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Can chefs shape our food system?

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KATHERINE MILLER:  There is a restaurant in almost every street in our various cities. They are woven into the fabrics of our communities and they are deeply embedded in our lives. Restaurants are the places we go to celebrate marriages, mourn divorces, the places we go to gossip with friends, to celebrate after church. And they become these places to hear the stories of their community. They're talking to the farmers every day, they're talking to the fisher people everyday, they're talking to the other producers, they're also getting a sense of what's challenging about their lives or what opportunities within their lives. And then they hear the everyday concerns of their customers, so they become these great collectors of stories.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, Katherine Miller, author of At the Table, the Chef's Guide to Advocacy. She encourages chefs to harness the power of their unique position in the community and raise their voices for change in the food system. Our conversation is just ahead.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. I think many of us can relate to the feeling of wanting to make the world a better place, but not always knowing the path for being the change we want to see in the world. My guest this week has made it part of her work to help people find their voices and advocate for the causes that matter to them. In particular, she works with chefs through the James Beard Foundation's Chef's Bootcamp for Policy and Change. Katherine Miller has a new book out called At the Table, where she shares the strategies and tools she's developed over the years to help chefs tap into their unique powers to fight for change in our food system.

KATHERINE MILLER:  My name is Katherine Miller and I'm the author of At the Table, the Chef's Guide to Advocacy and I'm also the founder of a consulting firm called Table 81 here in Washington DC.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I would like to start by hearing a little bit about your story, like what is your relationship to the restaurant industry and how did you find your way into this kind of work?

KATHERINE MILLER:  I have had a career which I call a career in thirds. I spent about a third of my career working in hardcore American politics and then moved into the non-profit and foundation sector where I built large scale campaigns focused on global health issues like polio and malaria, gender equity and when I transitioned into becoming a consultant and working for different foundations and organizations I really loved doing trainings. I love empowering people to have the tools that they need to do the thing that they want to do in life, whether that's be an advocate or fight for landholder rights or talk about education.

KATHERINE MILLER:  So, I was doing a lot of trainings, and some I was doing internationally, and two trustees of the James Beard Foundation came to me and said, hey, we have this idea. We'd love to train celebrity chefs to come to Capital Hill and get involved in food issues and I told them that was the craziest thing that I'd ever heard in my life, using much more colorful language than that, and was like, no, not going to do that. And for a variety of reasons they stayed after me and they were like, can you please come do this? And ultimately I did. I did the first Chef's Bootcamp for Policy and Change, which is a long time program at the James Beard Foundation now. And I designed that curriculum and led that training for the eight of the ten years that it's been around.

KATHERINE MILLER:  What I realized through all of that work was that I did have this random tie to the restaurant industry in a couple of ways. One was that, I, like most Americans, had some of my first jobs at a restaurant or in food service, whether it was the concession stand at the movie theater or whether it was actually in my family owned restaurant, which it hadn't occurred to me to sort of like midway through the second year of the training and one of the chefs asked, and I was like, oh yeah, my family owns a restaurants in a small town in Florida and I used to wait tables there and I was really bad at it. And so I think most of us have a food service story in our backgrounds, we were either waiters or waitresses, servers, bar backs, scooped popcorn, something. I love this work I think that it actually touches every single one of our lives in different ways.

KATHERINE MILLER:  Career in thirds, working in politics and then working on campaigns and then doing trainings and other consultant pieces and then the Beard Foundation asked me to do this training ten years ago plus.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The book is called At the Table and it's the Chef's Guide to Advocacy. And I think sometimes folks in the non-profit world really think that terms like advocacy are understood by everyone and I think that's not always the case, so I was wondering if you could spell that out for us. What is advocacy?

KATHERINE MILLER:  Advocacy is when any of us use our voice in support of the causes that we care about, and I think the slight difference and distinction that I get to in the book a little is there are different phases of one's advocacy and different tenures in which it can take. I always ask chefs, are you an activist or are you an advocate? I think being an advocate is when you go through the process of deep learning, figuring out who has already done the work before you and how you can support them, figuring out who your network of allies and relationships, where those lie. And figuring out how much time you've got to give to a particular cause. I think there's a difference. Advocacy is when any of us use our voice, our personal power to champion the causes that we care most about. I think often we don't think we're advocates when we really are.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And what is the difference in your mind between advocacy and activism?

