The message was clear: Now, having found ourselves in the position of celebrity, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to waste it or use it for good?
Choi used his own experiences and projects as examples: his work trying to bring nutritious snacks to Jefferson High School in South Central and his 3 Worlds Cafe in the same neighborhood.
Social responsibility is not new to the restaurant industry. But in recent years chefs have been getting more vocal and more creative. There's hardly a successful chef out there who has not participated in a charity dinner, and the locavore movement provided a cause for many chefs to rally around while improving their image and food. Raising money and awareness in these more traditional ways is fantastic, but it's interesting to see chefs evolve and create completely new ways of tackling complex issues and perhaps finding new ways to change the world.
Of course, one of the first and still one of the most impressive is Alice Water's Edible Schoolyard. It's possible that I find this project so amazing -- in which Waters transformed a Berkeley middle school grounds into a garden and teaching kitchen -- because I worked in the very school she transformed before she ever got there. It was a bleak place, a sea of blacktop and crowded classrooms. Now, with its beautiful garden and mini culinary program, it serves as a model for schools and communities all over the country.
But in recent months I've heard of projects that are breaking the mold of what it even means to operate a restaurant. In Pittsburgh, Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant that serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict. The menu switches out every few months, focusing on a different country, culture and cuisine with each new menu. From the restaurant's website:
Conflict Kitchen uses the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines. In addition, the restaurant creates a constantly changing site for ethnic diversity in the post-industrial city of Pittsburgh, as it has presented the only Iranian, Afghan, and Venezuelan restaurants the city has ever seen.
In Atlanta, a nonprofit restaurant called Staplehouse is about to open. The restaurant will benefit The Giving Kitchen, an organization set up to help people in the (notoriously under-insured) hospitality industry deal with medical bills, or with costs from other unexpected hardships. This is no hippy dippy enterprise either -- one of Atlanta's best chefs has left his high profile gig to open Staplehouse. It's a small circle of giving back, a microcosm of community, but it challenges the idea of what the purpose of a restaurant is and can be. (Here's a great CNN story about the restaurant and the story behind it.)
Of course, in L.A. we have Homegirl Cafe, which offers training and employment to former gang members.
In his talk, Choi encouraged -- or, more accurately, pleaded with -- his fellow chefs to think of ways that they could feed more than just the privileged. The restaurant industry is notoriously tough, with tiny profit margins, but Choi was talking to the right folks -- the MAD symposium is attended by the most successful, cutting-edge chefs in the world. Choi's right about the timing. With all the momentum behind the current food movement, it's time that chefs turned their attention to using that momentum -- and for something greater than what's on the plate.
You can watch Choi's full talk below.