Food for Social Good: How Celebrity Chefs can Change the Culinary Landscape

By Food Institute Student Fellow Annabel Epstein ’18

As a Food Institute fellow, I have the chance to attend various food related conferences around town. Recently, at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs Food Security Symposium I was a rapporteur for a solution session focused on the role chefs play in creating a more equitable and sustainable culinary landscape. The panel was moderated by Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, which just awarded Chef José Andrés (founding member of the advisory council of the Food Institute) with the humanitarian of the year award for his outstanding work providing disaster relief in Puerto Rico. Davis was in conversation with Asha Gomez, a Southern Indian award winning chef and cookbook author based in Atlanta, as well as Paul Newnham, the coordinator for the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (zero hunger) advocacy hub, and Tunde Wey, a Nigerian immigrant chef/writer working at the intersection of food and social politics.


The discussion centered around the role food can play to help unite and stimulate communities – whether that is by connecting farmers and producers to the consumer, or changing people’s perceptions about ingredients and entire cuisines. For example, Gomez discussed that she chooses to put sustainable seafood on her menu which may include unfamiliar fish in an attempt  to inspire people at home to choose local fish over tuna. Gomez also emphasized the responsibility chefs have to employ people from the community, and purchase from local farmers to stimulate the local economy.


Part of Newnham’s responsibility is translating the lengthy goals and guidelines for achieving SDG #2 (zero hunger) into guidelines that chefs can easily incorporate at their restaurants. Working through the World Food Program, he tries to bring together the areas of nutrition, food and agriculture to address the problem. Newnham emphasized that sometimes the conversation becomes very scientific, but people tend to forget that food is something we all enjoy and connect over. When we are providing aid in the form of food, it’s important to be culturally appropriate and respectful to the tastes of the community – otherwise we are not doing it right.


Meanwhile, Tunde discussed the  cultural hegemony western food companies exert on countries like Nigeria, where he grew up. Speaking about his childhood, Tunde said that he would watch American TV at home and see ads for Kellogg’s cereal and McDonalds, making him want to eat American food and reject the healthier Nigerian food his mother was cooking. He argued that his, and countless other people’s idea of what is delicious has been corrupted by the influence and deep permeation of the taste provided by Western food companies.


In conclusion, the panel agreed that chefs have the responsibility to put local foods and preserve native culinary traditions in their communities. As some chefs reach celebrity status, they have a platform to advocate for more sustainability in the food world – whether by reducing food waste, serving more vegetables, or eating avoiding over fished seafood. Getting people to care about what they are eating is the first step to creating a better food system, and chefs can be the ones who motivate people to care.