KATHERINE MILLER:  I think they're sort of on the spectrum of what you do. I always talk about advocacy as sort of a walk through the forest with my family. You have the kids that run ahead and they're passionate and they're like we're going, we're gone, we're going to do this thing. And then you have folks in the middle who are sort of keeping an eye. Then you have the folks in the back who are a little slower to come along. In our own personal journeys with advocacy I often think about that. There are different places for a voice in there.

KATHERINE MILLER:  I think activists, and I consider myself very much an activist on certain issues, are those folks that are literally at the front lines, at the front lines of the barricades with the signs, with the protests, really becoming among the first to shine attention and light onto things. I think advocates are probably a little bit more methodical, often, and it's deeper. And you can be both, you can hold both obviously, but I think being an advocate really is, and this is a point I try to make in the book, it's really a practice and it's an ongoing thing and it requires you to have the same skills and intention that you would have with other things in your life, and so I tend to think of activists as those who are really like the first to show us a problem is happening, and the advocates are sort of, okay, how do we solve this problem and bring the most people to the table? And how do we make the most people help us create the change we want to see?

KAYTE YOUNG:  You also make a distinction in the book about the difference between political and partisan and encourage people to not shy away from being political and that it doesn't mean the same thing. Could you say a little bit more about that?

KATHERINE MILLER:  I think it's an incredibly fraught thing right now. We are surrounded by this constant noise of politics and partisanship, and almost segmented aspects of our society. And we think about policy, policy is the thing that really does control our lives, right? It is the thing that controls what types of food we can eat, how much those foods costs, who can grow on which land, what that land can be used for and how those different products are subsidized. Policy is actually a thing, and the challenge with that is policy is also compromised. You have to be able to bring different people to the table and you have to be able to transcend partisanship because, ultimately, you're going to have to work with other people, whether they're other people in your community, whether they're other people in congress, whether they're other people in the administration and we are challenged by that right now. I think it's a really fraught and difficult time.

KATHERINE MILLER:  An exercise I do with almost every training is I ask people about a common societal thing like, do you agree or disagree that children should go hungry? And if you say no, no child should be hungry everybody raises their hand. No one wants to see children go hungry. Every single person has a different prescription or different idea of how you prevent those children from going hungry, whether it's that the government should fund it, whether it's the communities should fund it, whether it's churches, whether their parents. And so our prescriptions start to get in our way and meld with our partisanship. I very much want people to understand, with this book, and I think chefs are in a unique place with our food system, to understand that policy is about compromise and compromise is about putting the most people at the table to figure out how to find a solution to the problems that we're trying to solve. You're going to do that by opening conversations and inviting them in. You're not going to do that by looking at them and saying, you're a democrat, you're a republican, you're an independent, I can't talk to you.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Can you say more about how it is that chefs are well positioned to be advocates and how you think they can make a real difference in food policy?

KATHERINE MILLER:  Yeah, the penny that dropped for me, related to chefs, is that there is a restaurant in almost every street in our various cities. They are woven into the fabrics of our communities and they are deeply embedded in our lives. Restaurants the places we go to celebrate marriages, to mourn divorces or the place we go to sign our first mortgage payments. They are the places we go to gossip with friends, to celebrate after church. They are woven into our everyday lives and so one, chefs are those trusted community members. You know that restaurant, you know the person that owns it, the chef whose food you eat. They're also trusted because frankly we expect to be safe. We don't expect for the food to kill us and so there's an inherent trust there. One, there's a lot of trust. Two, they are sitting at every community and they become these places to hear the stories of their community. They're talking to the farmers everyday, they're talking to the fisher people everyday, they're talking to he other producers, so they're getting a sense of what's selling, what's not, but they're also getting a sense of what's challenging about their lives or what opportunities are within their lives. And then they hear the everyday concerns of their customers.

KATHERINE MILLER:  They become these great collectors of stories and they have access, like very few community based spokespeople do, because of the physical nature of a restaurant, which is where politicians go to eat, go to raise money, go to meet with constituents, they themselves take their families out, so there's actually a point of access that the rest of us really don't have. Another exercise that I do is I ask how many people have had a governor or how many people have had a city councilman to their place? How many people have hosted a fundraiser for a presidential candidate? And without fail everyone will raise their hand because they are also that, a business where people come. I think that they hold trust, they collect stories and they have access like nobody's business, and I think that's what makes them particularly effective, especially when we're talking about community based solutions and helping articulate community based solutions to policy makers, whether it be in a State house or whether it be at the Federal level, because really, truly, those members, those governors, those electeds really want to hear from the constituents and these folks are sitting in their communities so they also have that sort of relevance to the process that others don't have.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You said celebrity chefs, initially, with the James Beard proposal, but it is chefs of all stripes, like all sizes? And mom and pop restaurants?

