11 Influential Eco-Chefs Who Are Changing the Way We Think About Food

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When I set out to put together a list of influential eco-chefs, I began by thinking of chefs I know or local chefs whose work I’m familiar with. Then I went to the chefs who are super-famous and whose work has inspired many to think about where their food comes from and how it was raised. There are so many more chefs who could qualify because they support local food systems and honor the people who raise food sustainably, but I chose to focus on those chefs who consciously incorporate sustainable principals into everything they do and educate while they are doing it.

My first surprise was that I had a hard time coming up with names of many women who bill themselves as eco-chefs. They aren’t top of news, therefore, not top of mind. I was disappointed. I had to dig a little deeper and even ask some of the male chefs for women chefs they admired to get a little gender balance into the list.

Here’s a list of eco-chefs who live and work the ethos every day. Some are famous, some well-known in their areas, and some are up-and-coming chefs you maybe haven’t heard of. Granted this list is subjective as there are likely numerous regional chefs all over the country doing amazing work. So please pipe up and share your favorites. And ladies? I know you’re out there so please tell us about yourselves.

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1. Dan Barber

Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture outside of New York City in the Hudson Valley. The center is a working, four-season farm and education center whose mission is to create a consciousness about the effects of everyday food choices. The restaurant is one of the finest elegant restaurants in the country, serving as a living laboratory of the ideals presented at the center and featuring the best that the nearby area has to offer.

Barber spoke at the World Economic Forum’s 2010 annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland as well as at TED2010. He was also appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

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Photo: Elizabeth Tichenor

2. Aaron French

Aaron French is a self-described eco-chef and has the schooling to back it up. Before he was a food writer and chef, he was a research ecologist with a Masters Degree. He spent years studying birds and monkeys in Cameroon. Today he is the chef at The Sunny Side Café with locations in Berkeley and Albany, CA.

Sunny Side was the first green-certified restaurant in Albany and features a variety of breakfast standards made from quality local ingredients and humanely raised meats and eggs. French doesn’t believe in being preachy or pure, so you can still get an omelet with cheese and bacon, but low carbon menu options are marked with a small globe to get people thinking about their choices. French is the author of The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook due out from Voyageur Press in August 2011.

I asked French if he could comment on the concept of being an eco-chef. He told me that he found it “simply amazing that there is an article being written about eco-chefs at all.” He shared with me that the first time he was called an eco-chef, it was an insult. Then he related the following story to me.

“I was first called an eco-chef back in the very early 1990’s when I worked at the Che Cafe on the U.C. San Diego campus. The Che Cafe was a student run collective, and had a varied collection of farmers / hippies / punkers / anarchists who ran it. People knew I was studying ecology, and one day when I was taking out the garbage I got upset because people weren’t properly separating the recycling from the trash – and one guy yelled at me, as an insult, “Why do you care?  What are you, some kind of eco-chef?”

French then told me that when he started cooking full time again, he took on the title eco-chef as a way to take back the insult and make it positive. He added, “as with all things sustainable, I wish for a day when any eco or green or (fill in the blank) modifiers aren’t necessary because they are simply accepted as the standard and best way to operate. But, unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath for that!”

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3. Kurt Michael Friese

Chef Kurt Michael Friese is the owner with his wife Kim McWane Friese of the restaurant Devotay in Iowa City, Iowa. Devotay has been a leader in sustainable cuisine that supports Iowa producers for the past 14 years. Friese is also the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, and serves on its board, where he works hard on programs to counter the perception that Slow Food is an elitist organization.

He is also editor-in-chief and co-owner of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley as well as a freelance food writer and photographer, with regular columns in six local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. His book, A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland was published by Ice Cube Press. His next book, Hot Spots on the Chile Trail, written with Gary Nabhan and Kraig Kraft, will be released in the spring of 2011 by Chelsea Green.

Read this interview with Friese on Civileats.com to learn more about his views on sustainability. And here’s a quote from that piece to take away:

“I’m committed to this idea of re-creating the food system. It’s going to happen either way. We’re going to get the hand-made food system, a regional system either way; it’s just whether we’ll do it the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is by no means easy, but the hard way is desperately, dust bowl hard. Nature insists on bio-diversity, it can’t stand uniformity. Here in Iowa, if we plant corn on corn on corn, nature will demand bio-diversity. We’re starting to see the Round-Up resistant super weeds and the pesticide-resistant bugs aren’t far behind. So, that’s what I mean when I say ‘Dust Bowl hard’. We better do this our way, or nature will force us into it.”

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4. Bun Lai

Bun Lai is an ecological activist whose restaurant, Miya’s Sushi, in New Haven CT is the first and only sustainable sushi restaurant in the North East (one of four in America) and the one with the largest vegetarian sushi menu in the world. The restaurant was started by his mother in 1982 and has continued to evolve to reflect the current reality of our oceans. From the restaurant’s website:

“We are aware that the restaurant industry has a very harmful impact on the environment; in particular, the traditional cuisine of sushi is destroying our oceans. Therefore, we try to maintain a restaurant in as ecologically responsible manner as possible. We do our best to not use ingredients that are either overfished or that in their production have a negative impact on the environment. As a result, half of our vast menu is vegetable-centered; the other half does not utilize traditional sushi ingredients such as Toro, Bluefin Tuna, Big Eye Tuna, certain Yellowfin, Unagi, Red Snapper, Maine Sea Urchin, Octopus, and so on.”

