The Meat of the Matter: Talking Chefs Collaborative Rhode Palate December 4th, 2011

Rhode Palate talked with Rob Booz of Chefs Collaborative & Derek Wagner from nicks on broadway (also co-leader of the Chefs Collaborative RI Network) about the role of farmers, chefs & Chefs Collaborative in the farm-to-fork movement, the challenges they face, and what can be done to make local & sustainable food as affordable and accessible as possible. It’s a great topic and we thank both of them –and many, many others – for their dedication to the cause.

Rob Booz, Network Coordinator: Chefs Collaborative

What is Chefs Collaborative?

Chefs Collaborative is a member based national non-profit. We stress the importance of community and education in furthering sustainability within the food service industry. In my role, that includes working directly with chefs in their respective communities but that is just one part of what we do. We provide chefs with educational opportunities and materials on sourcing and once a year we hold a national summit to help like-minded chefs develop networks throughout the country – because Chefs Collaborative is really about the chefs that it’s composed of.

When it comes to the number of farmers, chefs & restaurants involved, how does RI compare with the other states in the Chefs Collaborative network?

Rhode Island is amazing. I can’t say concretely whether there are more or less chefs/restaurants/farmers involved by the numbers but I can tell you the level of involvement is incredible. One of the things that constantly impresses us about Rhode Island is the way in which everyone is willing to cooperate and work towards common goals. This is only possible because of the level of communication and camaraderie among all the active players.

Times are tough these days. What kind of impact, if any, does that have on the Chefs Collaborative mission?

The poor economy affects everyone. It hits CC in a few different ways. For one thing restaurants are having a tough go of it because customers don’t have the disposable assets that they have had in the past. It can be hard to convince people with shrinking profit margins that it’s worth it to spend a little extra money on more responsible ingredients. Luckily for us a lot of chefs out there understand that local and sustainable often equate to high quality and are willing to go the extra mile. Further, as a member-driven non-profit, we have to cope with chefs having to pick and choose whom they want to spend money on; there are a lot of organizations trying to make food more responsible, but we have really pioneered this concept. The restaurant industry is our only priority as opposed to other groups who focus more on food in general.

We Rhode Islanders think we’re pretty darn fantastic when it comes to the food scene; do you think we’re ahead of the curve in this movement, or is that just our small-state-syndrome revealing itself?

I don’t know if ahead of the curve is the right term so much as redefining the curve. As I said before, Rhode Island is so impressive in the way it operates and in the quality of the food it produces — from farm and fishers to table. If every state could find ways to forge the relationships that Rhode Island has in its food supply change we would all be in a much better place and I might be out of a job.



Derek Wagner, Chef/owner: nicks on broadway

You are heavily involved in the farm-to-fork movement in RI and are a Co-Leader (along with Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames) of the Chefs Collaborative Rhode Island Network. You must see the challenges every day in getting people to embrace the concept of locally sourced foods. Not counting the fact that factory food is much cheaper than local & sustainable, why aren’t more people doing it?

Yes, I am heavily involved in the farm to fork/table movement, it’s not only part of what we do every day at nicks, it’s really our philosophy and way of operating; its our mentality, and our goal on a daily basis. Yes, there are so many challenges to making local and sustainable eating/purchasing more of a part of people’s daily lives. I think we are finally getting to an exciting place where more people are learning about and trying to participate in the local food systems, and it seems that the numbers are increasing every day. Of course there is always some resistance to changing habits, or the way people think or live their lives, but the major challenges that I see are availability/access and cost. With all of the information available to us now as consumers – and there’s more each day – the choices are becoming obvious, but the means to make those choices regularly are still out of grasp for most people. We are all trying to change that. We are fighting to give farmers more business and an opportunity to compete in the market place, which will in turn lead to them being able to bring more products to market and make their products more accessible in price and in volume.

Since the culinary scene is so important to RI, and is such an important part of the overall economy, what kind of policy changes would make it easier for this movement to thrive?

Where do I even begin? In regards to farmers, I am not as well versed on all the adversities they face, but in talking to many of my farmer friends, I know that the taxes on property and farm land make it hard to operate and even harder to expand and grow a healthy business. For restaurants and small businesses in general (including the farmers) we face so much here in RI in the way of red tape, archaic processes, inefficient regulation and high start-up/operational costs, which makes it so hard to open, operate or grow any type of small business. Taxes and insurance regulations are extremely high, some of the highest in the country, which also makes the small business environment tumultuous and costly. Small businesses are the backbone of the RI economy; the food scene and its related industries are a huge percentage of that. It’s also an area with big potential for growth, both with job creation and increased taxable revenues from small businesses. In effect, easing the tax burden and the governmental fees and regulations on farmers and restaurants would in many ways allow us to strengthen this movement and the health of local businesses in general.

Any plans on bringing Chefs Collaborative events/seminars/classes to the public schools of RI?

No formal plans to get into public schools on a regular basis yet, but many of us spread the word and speak when asked at both public and private events. I’ve spoken to classes at Johnson & Wales University, and continue to do so. I have also spoken with students from URI, RIC and Brown about our message and the issues. We also do several events throughout the year promote and celebrate the local food movement. I believe it’s important to start teaching people at a younger age though, and I would love to get more involved with that. What we are trying to do is get people to understand why it is so important to support local food systems, taste being only the first reason. Starting at an earlier age only increases the chances of this sticking with people and becoming part of their lives, and not just a passing trend.

What have you learned from being a part of Chefs Collaborative? How have you applied what you’ve learned?

The information that’s available is incredible, but it’s the connection with the people that I’ve taken the most from. Meeting with like-minded people, who are passionate, knowledgeable and dedicated to their causes has not only informed me, but it inspires me to fight the good fight. All over the country (and the world) chefs, farmers, fisherman, foragers, artisans, producers, educators and writers are working towards bettering our food systems, our choices and our information stream – it’s exciting and important. Personally, I’ve been able to meet new chefs, new farmers, new fishermen, and learn about innovations and obstacles within the industry. I apply the thoughts and ideas that stem from these relationships and information on a daily basis. It makes me better at what I do, increasing my knowledge base, my resources and my drive to be better and make a positive difference.


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