KATHERINE MILLER:  Yeah, no it is. One, I think the audience is definitely chefs and when I left the James Beard Foundation there were about a thousand chefs on the waiting list to get through this program and we were never going to get through them 18 at a time. And certainly your publisher, that's the first question they ask you, who's your audience? There's enough chefs out there to be a credible audience, but my hope is that one of the things if your food adjacent or you just love to eat, I'm an eater, I'm not a chef, I'm a home cook, that you might be drawn in just by wanting to hear about these folks and the work that they've done and how they've helped translate and accelerate issues. I think part of that is, to your question about celebrity chef or a mom and pop or an independent, is that we started the program with this intention of celebrity chefs, the people with the most Instagram followers, and then clearly realized throughout the process even the biggest chef in the world has only a fraction of the followers of a true celebrity. I used to always joke that it takes about 100 chefs to equal one Kardashian. That's the world of celebrity that we live in.

KATHERINE MILLER:  When you think about advocacy and you think about it from a non-profit organizing sector, what you really are looking for is community based leaders because somebody like a Martha Hoover in Indiana who has multiple restaurants in Indianapolis, she knows everyone,everyone comes into one of her restaurants, everyone has had her famous cinnamon toast in Indianapolis, so, all of a sudden she is a celebrity in her town and she's a trusted force in her town. She has that trust, that relevance and that access and so suddenly you can turn that into, in marketing parlance, it's the micro influencer, and it's fantastic, because they really are these super authentic story tellers. They have a deep relationship with the communities that they're in, people know who they are. Over time it became less and less about having the super celebrity chefs, that might be more well known to the broader scope of America, and actually really looking for the people who were deeply embedded in their communities.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Can you tell us a little bit more about the bootcamp?

KATHERINE MILLER:  Yeah. When I started this work it was for a pilot project for the James Beard Foundation that was called the Chef's Bootcamp for Policy and Change, and that program continues to this day. That bootcamp is a three day experiential, intensive, advocacy retreat where chefs are taken through an advocacy training on how to use their voice, so role plays on how to talk to a member of Congress and deep information session on topics like the Farm Bill or food waste. They're also taken through things like a live animal harvest because the idea being, how can you really talk about food policy unless you know exactly the policies that are in place and the things that have to happen in order for food to get onto your plate. Then there's a community dinner as part of the intention of the Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change is to create a cohort of people who can support each other in their own activism. They can start to find each other and they can be visible to one another. And so that is another stated goal of that. It's community building, it's information and education, it's advocacy training and then there's a fair bit of food systems work that's done through the program.

KATHERINE MILLER:  That program was designed to take 15 to 18 chefs at a time through it and happen three times a year, and it continues to this day. It's a program I'm incredibly proud to have helped originate and built the curriculum for and, in part, because I think it helps create a visible community of allies who are willing to do the work of policy with you. You're not alone, and I think that's the one thing that advocates often feel is alone. And so wanting to make others visible was important too.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I think it's particularly exciting because I think a lot of people, just individuals who are dissatisfied with issues in the food system, often think that, oh I'll just buy this particular food and that's my statement. That is one way to make a statement, but when you start working on policy, that's when the real change can happen and when even just one restaurant enters into that then that's more impact than just one household. And then if you have people at that restaurant who are actually fighting for change at the policy level, I just think that's really exciting and feels very hopeful. I could imagine that it's very uplifting work to do.

KATHERINE MILLER:  It definitely hits your dopamine in terms of the advocacy piece, but I think what you said is sort of how we always talk about it too, which is you have three or more opportunities from an advocacy perspective as a chef and really as an eater, which is all the choices that you make at your table. Are you buying from local farms? Are you buying from a community supported agriculture project? How are you prioritizing that food dollar? Americans spend about 50% of their food dollar outside of their own home, so prioritizing that is actually important. Those purchases that you make are very important.

KATHERINE MILLER:  But then how do we form authentic relationships with the communities, the organizations doing the work in our communities? One of the things that we also did in the early days of the bootcamp and programatically was to audit restaurants and figure out how much money they were donating.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In their audits, they found that on average restaurants were donating about $50,000 a year, but they were donating it to dozens of organizations.

