Zimmern, local chefs talk sustainability at James Beard Foundation salon

Mitchell Davis and Ashley Kosiak from JBF

Mitchell Davis and Ashley Kosiak from JBF

Thursday morning, a small but impressive group including Andrew Zimmern, Lenny Russo, Lucia Watson, Tracy Singleton, and Erick Harcey, as well as representatives from several nonprofits, a cookbook author, and a few other notables, gathered at Restaurant Alma to talk about how to bring sustainability to a wider audience.

Put together by the James Beard Foundation, Karp Resources, and the American Humane Association, the salon was created to discuss the complex issues of how money and media intersect with food and our choices. It's one of a few regional roundtables that JBF is having in the run-up to their annual food conference in October.

Of course, there was also a delicious lunch following the inspiring conversation, courtesy of Alex Roberts and his crew.


Starting with brief opening remarks by Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, the participants introduced themselves and shared what keeps them up at night followed by what gives them hope. It was a fine way to understand the work done by the varied attendees and hear their concerns.

Sharon and Kevin Hannigan from J & J Distributors, a St. Paul produce outfit, noted the changing landscape of their trade and the fact that customers have responded so well to their organics business. JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of the local foods program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, worried that farmers may not be making enough money.

Sharon and Kevin Hannigan from J&J Distributing

Sharon and Kevin Hannigan from J&J Distributing

Encouraging communication and cooking with kids was a topic touched on by many. Roberts talked about educating diners, Youth Farm, which engages city youth in community gardening, and feeding his own kids broccoli (it's easier with garlic and butter). Zimmern pointed out that while his child is exposed to great food, many of his well-heeled peers still start the day with "two helpings of Captain Crunch," or something similar.

The topic of chef as celebrity was addressed as both a positive and a negative, with Russo saying that he's received writing and speaking opportunities thanks to the growth of interest in food, chefs, and the local foods movement. He gave kudos to Lucia Watson and Brenda Langton (who was not there) for employing sustainable actions as far back as 1985 when he arrived in the Cities. Meanwhile, author Beth Dooley feared that food television has become strictly entertainment and not education--a point Zimmern hit home when he explained that today's viewing audiences tend to turn the dial to competition shows and away from straight cooking shows.

Bruce Miller from Minnesota Cooks spoke about "time-challenged farmers" who, similar to urban dwellers, find their work day ends later and later. That seems to mean that people, even farmers, are cooking less and less. Several participants also touched on the fact that many people don't know how to cook, so even if they get good ingredients such as in a CSA, they have no idea what to do with them.

These and many other issues were raised by the diverse group during the two-plus hours of chat. Roberts then served up a delicious summer family-style lunch menu featuring a fricassee of seasonal vegetables and roasted chicken as part of a set of haute but homey dishes. At that point UBS joined the event with some high-net-worth investors who sat among the salon attendees, and all enjoyed the meal and casual conversation.

The day highlighted many subjects that will likely lead to more discussion among the participants. When Watson suggested that "this word 'sustainability ... is a pretty mediocre thing to try to strive for. There needs to be a bigger word," the sentiment seemed apropos, because this group is asking that everyone dedicate themselves to food lives that go beyond the ordinary.