Now here’s a sushi restaurant where even I would eat.

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5. Rick Moonen

Celebrity chef Rick Moonen was executive chef and partner of the critically acclaimed Oceana in New York. He later created Molyvos, a Greek fish house, with partners.

His first solo venture, rm, a sustainable seafood restaurant in New York City garnered much praise from critics, but in 2005, he shut down rm New York and opened in Las Vegas. As much as I feel that the whole idea of Vegas is unsustainable, including the practice of flying seafood into the desert, I have to say that if someone is going to open an elegant restaurant that serves people fancy seafood in Las Vegas and educates them to make better choices while they’re at it, then that’s a good thing. It’s not as if places like Vegas are going anywhere real soon (at least until we run out of water or oil) so why not do what’s going to be done anyway better?

When he’s not cooking, Moonen can be found throughout the country educating about ocean conservation and the dangers of over fishing. He has testified for environmental and sustainability policy issues in Washington, DC and New York. He is a founding member of the Seafood Choices Alliances, which named him “Seafood Champion” in 2006, as well as an active member of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and Seaweb.

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Photo: Bart Nagel

6. Samin Nosrat

Samin Nosrat is a Berkeley, CA-based professional cook and freelance writer who looks to tradition, culture and history for inspiration. Trained in the Chez Panisse kitchen, she cooked there for several years before moving to Italy, where she worked closely with the Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini and chef Benedetta Vitali for nearly two years. She spent five years as the sous chef and “farmwife” at Eccolo, butchering, brining, and preserving nearly everything to make the restaurant as self-sustaining as possible. In 2010, she co-founded Pop-Up General Store with Christopher Lee. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, TheAtlantic.com, Meatpaper, and Edible San Francisco, as well as on her blog, Ciao Samin.

Here’s a quote from Nosrat on sustainability in the kitchen:

“Even more basic than the recycling, composting, and shopping for local, organic ingredients, that have now become cursory, if not compulsory for chefs and home cooks alike is one habit we often overlook: reducing waste by using everything up. More than half of the food in this country gets thrown away each year; I believe that if we all took a little more care to be more discriminating shoppers on the one hand, and dedicated to cooking creatively with leftovers on the other, we could reduce our waste dramatically. I’m so inspired by Italy’s cucina rustica, or peasant’s kitchen, for this reason – day old bread is given new life as ribollita soup (recipe below) and panzanella, the tomato and bread salad ubiquitous throughout Tuscany. Every scrap of meat is added to ragù or sausages, and every last bit of tomato gets preserved for the winter. My focus on teaching these recipes and spreading an appreciation for this food is two-fold: I believe it’s the most natural and delicious way to eat, but I am also acutely aware of the respect for the earth that this sort of frugality demonstrates.”

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7. Ani Phyo

Somewhat of a celebrity in LA, Ani Phyo is a raw food chef, cookbook author, and eco-lifestylist. She uses seasonal, local, organic, fresh produce coupled with nuts and seeds. She founded a company called Smart Monkey Foods (now defunct) and is the author of Ani’s Raw Food Essentials, Ani’s Raw Food Desserts, and Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen. From her website: “Raw food is more than a diet to me. It affects the way I live and interact with planet Earth and all other living beings.”

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8. Barton Seaver

Barton Seaver is a chef who has dedicated his career to restoring the relationship we have with the oceans. The choices we are making for dinner are directly impacting the ocean and its fragile ecosystems, and not only that, but sustainability is, at its root, not only an ecological matter, but also a humanitarian one. Because of this belief, Barton’s work expands beyond the dining table to encompass socio-economic and cultural issues. He works with D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization fighting hunger not with food, but with personal empowerment, job training, and life skills.

Barton has been honored as a leader in sustainability by the Seafood Choices Alliance and was named a fellow with National Geographic and The Blue Ocean Institute. He is presently an appointed member of the Mayor’s Council on Nutrition in Washington, D.C., helping to craft a wellness policy for District residents.

He is the author of For Cod And Country (Sterling, Spring 2011), a book of recipes that inspires ocean conservation.

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9. Louisa Shafia

Louisa Shafia graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, went to San Francisco and cooked a the vegan restaurant Millennium, and later at Roxanne’s, the first fine-dining establishment dedicated to raw food. Back in New York, Louisa cooked at Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit restaurant, and then went on to help open Pure Food and Wine as the sous chef. In 2004, with a mind to bringing earth-friendly practices to the world of fine catering, Louisa started Lucid Food, a catering company. Her catering company only works with companies and individuals who help highlight environmental and social issues, either through enlightened business practices or personal vision.

She is the author of the book Lucid Food, a book of healthy recipes with an eco-bent. Videos and recipes are available on her blog.