KATHERINE MILLER:  And if you donated $50,000 to one organization or one cause, you would have a greater impact than if you scatter shot 50,000 $1 bills. And so encouraging people to say no and to really hone the issues that they wanted to work on was a big piece of it, because you can build more authentic relationship with your community based organizations and that's a very important form of advocacy too. And then the idea of policy is really lasting change. It's a long work, it's three and five years, and it's constant, you constantly have to keep doing it. Every year we fight for funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. That battle never stops. And so policy is both the long tail solution, but it's also the lasting change that we're fighting for.

KATHERINE MILLER:  If you think about advocacy in three ways, you can do it at the table or the food purchasing decisions you can make, how you get involved in your own community and the organizations that you work with and the depth of that relationship. And then the stuff that you can work on policy and the longer tail stuff.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I asked Katherine to say more about what kinds of donations she's talking about.

KATHERINE MILLER:  The chefs are like the number one person you go to to ask for something for your kid's school, your community organization, your church. Like, hey can you give us a cookbook? Hey, can you donate a gift certificate? Hey, can you come cook at this event? They are your go to. If you are in a community fundraising event planning situation and somebody doesn't mention, like, let's reach out to our restaurant, I will give you $5. Everybody asks. And then most of them do it for free because most of those organizations aren't like, hey we would like to pay you your rate to close down your restaurant for a night so you can come cook at our thing. They want it for free. And so quantifying the hours that were spent, the products that were donated, the cost of labor, transportation, the number of gift certificates that are asked for, which they then carry as debt until you use them, by the way, on their books. That just added up.

KATHERINE MILLER:  If you think about Aaron Silverman, he's a chef in Washington DC and he's in the book, because one of the things that he does is that he decided that he was only going to donate and do things in support of the World Food Program, WFP, and so he has a standard email that he sends when anybody sends him an ask. When anybody's like, hey, will you donate to this girl scout troupe or hey will you donate to this PTA fundraiser. He's like, we really appreciate your efforts within the community, but our efforts are firmly focused on the World Food Program and that's who we're donating our time and resources to at this time. Just by being able to say who he supports, he suddenly not a jerk when he says no to you. Because it's like, oh, I get it, that's who you support. That is also very empowering. Chefs are the number one go to source for free donations for every organization, and I've always been encouraging them to sort of hone their giving and figure out what they care about, so that they can have more impact with the limited resources that they have.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's one of the things I wanted to ask you about that is, in the book, where you're talking about just really focusing your efforts, and part of that does involve saying no. I just think that is such an important thing to include especially because, as you point out, this is the hospitality industry and it's all about serving and pleasing, and so it probably doesn't come naturally for some of these folks to say no.

KATHERINE MILLER:  No, I think it's baked in to the model of hospitality. Like, do you want still or sparkling water? How can I make you more comfortable? Would you like to be at the window, would you like this? How can I accommodate your likes and your dislikes? How can I serve you so that you will pay me? That you'll tip me. So there is definitely an aspect of an unequal relationship when it comes to hospitality. I think that plays itself out in these donations because they are sitting at every street corner in every city and so you don't want to be seen as a jerk or not participating or not generous. There's real power in saying no. We say it in our household every year, we sit down at the end of the year and we total up every cash thing that we did at the supermarket, every raffle ticket we bought at a baseball game, and then we go back through our philanthropy, and we're not billionaires. We make sure, well okay we did too much of that this year, let's make sure that we're going to give money to the rescue center in honor of our cat. And that is actually really powerful because then you're at the baseball game and somebody comes and says, oh do you want to buy this raffle ticket and you're like actually, no I'm going to give to the Humane Society today, but thanks for your work. It's just so much better.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm speaking with Katherine Miller. She's the author of At the Table, the Chef's Guide to Advocacy. We'll be back with more from our conversation after a short break.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. I'm speaking with Katherine Miller. She originated the Chef's Bootcamp for Policy and Change at the James Beard Foundation, and her book, At the Table, was released in September of 2023. Let's return to our conversation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the areas that really do need addressing in the food system and, in particular, in the restaurant industry that becomes some of the places where chefs put their focus.

