ICC Culinary Program Helps Chefs Remake Our Food System
As casual food consumers, many Americans don’t know—and don’t want to know—where their food comes from. We want to imagine verdant fields and happy animals, pristine rivers stocked with leaping salmon, and chicken that knit and dance as they plot to escape the clutches of the evil farmer’s wife and her infernal pie machine.
OK, that last one is from the movie Chicken Run and while we probably don’t believe that is the life of a battery-cage chicken in the United States, we want to think that if they could knit and dance, they would.
Witnessing the reality of a battery-cage chicken’s life would propel many of us to avoid eating chicken for a while. Forget about seeing; all we would have to do is smell an industrial chicken “coop” to put us off poultry. Or if we saw a cow being transformed from a cute mooing animal to a Saran-wrapped steak, we might go vegan so fast it would make our heads spin.
Even many of us who desire to be enlightened and buy organic or shop at farmers markets are often separated from our food supply. Sure, we’ve watched the right documentaries and read the latest Michael Pollan book. Maybe we even belong to a CSA and pick vegetables and fruits every week or two, but the actual ins and outs of our increasingly intricate food web are largely unknown.
We don’t really want to know that many of our fish (Alaskan salmon, Monterey Bay shrimp) are frozen and sent to China to be processed because it’s cheaper to send them 4,000 miles away than it is to have to pay American wages. We want to believe the package of frozen hamburger patties comes from a cow like the one in the graphic on the packaging—a cow standing alone and heroic on a hill of grass with the sun in a clear sky in the background—rather than think the meat in those burgers actually comes from hundreds of cows eating fermented silage while covered in their own (and their comrade’s) filth.
Ignorance, often willful ignorance, is bliss.
Why Farm to Table?
This past spring, the International Culinary Center (The Center) in Campbell launched its first Farm to Table program for culinary students as a way to get students and future chefs to see firsthand some of the inner workings of the systems that provide our food.
Chefs today have the potential to be more than great cooks—they can be local or national celebrities. And with that exposure, chefs have the capability to educate and affect economies and policies. But to cook great food, a chef needs to understand the ingredients.
Following these foundational principles, the goal of the Farm to Table course is to show the story behind food—to help chefs learn how food is produced, packed, distributed, stored and marketed. The course gives students the rare opportunity to go behind the scenes of some very exclusive locations to learn directly from the ranchers, market managers, educators and policy makers about the complex factors that get food from the farm to the table.
The inclusion of diverse experiences, which include every scale and method of farming and food production, provides students with insight about the whole system in which they work and their role within it.
The Student Experience
After spending four months going through the first part of the The Center’s culinary curriculum, the 10 students in the Farm to Table class began their weeklong experience on June 3, 2013. The itinerary for the first day illustrates how students were exposed to different aspects of farm-to-table systems.
They began the day at the Agricultural and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) (ALBAFarmers.org) for exposure to a small working farm, and then went to a Bolthouse Farms processing facility to experience a larger farming organization.
For most of the students, ALBA was what they had in mind as their paradigm of “farm to table.” They met several of the farmers, some of whom farm only half an acre of ALBA’s 90 certified organic acres.
“My children kept telling me how important it was to care for the land, to grow organically, so I came here to learn and to have my own business” said Maria Inez Catinels (through a translator), before offering us a case of strawberries she had just hand-picked and washed that morning.
For several of the students, the afternoon of the first day offered one of the most challenging lessons of the entire week. In general, when one thinks of “sustainability” or “farm to table” the image those terms conjure tend to be small farms, quaint settings, little mom-and-pop organizations. Bolthouse Farms’ processing plant in Salinas was quite different from ALBA’s DIY operation and aesthetic.
What was difficult for some students to initially grasp was that it is possible to size up an operation while still maintaining a passion for food, a commitment to sustainability and a concern for the soil and environment—even without organic certification.
In contrast to ALBA, Bolthouse Farms sources from 65,000 acres in several states, 15% of which are certified organic. While the operation was much larger, the passion of the farmers was equally as powerful as the passion of the farmers of the smaller fields at ALBA. Even as we were brought to a large field being harvested by massive machines, they encouraged us to grab some carrots, wipe them off and taste them. The pride in their work and their product was palpable and real even though they harvested by machine rather than by hand.
