social enterprise based in East Harlem. She started it in 2008, and the operation has really two key programs: Bakers in Training, which helps low-income women, many of them immigrants, get training and skills to become successful bakers; the other is HBK Incubates, a culinary incubator for food entrepreneurs, with the core support being that participants get access to a licensed commercial kitchen space, among other benefits.

The female bakers in training not only work in the kitchen but take classes covering things like management and the science of baking. After they "graduate," Hot Bread Kitchen helps move them into restaurants and bakeries.

"I feel like this is a moment, right now, to be showing stories of success — of women thriving, and in particular immigrant women being thriving members of a community," she says. "For me, it's about changing the face of the industry. I feel a real sense of urgency to start ensuring that women are better represented in positions of power in kitchens."

Courtesy Foodhini

And then there are food entrepreneurs Noobstaa Philip Vang, who founded his online restaurant Foodhini in Washington D.C. in October 2016. The enterprise works with a handful of immigrant and refugee chefs from places like Syria, Iran and the Philippines, with the chefs preparing dishes in Foodhini's commercial kitchen in D.C. The operation provides an infrastructure the chefs can use to get their creations displayed online and in a format where customers can click to buy and have them delivered.

One of the ways Foodhini hooks the interest of diners is in the personal letters the chefs write that accompany the meals. Letters that introduce the chefs, thanking customers for the order, telling them a little about the food — about what it means, how to prepare it and enjoy it. It's in that moment that connections emerge, and maybe a better community, a better world.

"I think we have a role to play, right? In where things are at right now," Vang says. "For us, it's about looking forward. People aren't always aware of the stories behind people. For us, it's a way to bridge different communities. I think food in a lot of ways is an equalizer. Because you don't always have to speak the same language or share the same culture to enjoy a meal. It's a good time for us to be here, because in a lot of ways, we're creating dialogue. We're creating a connection."

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