KATHERINE MILLER:  The thing about food systems work is that it is a system, so anyone can find, a chef can find, you or I could find, an issue or a cause to get involved with related to our food system. So we have our fisheries are being over fished and badly managed, so our fish supplies are going to change dramatically. Climate change is changing the way wine is made around the world, so if you're interested in wine and you want to talk about why they suddenly are growing some of the best champagne in Britain right now, you can find an entry point through climate change. Within the restaurant community specifically, I think there's a lot of work that's done on sourcing, so how do we make a food system that is more environmentally sustainable, but also human sustainability is important too. I know there's a lot of work that's been done on hunger and nutrition areas, so you know hunger is sort of the gateway issue for many chefs. Many of them themselves have experienced food insecurity. They see it often with people that they work with and it's an issue that people can really resonate with in terms of chefs delivering messages related to hunger and nutrition.

KATHERINE MILLER:  And we've certainly seen a need for more chefs to talk about the business side of the industry, so whether that's health benefits, mental health concerns, whether that's wage and workforce protections, so you see it is a system. There's an issue for everybody in food, but certainly sustainability, environmental sustainability, human sustainability, hunger, nutrition and then wage and workforce issues are among the top ones that chefs are really most active on, I think.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You tell some really great stories in your book about specific chefs and some of the work that they've done and I was wondering if there was one in particular that you'd like to talk about?

KATHERINE MILLER:  It continues to be one of my favorite stories because I think it is both a incredibly brave thing that this woman does to talk about her own human experience with these issues, but Chef Elle Simone is an African American woman chef. She's the first black chef to appear in America's Test Kitchen. She founded a mentoring organization for women chefs, particularly people of color and she will say, very publicly, whenever anybody asks her, that part of the reason that she's able to have that success is because she at one pointed accepted food stamps. So there's a real tension in her life about how she has achieved all of this and, in part, it was because when she was at her most at need there was a program that could help her, and she took advantage of it. I love that she is willing to tell that story because there's so much negative mythology built up around those who use supplemental programs during times of their life, those programs are meant to help during times of immense crisis and Elle is kind of the living embodiment of help somebody when they're at their most at need and not only will they succeed and thrive, but they will give back in such a way that is just beautiful to watch.

KATHERINE MILLER:  She's an amazing human, she's an amazing spokesperson for hunger issues. She never shies away from it, and I just also think it's incredibly brave of anyone to tell their story related to that type of hardship, that financial hardship and the decisions that you have to make. She's probably my favorite story in the book, but I'm also deeply partial to the work of Patrick Mulvaney and Mulvaney's in Sacramento. Patrick Mulvaney is a chef and he experienced a great deal loss by death by suicide in his community. And it was around the same time that Tony Bourdain was death by suicide in France. And Patrick is this large individual, he's larger in life in all the ways and to hear him talk about that work and to hear his voice sort of crack, and the emotion that he shows when he talks about the experience of the people in his kitchen, the way those suicides impacted the city of Sacramento, and then all the hard work he put in to trying to make sure it wouldn't happen again. He went and found the experts, he went and worked with Kaiser Permanente and Blue Cross Blue Shield California and he worked with folks at the University of California.

KATHERINE MILLER:  I mean, it's just an amazing story that's rooted in serious tragic loss, but is also such a beautiful testament to how you can be an effective advocate and go out and get all the things, the training tools, the money and it's a beautiful story.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I was really moved by that story as well and was not aware that there had been so many deaths by suicide in the restaurant community in Sacramento and some of them had been in his kitchen at some point. And so that must have been so heartbreaking, and it was very inspiring to see that his advocacy work was part of what helped the mental health funding pool be established.

KATHERINE MILLER:  I think this is an interesting thing too, because I don't think in the way of Elle or Michel Nischan, who's also in the book, or Patrick Mulvaney or even Paola Velez, with Bakers against Racism, I don't think they would be comfortable with thinking that they are leading, right? That they are doing this new thing that no one's done. That's actually not the case. What they're doing is they're using their voice and their power to pour accelerant on work that is being done, to bring new profile and new energy, and that's the exciting part. When you can take all of the assets that you have as an advocate, and networks that you have, the social media following that you have, the news media interest, and you can help truly accelerate something. I would never say that there wouldn't be increased healthcare benefits for casual workers related to mental health without Patrick Mulvaney, but it sure as heck wouldn't have happened as quickly as it happened without him.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah thanks for clarifying that. I think that's important. I was really, in part because this is a little closer to home here, is the story of Chef Edward Lee in Louisville and the Lee Initiative. Could you talk a little bit about that?

