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Originally published August 18, 2013 at 5:30 AM | Page modified August 19, 2013 at 11:24 AM

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Chefs stir the pot in hopes of influencing big food issues

Many chefs are considering how — and whether — they can make a difference on the issues that concern them most, such as USDA organic standards, GMO labeling, school nutrition and humane animal husbandry.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Laura Rogers can almost pinpoint when the needle jumped in The Pew Charitable Trusts’ campaign to phase out the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food animals. When celebrity chef and “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio started following them last year on Twitter (@saveantibiotics), it was a game-changer.

At the time, the campaign had 20,000 Twitter followers; he had 350,000. When he retweets them, they can tell. “He’s really stepped out, talked about it on morning shows,” Rogers said. “He’s come to conferences and lobbied for us. When you have someone like that, a prominent chef people look up to, and the American people can relate to, it begins to shift momentum.”

It’s not just celebrity chefs who are speaking out. Many chefs are considering how — and whether — they can make a difference on the issues that concern them most: USDA organic standards, GMO labeling, school nutrition, humane animal husbandry, antibiotic use and pesticides in food, a better farm bill, and access to healthy food in low-income communities are just some of them.

Pew, a nonprofit research and public-policy organization, has been working on the antibiotics issue for almost five years. It was lonely at the start, recalls Rogers, project director at Pew Health Group. “We were up against formidable foes — big agriculture and pharmaceutical companies — with just a few nonprofits involved and not much consumer awareness.”

They started building the movement with moms. “Often they control what comes into the house. They want the least processed products for their kids. They get that antibiotics are overused,” Rogers said.

Then Pew organized a big lobby day in Washington, D.C., inviting moms but also doctors, victims of food-borne illnesses, farmers and chefs. “The chefs were so passionate. They had great stories to tell. They understand where food comes from. They want everyone to have access to the same food they do.”

Pew started reaching out to more of them. At the same time, the James Beard Foundation was seeking ways to lift the voices of its chefs, many of whom wanted to address problems in our food system but weren’t sure how. Last summer, the Beard Foundation, Pew and media training experts from D.C. held the first “Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change.” Seattle chef Maria Hines attended the pilot program, then a second boot camp this past spring.

As the chef/owner of three certified organic restaurants — Tilth, Golden Beetle and Agrodolce — Hines is no stranger to food advocacy. She decided to host a mini boot camp for her colleagues locally.

“I feel we can reach out to the next level,” to work with policymakers and advocates to help change things, Hines said. “I feel like everyone’s making a chicken stock or veal stock in their own house. They’re chopping up a little bit of onions and carrots and getting their own little mirepoix together. Instead we should be saying: you chop up a bushel of carrots, you chop up a bushel of onions, and let’s make one big-ass stock together.”

Last month a dozen Seattle chefs (and one from Portland), along with food advocates and state and local policymakers, gathered for a daylong “food salon” led by Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the Beard foundation.

Davis told the chefs they had a lot of day-to-day opportunities to influence the public. He used kale as an example: “Everyone eats kale now. Chefs using it in restaurants made that happen to a large extent.”

Chefs already influence our food choices. Before kale it was bok choy, before that it was arugula. When we taste something new in a restaurant, we might ask our market to special order it; if enough customers demand it, the market will stock the item.

Chefs have political clout because they create jobs, pay taxes, powerful people sit at their tables, and the public idolizes them. But most chefs have limited time and resources, and even less knowledge of how to work the system.

Speaking out can be a tough decision for chefs. As small-business owners, many are careful about expressing political views, for fear of offending guests who don’t share them. Others feel a duty to express opinions on food issues. All share a concern for the safety of the food supply.

Jim Drohman, chef/owner of Le Pichet and Café Presse, said he thought advocating for a food policy that assures a safe supply is “part of our job.” Before this, he said, he wasn’t aware so many chefs were thinking the same way.

Most chefs aren’t natural political animals. “Chefs want to hide back in the kitchen; otherwise they would be waiters,” said Portland chef Cathy Whims, who came away from the first salon feeling overwhelmed.

At the Seattle food salon, however, during a “speed-dating session” where the chefs rotated among the various policymakers and advocates to practice distilling their message down to three minutes or less, Whims met Katie Levy of Yes On 522, the initiative to require labeling on genetically modified foods.

“She mentioned they were coming down for Feast Portland in September,” Whims said. “Last year at Feast we threw an after-party, so I said, what if we did it this year as a benefit for the ballot measure?”

Before the food salon, the group had dinners planned with a number of Seattle-area chefs. Since the salon, more chefs have signed on for dinners and for “Bite Nite,” a small-plate fundraiser at Herban Feast in Sodo Park on Sept. 19, among them Meeru Dhalwala of Shanik.

Dhalwala, who also runs the kitchens at Vij’s and Rangoli in Vancouver, B.C., has been an activist for 19 years. “Joy of Feeding,” her pet project in Vancouver, is an annual feast prepared by household cooks to promote cross-cultural awareness and raise money for UBCFarm, a research center on the University of British Columbia campus.

Dhalwala would like to launch a similar project in Seattle in 2014. During the speed-dating session, she spoke to Rebecca Sadinsky, executive director of PCC Farmland Trust, about the possibility of benefiting that organization.

As the food salon came to a close, many expressed interest in continuing the conversation at monthly coffees or quarterly meals. “We’re talking about so many food issues all at once,” said Hines. “It’s a giant nut to crack.”

But if they succeed, the benefits for the public just might be better food on everyone’s tables.

Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Bettina Hansen is a Times staff photographer.

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