Empowered at the Roots Conference

Photos and story by Claire Hoppens

The Roots Conference, held annually at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, is a gathering of chefs, artisans, authors, scholars, farmers and enthusiasts from vast corners of the food world. The agenda is packed with panel discussions and presentations from leaders in diverse fields. 

The theme of this year's conference was empowerment. This applies to all facets of our food: from those who grow it, to those who cook and serve it, to those who make policies surrounding it. So how can we empower those individuals in a way that is meaningful and sustainable? The many voices and ideas at Roots shed light on ways we can make progress. 

A standout discussion filled with valuable take home messages was the panel on food waste. 

Waste Not, Want Not

Somewhere between 25-40% of food grown and transported in this country will never be consumed, a sobering statistic worthy of concern. One inspiring panel focused on food waste featuring a diverse group of participants including Disney's executive catering chef, a start up founder and a Moroccan-born Michelin star chef. 

Chef Mourad Lahlou, owner of Aziza and Mourad in San Francisco, discussed the wasteful way we shop for and consume animals, noting that Americans often forgo the cuts that other cultures and countries revere or that are edible, at the least. 

By choosing the same few cuts of meat and expecting uniform, sometimes boneless cuts, we are moving away from the very acknowledgement that the meat came from an animal. "Don't waste that creature's life to eat only part of it," he said. That sentiment, more than anything else, echoed in my brain for the rest of the day. 

Read more about Chef Lahlou.

John Clark of Disney talked about the company's increasing efforts to curb the food waste that results from consumer preferences, such as the desire for perfect and unblemished produce. Now, he says, some of the hotels and parks are using "ugly" fruit and vegetables in preparations that hide imperfections, or are leaning on their talented culinary teams to transform those ingredients into creative dishes. He also described a massive effort to train proper waste disposal across all parks, hotels and restaurants, from compost to cardboard. 

Read about the sustainability efforts Disney is making at outposts around the world.

Maria Gamble left a long career at Cambell's to launch the Soulfull Project, a line of responsibly sourced food items with a mission: for every serving of Soulfull purchased, another is donated to a regional food bank. She discussed opportunities that chefs and food buyers have to reduce waste by giving. Maria told the story of a farm where "seconds" of peaches - misshapen but delicious - were transformed by a food bank into a shelf stable salsa. She echoed a common sentiment among the panel: that there is vast potential in all of our communities for the food that is not "perfect" enough for grocery store shelves, and it's our responsibility to work together, ask questions and make connections. 

Learn more about the Soulfull Project and it's mission. 

Other Highlights

Other panels included discussions on policy networks, chefs as advocates and the use of social media for engagement with audiences. 

Katherine Miller, Director of the Chef Action Network, said that chefs play an important role in informing diners and fans about causes dear to their industry and community. "You're telling a story everyday on your table," she said. 

Empowering a food chain or community means many things to many people. To me, after experiencing Roots, empowerment in food means supplying knowledge, tools and support. It means asking tough questions about living wages and working conditions. It means supporting business owners with tools and systems for cleaner, safer food. It means understanding the power of a chef as a skilled craftsperson and an influencer. 

Thanks to Chef's Garden and the Culinary Vegetable Institute for creating a collaborative environment, highlighting important issues and making remarkable food. It was my pleasure to experience the Roots Conference this year. To learn more about the conference and the Chef's Garden, visit: https://www.chefs-garden.com/roots-2016