KATHERINE MILLER:  The Lee Initiative is amazing. Chef Edward Lee, he's a multi James Beard award winner, has a number of restaurants in Louisville, Washington DC, Virginia, and probably best known in the region for the chef with the best bourbon connection. He and his co-founder, Lindsey Ofcacek created this organization in the wake of metoo where they had realized that there was a statistical cliff that women were falling off of in the culinary industry. So you'd get through culinary school, most of the people in culinary school are women, most of the people who work in restaurants are women, and yet there's total leadership cliff. They don't make it to head chef, they don't make it to owner, they don't make it to manager. And it's a combination of a variety of factors, there's no mentors, it's an incredibly brutal environment to work in, it's not conducive to having a family, it doesn't provide a lot of benefits in a lot of cases, and so, it's not exactly a place for you.

KATHERINE MILLER:  So Lindsey and Edward were looking for something to do, so they originally created a mentorship program that was women who work in culinary, particularly in the Kentucky area, particularly in Louisville, in the beginning, because they also wanted people not to get trained in New York and stay in New York. We all deserve delicious food, so like come home. They worked with their national network to create an internship program and mentorship program so where women could go and work for other women in other women kitchens for a period of time and then they could come back to Kentucky and the region.

KATHERINE MILLER:  It's an amazing program, but one of the other things that they did, there was a murder of a barbecue chef in Louisville, David McAtee. He was not a celebrity chef. He's not celebrated, but he was a beloved community member. So they started the McAtee Community Kitchen. So they took one of the Lee Initiative Mentees, Nikkia Rhodes, and helped set up that kitchen. That kitchen helps feed people that needs to be to fed because that was David's sort of legacy was that he was always gathering folks.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And feeding people.

KATHERINE MILLER:  And feeding people. I love that. I mean, the Lee Initiative is one of my favorite culinary led organizations, because they really do embody that spirit of finding a problem that needs to be solved and helping solve it. So they also partnered with Heinz to give grants to black owned businesses. That program still continues. The mentorship program still continues, so they also built things to last and Edward and Lindsey are amazing humans.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah the McAtee Kitchen does not just feed people, it also provide job training and education, and partnerships to support black farmers and also black owned restaurants, like somehow supporting or partnering with black owned restaurants so, yeah, that was really exciting to hear about just a couple hours south of here in Louisville.

KATHERINE MILLER:  It's a great community project. Edward and Lindsey, if you have the opportunity to check out the Lee Initiative in this area, I would absolutely. It's totally worth your time.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's time for a short break. When we come back, we'll hear more from Katherine Miller. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. Let's get back to my conversation with Katherine Miller, author of At the Table, the Chef's Guide to Advocacy.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I want to hear a little bit more about the approach that the Chef's Bootcamp for Policy Change makes. Like you have this whole structure of A is for advocacy, and could you just walk us through that? You obviously can't tell us all about it, but just hit some of the points.

KATHERINE MILLER:  No, I'm happy to. I mean, it's just like a fun little thing, alliteration works when we talk about communications trainings and those sorts of things. Alliteration always works. It's sort of thinking about a way to articulate all of the assets that a chef, and even each of us has, and then also an approach. So when we're building advocacy efforts, whether they're just simply how we're going to write a letter to advocate for a bouncy house in our community, which is a very real thing right now in our community here, or whether it's to fight for SNAP benefits, you can break it down into sort of the A is Advocacy framework. Who is the audience? So who is the person that makes the decision and can do the thing you want them to do? Who are your allies that are making the same case that you are? So, I look for allies or stakeholders which are kind of like on your side folks, people that can help amplify what you're trying to say. What is the argument you're trying to make? Why is this thing important? And why should anyone care? So then there's always got to be an ask.

KATHERINE MILLER:  We always have to ask for something, whether it's to sponsor a piece of legislation, whether it's to sign a petition, but you need to give somebody something to do, and so that is a very important piece of that. Sometimes that could be showing up at a rally, it can be asking a member of Congress to sponsor a piece of legislation, sometimes that can be a very specific funding number. But you always have to have that, and that ask should always be followed by a thank you, by the way, which is not an A, but maybe acknowledgment. Oh I did it, I made it an A, it's the acknowledgment of the support. And then I think that one thing that we forget is that we have to make it easy for people to find each other, so I'm of a generation where everybody knows what a pink ribbon is, or what a yellow bracelet is, right? Breast cancer, cancer surviving, a teal ribbon, rainbow flag, all of those things are visual iconography that help us find the people that are like us. And now that's done in hashtags, so Bakers Against Racism is a story in the book and they used that hashtag, bakersagainstracism, it's for other people to be able to find them. It's why every post around the Chef's Bootcamp is tagged with #chefslead so that the chefs can find each other and like minded people can find each other, so that visual advocacy is a big piece of it.

