Chefs have long cooked at charity events, but in recent years more and more are pioneering their own nonprofit foundations and participating in ongoing social ventures. Roy Choi’s LocoL, Zoe Nathan's Bake and Gather, Joachim Splichal partnering with L.A. Kitchen for this year’s Emmys, Bryant Ng's L.A. Chefs for Human Rights — the list goes on. Then there are the chefs cooking for victims of natural disasters in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Northern California. The era of chef-activist has dawned.
It comes on the heels of the rise of the chef as a public figure, as cooking shows (and TV in general) have made chefs into media personalities with general audiences (some of whom couldn't care less about food). With fame comes responsibility — or, at least, a heightened pressure for favorable PR. Whatever the motives for chefs’ involvement in social causes, it’s a growing movement.
Los Angeles has its fair share of woke chefs. Cassia chef-owner Bryan Ng, for example, founded L.A. Chefs for Human Rights with his wife, human rights lawyer Kim Luu-Ng, a refugee from Vietnam where her father was a victim of state-sponsored torture. Given the current political conversation around immigration – with many immigrants fleeing to the United States from similar situations all over the globe – Luu-Ng's efforts take on more relevance than ever. “My family fled by boat and was rescued off the coast by the British Navy,” she said recently at LACHR's annual gala. “Somehow my parents kept us alive for two weeks. They fought tooth and nail to survive, and I'm evidence of that.”
That night, LACHR raised more than $140,000 to benefit Program for Torture Victims, a nonprofit that connects recent immigrants with social services including job training, transportation and mental health care. It’s the most comprehensive program on the West Coast that serves torture survivors. “This is our biggest night of the year,” PTV board chair Arun Baheti said. “It’s huge for us.” Based on PTV’s 2015 annual report, $140,000 is almost a fifth of the organization’s total income, government grants included.
The night was a bit surreal at times: Guests were served plates of coconut milk–infused crudo with peanuts and chili oil as refugees told stories of being chained and beaten. It was possibly the only time that people had no appetite for Walter Manzke’s culinary prowess. Jessica Koslow and Jeremy Fox were there, too — an all-star lineup. The disparity of privilege, worldwide and in our own city, was starkly felt.
The idea of the fundraising gala is perhaps inherently paradoxical: championing equality through an exclusionary event. Given ticket prices (or, in this case, table prices), most folks probably couldn’t afford to attend. It’s hard to complain about ticket prices when they benefit such a good cause — the higher the better, really — and for those who find them out of their budget, there are other ways to get involved.
There's Dinners for DACA, for example, an event series in which people pay $35 to $55 a pop for a set menu at places like Kettle Black or Button Mash. Amidst platters of tofu balls and dan dan noodles, participants call elected officials using scripts they've been given, tweet using hashtags of the moment, and sign snail mail letters.
“You definitely don’t have to go to galas to give,” says Bruce Kalman, the chef behind Knead & Co Pasta Bar at Grand Central Market and Pasadena’s Union, and a contestant on the upcoming season of Top Chef. He’s also been the chef chair for Taste of the Nation, the annual fundraising event for No Kid Hungry, for three years.
Even aside from event series and ongoing social enterprises — of which Roy Choi’s and Daniel Patterson’s LocoL is probably the most well-known — there are the everyday things chefs are doing to perpetuate equity in their own sphere of influence. It’s less sexy to talk about paying employees higher wages or providing health insurance, but it’s arguable that these make as much, if not more, of an impact in individual’s lives.
Patterson, for example, is set to open a branch of his San Francisco restaurant Alta in the West Adams neighborhood of L.A. next year. Alta is decidedly more casual than Patterson's upscale Coi — think $13 lunch bowls with pulled pork and ginger-glazed eggplant — and Patterson is still very conscious of respecting the ethos of the West Adams neighborhood that he’s opening in. He’s working with Folkor, for example, a design firm that lives and works in the area (he also worked with them on LocoL). He’s also partnering with Restaurant Opportunities Center, a nonprofit committed to workplace justice and wage equality.
“A lot of the core values of LocoL are in Alta,” he says. “How we hire, how we train, a lot of the bedrock values are very similar. There’s a need in the fine-dining industry to create more equity, and I think that’s the responsibility of people who own and run a business. I mean, you can’t expect the employees to do that work.”
Diep Tran, chef and owner of Good Girl Dinette, has been vocal about her commitment to wage equality. At a panel earlier this year, she talked about her parents’ restaurant. “My family had the opportunity to amass wealth, but not the workers there. My parents managed to escape the cycle of poverty,” she said, describing how they shared a room in a tiny apartment, jokingly calling it a multi-unit condo. “But then they went and they exploited other people. That’s why you have such suppressed prices, because of the suppressed wages.”
“People are always like, ‘Wow, this food is so cheap, I don’t know how they do it,’” she says. “Um, no. You do know. You just don’t want to know.” At Good Girl Dinette, she says she makes a point to pay her employees equitable wages. And that, if you’re wondering, is why her pho is $11.
In a city where immigrant labor is so exploited, this is a stance as radical and as activist-oriented as any. Tran isn’t alone in wanting to overhaul the system. David Wilcox, a Gjelina alum who’s now chef-owner at Journeymen in Atwater Village, has some reformist ideas of his own. For one, he’s in the process of starting a profit-sharing program in which employees can earn a minimal stake in the company.
He believes that many restaurants can afford to pay people above minimum wage. “I’ve worked at restaurants that have profit margins of 20% and 25%,” he says. “I know it can be done.” He starts all his employees at $14 an hour, and has eliminated tipping at his restaurant. The menu price you see is what you pay, period. Salary is meted out based on employee performance, and Wilcox says he runs an open-book system where his employees see exactly how much everyone earns. “We’re not hiding any numbers,” he says. “We’re sharing with everyone how it works, and saying, ‘Hey, if the restaurant does well, you’re going to do better.’”