Other trips taken that week introduced issues surrounding seafood, through the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program and Monterey Abalone Co.; milk and dairy at Hillmar Cheese Co. and Clauss Dairy; and food distribution at San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market and the Ferry Building Farmers Market. Issues surrounding grassfed meats were touched upon at Paicines Ranch, where the students were given a butchering demo of a whole lamb and then created a meal using various cuts and locally sourced vegetables and fruits.
Every trip concluded with a question to the speaker about what they would tell a policy maker, or advocate, that would help them to be more successful with their work. The answers ranged from redefining the Farm Bill to eliminating the Farm Bill to actually engaging food producers, because many food producers are 10 years ahead of policy makers and often the policies that are made don’t go as far as business has gone or is willing to go to help make a better food supply for all.
Said Stan Erwine, vice president of producer relations for the American Dairy Association, “Policy needs to be based more on a conversation. All sides—producers, policy makers, chefs and consumers—need to come to the table and listen to each other rather than talking around each other. That’s where change happens: when we listen.”
The Takeaways Are Many
Exposure to the larger side of our food systems highlighted one of the three pillars of sustainability: economic sustainability. Economic sustainability is often the most uncomfortable aspect of a food system to discuss but it cannot be overlooked. Sara Valine, one of the 10 students, seemed uncomfortable with this concept, but had a very powerful “aha! moment” as a result.
“When our host at Bolthouse Farms was asked to define sustainability, his answer took me by surprise and, to be honest, angered me slightly,” she said. “He focused on the numbers. I was initially frustrated that his primary motive was money, until I was challenged to think further into his definition. I’ve now come to understand that sustainability is a balancing act, an ongoing process that may never be achieved. How does one run a business that is presently healthy for the environment while consciously being preventative of future consequences, while still making a profit?”
As the instructor of the course, I can honestly say it was one of the most challenging, rewarding and exhausting educational experiences I have ever had, as teacher or student. To watch the students grapple every day with some of their preconceived notions as well as having other preconceived notions reinforced, was an amazing experience.
Many of them had “aha! moments,” some quite dramatic. Others had quiet repose in the back of the bus. But all of them came away seeing and experiencing something not many people get to see: where and how our food comes to us, how many people are involved in making our food systems work and how they can go out and make a difference.
Another student summed up the week perfectly: As Chris Chowaniec said, “My ultimate conclusions come down to the fact that as general constructs, the terms sustainability and farm to table are useful but clearly all the varied interests in the industry have their own definitions … I think that is OK for now, so long as people are talking about it and giving it a label. At the end of the day it is all about responsibility and stewardship. Most importantly, my takeaway is that we have to ACT NOW. Educate others. Make smarter decisions for yourself. Volunteer. Ask where your fish comes from. Find out if local businesses are represented on the menu, if your vegetables are sprayed, if suppliers use growers with shady labor practices. Start small but do something, because the problem is big.”
Founded in 1984 in New York City as the French Culinary Institute, the International Culinary Center has been at the cutting edge of culinary education for almost 30 years, and has graduated over 15,000 students including Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne, Dan Barber and David Chang. The name was changed to the International Culinary Center (The Center) in 2012 after unveiling the Italian Culinary Experience in 2006 and a program in Spanish Culinary Arts in 2012. It purchased the Professional Culinary Institute in Campbell in 2010 as a way to expand into the Silicon Valley and Bay Area, which have long been at the forefront of the sustainable food movement in the United States. “At the The Center we always want our chef training curriculums to be not just current with the industry, but somewhat ahead of the curve. With the luxury of bicoastal locations, we were fascinated with the idea of creating two fabulous, highly differentiated programs that use our local geography as a classroom,” said The Center founder and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton. “While musing how to make the best farm-to-table program we could,” Hamilton enlisted the expertise of Karen Karp, “and she helped make the California experience a reality.” From Karps’s perspective, the course would be a success if students were pushed to challenge their assumptions, see things with new eyes, rethink their understanding of food systems and feel empowered to ask questions—knowing they might get answers that challenge them.