KATHERINE MILLER:  Those frames, I always say in trainings, if you can remember nothing, just remember A is advocacy. It starts with your audience and it moves all the way through to the end to like how can you help people find each other, and that is really like the article or the visual advocacy piece. It was meant to be a easy recipe for anybody to follow.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, I think it works really well. I feel like it's impossible to talk about the restaurant industry and not talk about Covid and the pandemic, and the impact that it had. It was really a crisis for the industry, but you also talk about it as a possible turning point. Could you say more about that?

KATHERINE MILLER:  Yeah, I mean, Covid was a horrible time for the restaurant industry. I remember sitting at the James Beard Foundation the first weeks in March and literally from Seattle to New York watching just restaurants close because no one knew what to do or how to do it and it was like dominoes. We hosted a conference call and we crashed WebX, which was like pre-Zoom. We had 1,500 people try and call in on the same exact minute, because everybody was craving information. Out of that chaos, what I thought were some amazing really hopeful things, one, is we have more data than ever before about how many people work in restaurants, how much it costs to run a restaurant, how much it costs to staff a restaurant, how much every product is. We didn't have it before and it really was an interesting moment when we were trying to advocate for dollars in Congress. And they're like, well, the cruise industry contributes X, Y, Z to the economy, and nobody had a simple case study about what the restaurant industry presents to the economy, but now we have that data.

KATHERINE MILLER:  As I see restaurants reopen, and continue to reopen, and now also stabilize, two plus years on in this crisis, we are watching people make different decisions, and different decisions that benefit their employees, that benefit their purveyors, ultimately end up putting more delicious things on the plate, and some of that is the elimination of the sub-minimum wage, so people are putting service charges on their bills. Some of that is an articulation on their bills of what those service charges cover. Understanding that they need to supply mental healthcare, or they need to make sure that they have a fund for babysitting. So that was incredibly hopeful that for the first time we sort of know all that, and that people are making fundamentally different decisions about how to run their restaurant and run their business, and what that is going to mean for the next wave of restaurateurs and entrepreneurs that come up post Covid is amazing. It was also an amazing, heartwarming story about how they rallied, not only on behalf of their businesses, but their workers during Covid too. Really all the economic benefits and all that they did.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And just all the stories about restaurants feeding people in their communities and showing up in the ways that they could.

KATHERINE MILLER:  Yeah, restaurants turned themselves into community pantries. They did emergency feeding meals. When they couldn't open their doors, they still opened their doors and fed their communities, and so they really are enshrined along our world of first responders. You see it in the work of José Andrés in World Central Kitchen. They are always the first people into a disaster, into a crisis situation. And chefs are the first people that we ask for donations or contributions, and so we certainly view them that way even if we don't always treat them that way.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Since you mentioned that again, I just wanted to follow up about what you were talking about where restaurants were maybe choosing to say no to the multiple asks that they had, and just focus in on one to have a large impact, but I also feel like what you were just talking about is how part of the role that they play in a community is that they're the person who supplies the food for your whatever, your fundraiser, and that's part of how they connect with all the folks in their community, and then can play that advocacy role.

KATHERINE MILLER:  Yeah it's definitely a little of a double edged sword, so to speak, right? You are the first person that everybody asks, and then you're the person we're telling you to hone your focus, but, also remember there's lots of them. I mean, there are hundreds of thousands of restaurants across this country. We don't all need to ask the amazing Tom Colicchio and his restaurant group for a restaurant card, for gift card. We don't all have to do that. We can ask other people in the community and they would happily help. If you hear, if you as an eater hear "no" from somebody, ask why, and then find somebody who is aligned with you, right? We all have the right to care about the things that we care about and to hone our interests, and there's also hundreds of thousands of them, and they're not all doing this work, but we, as eaters, or the non-profit community, also diversify our asks a little, you'd be surprised at the relationships.

KATHERINE MILLER:  I always talk about that, the non-profit community, in particular, views the culinary community as transactional. The non-profit community sells tickets to fundraisers based off the chefs who participate. Most of the people who come to that fundraiser have never heard of that chef. It's just a unique night out, blah, blah, blah. So go find the chefs that are amazing, go highlight the black women chefs, go highlight the chefs in your community who are doing great work, who come from different populations because you will build authentic relationships with them and also support them. Don't ask them to do it for free.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I think I hear what you're saying is maybe organizations could think about spreading it out a little bit. I know when I worked for a non-profit, that we definitely had our favorites and people who either we already had relationships with them or we just, for some reason, liked something about what they do and they had said yes in the past or we knew another organization they said yes to. And so they do tend to be like a few restaurants in town that got asked over and over again.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Over and over again.

