How the Chef's Role is Changing and How Chefs Have Become the Voice Of Reason in Today's Industrialized Food System

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Chefs taking the lead in how — and what — we cook makes sense. Surround yourself with the best people you can afford and trust their decision making. With that, there is a gentle progress murmuring in kitchens. Chefs are making demands on the people that supply ingredients.

Although conventional wisdom says that makes sense, we still have brigades of kitchen staffers that are disconnected from the order guides, program money, and vendor agreements that hobble their ability to make logic of our food system.

A long, long time ago, there was a kitchen designed around the needs of the people that actually used the space. The sinks were in just the right place, the oven was exactly what was needed for firepower, the pick-up window was seamless and glistened with the efficiency of a smart, adept space.

Farmers would bring their toils to the stoops of the cooks. All was right in the world. The end-users were the decision makers. But somewhere along the way, cooks and chefs lost some of their say in policy. We moved more towards numbers and less towards, well, food. Packages got bigger, chickens got more alien-like, and apples stopped rotting. We pawned common sense for dollars and cents.

Fortunately, getting that voice back is happening. Common sense is not always common knowledge, yet we are an adaptable breed, and now we are demanding the systems with which we know we can thrive.

Efficiency Matters

Out in Colorado, agriculture opportunities are a bit more challenging than what we find in Nogales, Salinas, or Napa. Uncooperative terrain is only one hurdle. Alex Seidel of Fruition and Mercantile, among others, has been working with a local potato grower to get the supply with which his restaurants can depend. Working directly is the operative element of changing the relationship between vendors and customers. The big-rig distributors aren’t able to deliver the dialed-in specs that many chefs want. Nothing personal, but the products sometimes don’t work. Seidel stepped into the process by building an efficient relationship to shape the supply system. Not as easy as calling the 1-800 number to place the order, but the result is a local supply that performs as he wants.

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Free range, GMO-free, No Antibiotics, No nothin’

We created this market of consumer demands. We did! We created a field of consumers that understand all-natural. They understand local and antibiotic-free. Now, this more educated consumer base looks for clean labeling and we must comply. And it isn’t just boutique restaurants that are upending their ingredients’ profile.

Panera Bread, for instance, has evolved their menu over the past several years to full transparency, laden with clean ingredients. Why? There is a move from antiquated systems that are dependent on multiple layers of preservatives, unpronounceable ingredients, and monster-esque constructs. There is common sense at play here. The restaurant biz is showcasing food that customers want and the market is responding. Our evolving food systems are grounded in clarity and practical magic versus works of science fiction.

Door Dash & Grub Hub. For Farmers.

There are great farms trying to get their products to the restaurants that so desire to use local commodities. The problem? Distribution. Old Dirt Hill Farm can’t possibly be expected to grow, tend to, harvest, and distribute their crops. It just isn’t an efficient use of resources.

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In development, the FoodBank of Delaware is building a produce hub. Think of it like Door Dash, but for farmers. Not every restaurant wants or is able to deliver, just like every farm isn’t able to do the same. In steps the FoodBank’s hub. With an already existent system for gathering donations, the circle widens by grabbing produce from throughout northern Delaware. The produce then makes its way back to the FoodBank where it will be packaged or further processed by FoodBank trainees and then distributed. There are wins on many levels; farmers move produce, the FoodBank gets a share, and chefs get local produce delivered minus the distribution headache. A sensible solution that keeps a closed loop of local spending and, more importantly, an efficient system that isn’t dragging tomatoes 2,000 miles on a carbon-spewing eighteen-wheeler with under-ripe produce.

Ugly Produce

Speaking of produce, conventional wisdom has taken over when it comes to food waste on the production side. Blemished, misshapen peppers, tomatoes, and squash are set aside on the retail level as their more preferred contemporaries. As a result, a lot of waste.

Chefs, on the other hand, are embracing the ugly produce to capitalize on pricing and, more importantly, to use their culinary prowess to make appealing food within a system that shames sad looking potatoes.

Hungry Harvest, for instance, drops boxes of “rescued” produce on both the retail and wholesale levels in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond. Why? For restaurants, the impact on food cost is real. Bonus? It is marketable. And, there is no need to discard a perfectly usable product when we have populations around the country that are food insecure.

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As challenging as it may be to develop a relationship with a producer to birth a system, it is just as easy to run to the local grocery depot for products ticking in at a discount. The sacrifice, though, is that quality along the system.

Chefs are the customers of farmers, purveyors, and manufacturers. So it makes sense that they get looped in on the decision making. Making sense of what is being produced based on needs is as fundamental as the blueprint of the kitchen. And, much like that particular blueprint, we have gone astray.

With the new fierceness of contemporary chefs taking the lead in systems, we are getting back the authority to make educated decisions. It starts with the end in mind. We know what we want to see from operations and systems and what makes sense. We are waking up and making plans to change the world.

Want more tips from Chef Berman? Listen to the latest episode of The Barron Report where Host Paul Barrons finds out what Chef Berman thinks about food. You also get a sneak peek into what to expect from the first season of Chef AF, a new podcast with Berman as the host.