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10. Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry is an eco-chef, food justice activist, and author. He is currently a 2008-2010 Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national Program of the W.K. Kellogg and Fair Food Foundations. Terry and his writing/recipes have been featured in Gourmet, Food and Wine, The New York Times Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Domino, Mothering, and many other publications. He is the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African American Cuisine. He Co-authored Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen with Anna Lappé. These days, he talks to communities around the country about healthy eating and sustainable food systems and he’s finishing his 3rd book, which will be published late 2011/early 2012, while awaiting the birth of his first child.

I asked Bryant what being an eco-chef means to him:

“I started calling myself an eco chef back in 2002 because I strove to use food as a tool to help people see the interconnection of all living beings. It was my hope that when people better understood/remembered this connection they would make decisions in the best interest of all beings (i.e., our earth, the animal kingdom, hardworking small farmers, and the like). For me, the use of the term has been deeply spiritual as well as political and practical.

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11. Judy Wicks

Judy Wicks might possibly be considered the original eco-chef. Back inn 1983, when Wicks founded the White Dog Cafe in West Philadelphia, the term eco-chef and the idea of sustainable food didn’t even exist. What started as a tiny muffin shop became a 200-seat restaurant featuring fresh local food with a national reputation for community involvement, environmental stewardship, responsible business practices, and leadership in the local economy movement.  In 2009, Judy sold the company through a unique exit strategy that preserved White Dog’s sustainable business practices and maintains local, independent ownership.

Under Judy’s leadership, White Dog purchased sustainably grown produce from local family farmers and developed policies to purchase only humanely and naturally raised meat, poultry and eggs, as well as sustainably harvested fish, and fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, vanilla, and cinnamon.  Other sustainable business practices she implemented at White Dog include recycling and composting, solar hot water, eco-friendly soaps and office supplies, and purchasing 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources, the first business in Pennsylvania to do so.

Today she is an international leader and speaker in the local living economies movement, Judy is co-founder, in 2001, of the nationwide Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), now comprised of 80 local business networks in towns and cities across the US and Canada. She also founded the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, the local BALLE affiliate, now with over 500 members.

Ribollita (Reboiled soup):

Recipe Courtesy of Samin Nosrat

2 red onions, diced into 1/4 inch cubes

1 rib celery, diced into 1/4 inch cubes

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into 1/4 inch cubes

One 16-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, chopped

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 russet potato, peeled and diced into 1/4 inch cubes

1/2 head Savoy cabbage, in 1/2 inch julienne

2 bunches cavolo nero (sometimes called lacinato kale), ribs removed and sliced into 1/2 inch julienne

3 cups cooked cannellini, borlotti, spagna, or cranberry beans, cooking water reserved separately

a prosciutto rind

a parmesan rind

at least 1-1/2 quarts stock or water

Salt

1 loaf rustic bread (such as Campagna loaf from Della Fattoria), crust removed and torn into 2 inch pieces

extra virgin olive oil

Parmesan for garnish

Sauté the onion, celery and carrot in extra virgin olive oil until they are cooked through. Avoid getting any color on the vegetables.  Add the tomatoes and their liquid and the garlic and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes are sufficiently broken down.  Season with salt.

Add the potato, cabbage, cavolo nero, prosciutto and parmesan rinds and cover with stock or water. Bring the soup to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Stirring frequently, cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour, or until the flavors come together. Add the beans and their liquid, season with salt, and cook for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, lightly toast the torn bread in a 400˚ oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until it is dried out and crusty. Place the toasted bread into a large pot or container, then taste the soup once more and adjust the seasoning. Pour the soup over the bread, and let it all sit together overnight.

The next day, slowly heat the soup (Be careful. Now that there is all of that bread in there, it can scorch really easily.), adding a little more water or stock if necessary. Garnish with extra virgin olive oil and finely grated parmesan.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Main Image: Peter Blanchard

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DISCUSSION

6 thoughts on “11 Influential Eco-Chefs Who Are Changing the Way We Think About Food

  1. Pingback: vegan grilling on the 4th | cooking with bryant terry

  2. You’ve done yourself a disservice by not mentioning Monica Pope, who has been creating, cooking, educating and spreading the word here in Houston about the many benefits of using locally grown produce. She uses them in her restaurants and catering business and hosts one of the best markets each Saturday in the restaurant’s parking lot. And where is Alice Waters? Gads.

  3. Pingback: 11 Influential Eco-Chefs | Bryant Terry

  4. Pingback: The Best of the Best: Weekly Highlights on EcoSalon | EcoSalon | The Green Gathering

  5. Really, no Rick Bayliss? I realize a lot of folks think he’s “too” high profile, but the guy has really single-handedly changed the lives of a lot of local/small farmers in the Chicago area with his three restaurants (allowing other restaurants to also have access to local foodshed produce. (Not to mention his garden, which produces much for the restaurant.) Then you get into the fact that the newest of his restaurants is LEED certified (and from what I understand, above and beyond), and his emphasis on a cuisine that most people turn their noses up at, or think of as “just fancy Taco Bell…” and his exclusion from the list seems pretty noticeable!

 

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