KATHERINE MILLER:  And eventually they had to be like, we've already got our seven organizations this year, we're tapped out.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We're tapped out, right? But also, I just think from the non-profit community perspective we also have to be better and more intentional about the relationships that we're trying to build, and then we need to move out of this transactional, ridiculous transactional world we're in and move into this time of deep meaning. That chef who did your fundraiser every year, is that chef also now on your advisory board? Is that chef now also part of your community planning? Is that chef now also part of your ecosystems of donors because they've given you so much? I'm going to venture to guess, no. I'm going to venture to guess most organizations would come back to them six weeks before and be like, you cooked last year, you're going to cook this year, right? And they wouldn't have heard anything from you, right? I also think as the non-profit community needs to be thinking about how it acknowledges the contribution of all of its donors, but certainly those who ask for free labor, free time, free gifts and it needs to move from transaction to real community.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right, and you're right it does always come across as transactional. It is a two-way transaction in that, hey, your name gets on here, or everyone knows that you donated, or whatever, but that's different from a relationship that's being built.

KATHERINE MILLER:  That's very different from a relationship and it's also very different from a power dynamic. What we like to say in the culinary industry is, no more for exposure events. Like exposure doesn't pay someone's rent. Exposure doesn't take into account the time that they took out to work that fundraiser, and so, when people ask people to do that, we call it the schlep and cook in the industry. You're asking them to come, you're asking them to cook, they're probably going to have done prep for it, and the organization is asking them to do it for free. And maybe you give them a gift back. Maybe they get the ingredients, but they don't get the time and that is gone. That has to be gone from all of our thinking as non-profit organizations and leaders. If you're going to have a fundraiser, non-profit leaders need to adequately resource the people that they're coming and using their work. It doesn't have to be their full rate, it doesn't have to be exorbitant, but it does have to factor in the time and expertise and treasure that people are giving to the cause.

KATHERINE MILLER:  In the culinary industry I think you'll see more people saying no to places if they're not going to pay, because it also becomes a point of privilege and economic privilege because it's usually white men, business owners, who can say yes all the time. It really limits your ability to reach different audiences and to engage different communities because your BIPOC restaurateurs do not have the same capacity, time or money to give in the same way that white restaurateurs have, so that's a whole soap box for me and I could go on for an hour.

KAYTE YOUNG:  No, it's such a good point and I'm glad we came back to it and talked about it a little bit more because I was stewing on it a little bit, so yeah, thank you. That's really helpful. I really appreciate this. Is there anything you wanted to add that we didn't get to. I mean, I know there's lots of things we didn't get to, but is there something that you just definitely want to add.

KATHERINE MILLER:  I think that we all have the power to be an advocate and I think if you're an eater I hope that At the Table, a Chef's Guide to Advocacy gives you an entryway into food systems work, and join all the chefs and others who are doing great work to change our food system to something that's more delicious and sustainable and just for us all. Just use your voice because you have one.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That was Katherine Miller, author of At the Table, the Chef's Guide to Advocacy released in September 2023 with Island Press. You can find links to her work on our website,

KAYTE YOUNG:  The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniela Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Earth Eats is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young, our theme music is composed by Aaron Toby and performed by Aaron and Matt Toby. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Portrait of Katherine Miller laughing

Katherine Miller is the author of At the Table: The Chef's Guide to Advocacy, released in September of 2023. (courtesy of Island Press)

“There’s a restaurant on almost every street in our various cities--they are woven into the fabrics of our communities, and they are deeply embedded in our lives.  Restaurants are the places we go to celebrate marriages, to mourn divorces, the places we go to gossip with friends, to celebrate after church and they become these places to hear the stories of their community. They’re talking to the farmers every day, they’re talking to the fisherpeople every day, they’re talking to the other producers, they’re also getting a sense of what’s challenging about their lives or what’s opportunities within their lives and they hear the everyday concerns of their customers. So, they become these great collectors of stories.”

This week on the show, a conversation with Katherine Miller. She’s the author of At the Table:The Chef’s Guide to Advocacy, published in September, 2023 with Island Press. Miller encourages chefs to harness the power of their unique position in the community and raise their voices for change in the food system.

Music on this Episode:

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

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