Ryan Prewitt, executive chef and partner at Peche Seafood Grill, was one of 15 chefs selected to attend the James Beard Foundation's Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. The seminar, held June 7-9 in Cold Spring, New York, is aimed at teaching chefs how to become more effective advocates for food-system change in their communities. The group of chefs received advocacy and media training while learning about the challenges and opportunities they face. Prewitt, who won the foundation's Best Chef: South award in 2014, spoke with Gambit about the program and what he believes are the most crucial food system issues facing New Orleans today.
How did you get interested in the program?
Prewitt: I have two young children, and my mind has started to change as far as the ways that I want to be involved. When you start to see what some of these kids are being fed ... it's made me want to work on food accessibility for low-income students, Being more actively involved in our food system is becoming more and more attractive to me.
What was the most valuable thing you took away from the workshop?
P: They're trying to reframe the idea of a chef and utilize the following that so many chefs have around the country and the impact that they can have. It's not just about bettering each of our own enterprises; there's more that can be done with the resources we as chefs have.
The main thing that strikes me is the strength of the chef community. I have a limited number of close colleagues (in New Orleans) that I sit down and have personal conversations with. What was interesting to see is that the broader national community is facing similar concerns and problems, as we are. The desire to be more involved is fairly universal, and for me, that's very motivational: to know that this is not just you getting bored and wanting to apply yourself in a different way.
Subsequently, there's a network created now where we can all help each other. I don't have a background in politics; I have a background in restaurants. But now I feel that I have a more extended Rolodex of people who have been through where I am — the beginning phases — all the way to people who have spent decades working on these issues in various ways.
What do you think New Orleans chefs can improve upon?
P: Working towards more sustainable seafood purchasing and advocacy concerning coastal restoration are obviously important, and Peche has been working with groups on both issues.
Those two programs are the first that come to mind for me. They have a direct impact on the seafood and world that we are a part of. It's a part that I want to expand our role in.
I think that there's no question that New Orleans could use some assistance in food accessibility. An example: My dad has an apartment in the Bywater, and before the Rouses in the CBD opened, it was a 25-minute trip for him to the grocery store. This is a semi-retired person with a car. What if you didn't have a car? Where would you go and how would you get your groceries? That's a real problem.
I think food accessibility has a lot of facets, and I think we need to work to ensure that our children are able to have access to nutritionally solid, well-founded meals at school and at home.