This is an opinion piece from Chef Derek Wagner, a Chefs Collaborative board member and the chef-owner of Nicks on Broadway in Providence, RI.
If you cook for a living like I do, you're not just working your ass off 14-18 hours every day in a hot kitchen to make the best food possible. You're an integral part of an equation that affects every single human on the planet every single day of their life. Everyone eats. Chew on that for a second.
I realized that truth when I first tried to dial in our meats/protein sourcing to buy local. Being on the Rhode Island coast in one of the most storied and fertile fishing regions in the world, seafood seemed a simple enough starting point, right? But I called my suppliers and the lack of information was mind bending. I grew up here seeing and hearing about our many fishermen, but I could not buy Rhode Island-caught fish in my restaurant.
Me: "Where is this fish from?"
Supplier: "The Atlantic."
Me: "Could you be a little more specific?"
Supplier: "Not really."
Me: "This is bullshit. If you can't tell me where it's from, I'm not buying your fish."
The disinformation, dishonesty and lack of access left me outraged. So I decided to do something about it.
Chefs write menus and purchase the food and supplies to create those menus. We are at the epicenter of the food system, whether or not we like it or even recognize it. We determine what producers produce, suppliers supply, and cooks cook. Great responsibility and incredible opportunity come with this realization. Chefs have tremendous power to influence on all sides of the food system. We have the power to lead by word, by example, and to influence tastes and consumption with our purchasing dollars.
Chefs write menus and purchase the food and supplies to create those menus. We are at the epicenter of the food system, whether or not we like it or even recognize it. We determine what producers produce, suppliers supply, and cooks cook.
So how do we do this consciously? If it isn't complicated enough to run a restaurant, now you are considering world hunger, food access/insecurity, food waste, massive environmental impact, childhood obesity, health epidemics tethered to poor nutrition, slave labor/rampant abuses, animal cruelty, low wages, the gauntlet of city/state/federal regulations, insane work hours, low profitability, incredibly high and ever rising operational costs, and the stress that any disgruntled customer could immeasurably damage your reputation and ability to do business (which, by the way, means your ability to provide for your family and staff) with a single internet rant.
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The stress of it was polarizing and paralyzing. Plus, I quickly ran out of distributors who met my standards.
Then I remembered Chefs Collaborative, an organization that connects chefs with farmers. My old chef had gotten me involved with them when I was a young cook. They connected me with some fishermen down in Point Judith who couldn't find a way to get their Rhode Island seafood to Rhode Island chefs.
I have exposed thousands of diners to fish species they would have never seen on a menu, never mind eaten, creating direct lines of contact with fishermen and eaters.
I called the fishermen and within a few days we had a meeting at my restaurant with someone from Chefs Collaborative. After ironing out the wrinkles, later that week I started buying fish directly from Captains Steve and Chris.
I have been doing this for about eight years with 100 percent of my fish coming from local fishermen. I've built a seafood program of complete transparency, real-time information, that's community sourced, wholesome, sustainable, delicious, honest and fresh. It is just one tiny example of what Chefs Collaborative does and has the power to do for a chef and community.
I have exposed thousands of diners to fish species they would have never seen on a menu, never mind eaten, creating direct lines of contact with fishermen and eaters. I've learned how to work with, cook and teach my cooks and staff about so many fish species indigenous to our area that none of us knew anything about.
Chefs Collaborative is a solution-based chef support group. It's a peer-led school and educational resource. It is the church of good food and soulful intent. It's a safe space for open discussion, debate and learning for chefs, cooks, food professionals, farmers, producers, and students who aspire to do good work.
It's a place that serves as not only as an inspiration, but a resource and connection point for working class chefs, producers and food professionals who want to participate and advocate for positive change in our world through the lens of food. It's a living, breathing community that learns, adapts, grows towards and brings together people searching for authenticity, integrity, information, access and resource. It is solution based, and brings together people who celebrate the power of food and harness its goodness and potential into hope and action.
That's why I joined, and why I make it a priority go to the National Summit every year. It is the culmination and living enactment of these things. It goes far beyond the construct of any conference. It is more of a good food pilgrimage. The Summit travels around the country every year, submersing itself and all its attendees richly in whichever community and foodshed it puts its stakes in.
This year's Summit is in Atlanta. It will be my seventh. It's action packed with talent, substance, advocacy, culture, and meaningful opportunities to affect positive change. I am excited to connect with, break bread, and share ideas with all of the amazingly passionate people I'll meet and learn from. So, I'll Ssee you in Atlanta?
Find out how to join Chefs Collaborative, and visit the Chefs Collaborative Summit from September 9 - 11. Remember to do your part in cleaning up the oceans to ensure you have scrumptious but sustainable seafood by taking part in the UN's #CleanSeasPhoto Challenge.