Photograph by Aurelien Guichard, Creative Commons 2.0
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Learning to cook a wide variety of fish, such as this spread in the Borough Market of Bankside, London, U.K., is one way to cook more sustainably, one expert says.
Photograph by Aurelien Guichard, Creative Commons 2.0

Pursuing Sustainability, One Chef (And Home Cook) at a Time

Who is driving change in the food system?

I spent this past weekend at the sixth annual meeting of the Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit that is committed to organizing chefs—with their buying power and their star power—into a tool for change.

The group educates its 13,000 members on crucial sustainability issues, such as understanding the economic pressures on farmers trying to raise cattle outside the feedlot system, and it hosts high-profile events such as a national series of “trash fish” dinners to showcase alternatives to overfished species. The annual Sustainable Food Summit, which was in Boulder this year, combines partying and networking with intense teach-ins on thorny issues: this year, among other topics, GMOs, school nutrition, and restoring devastated soils.

(Disclosure: I gave one of the talks, on antibiotic overuse in meat production. The Summit reimbursed my travel.)

As a writer, I live mostly outside the professional food circuit. I sometimes interview chefs, and I’m honored to be acquainted with a few, but I’ve never worked in a kitchen, and I don’t write reviews or get invited to the kind of blogger events that show off restaurants and products. So a long weekend among several hundred chefs was my first chance to hear whether they focus only on novelty and luxury, or whether they view themselves as builders of a more responsible food system.

Thankfully, yes, they do. Even better, as I’d learn over the weekend, the chefs in the Collaborative view respect for the environment and concern for animal welfare as obligations—and as paths to deliciousness as well.

The tone was set by Sara Brito, the Collaborative’s executive director, in her opening charge to the gathering. “You could just enjoy this cultural moment of being the cool kids on the block,” she said. “But I believe you care too deeply to settle for just being popular.

“The choices you make in how you source and cook food have the power to transform more than just your menus,” she told them. “When you make changes to your menu, you change the life of the soil, the water, the air; the lives of plants and animals and fish; the lives of farmers and ranchers and fishermen. You change the lives of your purveyors, your staff, your guests. The changes you make can change an entire community.”

As the weekend went on, it was striking how often the participants referred back to that concept of food sustaining a community—as it is produced, as well as when it is consumed. That ranged from Cory Carman, a fourth-generation beef rancher, relating how her sense of heritage drove her to restore the grasslands on her family’s Oregon ranch; to Alex Seidel, a Denver chef, describing how he and sous chef Jimmy Warren established Colorado’s first sheep dairy; to Elizabeth Herendeen of Bristol Bay, Alaska, demonstrating how chefs’ commitment to purchasing the region’s sockeye salmon has helped its 7,000 fishermen push back against a threatened open-pit mine.

It was fascinating as well to hear prominent chef-businessmen talk about the necessity of scaling up “nose to tail” eating—from something a single restaurant does, to something a company invests in, as a means of supporting farmers.

Kimbal Musk, co-founder of The Kitchen, described realizing that a commitment to buying whole animals would require building another restaurant—because the menus of their fine-dining locations couldn’t accommodate ground meat, but a casual pub could. And Nate Appleman, who led restaurants in San Francisco and New York before becoming the chief chef for Chipotle Mexican Grill, discussed the challenges of finding enough responsibly raised, never-frozen meat in the United States—which led to deepening the chain’s involvement with producers, by developing dishes that use cuts they had not embraced before.

It was clear that the chefs who identify with the Collaborative’s mission were setting new standards for professional kitchens and challenging their customers to think about food in new ways. I began to wonder though whether the gathering had relevance for the many eaters who can’t afford good restaurants, but still deserve to participate in a culture that values better food. So it was heartening to hear some of the chefs talk, as the weekend wound down, about how much they valued the culture of the home kitchen, and want to see it supported and improved.

Bobby Stuckey, master sommelier of the Boulder restaurant Frasca, described visiting fish markets in Europe and seeing “crazy amounts of fish, so many species—and then you go to a fish market in the US and there’s, like, four,” he said. “We don’t have the repertoire of how to cook trash fish, things that are challenging, and we need to bring that back.”

Musk nodded. “Even though we own restaurants, to us, home cooking is a core value,” he said. “Processed food, television—over the past 40 years, everything conspired to take that away from Americans. We are super-excited to see it come back. Home cooking rebuilds the culture everywhere.”

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.