Imagine that farmers, producers and chefs hold the keys to creating better communities. I believe they do! This idea seems simple enough. Simple, but hardly easy.
Why Chef Camp?
One of the single biggest motivating factors that gets me out of bed every day is the opportunity to utilize food as the vehicle to create lasting change in communities. I have spent the better part of 15 years working in and around local food, hearing, understanding and seeing first-hand the real impact food has on people, the environment and the economy. I have written about it, spoken about it, coached food-related businesses about it, and even attempted two startups of my own about it.
Then, in the winter of 2017, my husband encouraged me to watch the award-winning documentary, Sustainable. It left me speechless, which is no small feat. The idea of a chef camp experience appealed to me as a powerful way to connect more people to the land and to each other. The moment the film ended, I realized that something like Chef Camp could work in Ohio.
This compelling documentary fired me up with inspiration, motivation and ideas of how to make it happen. So, before I even had time to think about it, I sent an email to the person who turned out to be the film’s director, Matt Wechsler. Once I shared my vision with Matt, he connected me to Erin Meyer from Spence Farm Foundation and ultimately, to Marty Travis, founder of Spence Farm. After numerous conversations, emails, and a few visits, the idea was on its way to becoming a reality.
Modeled after Spence Farm Foundation Chef Camp in Fairbury, IL, the experience in Ohio focused on three pillars: education (why soil is so important and how it impacts business), collaboration (the value of working together to enable farmers and chefs to be more productive) and connection (building more relationships between farmers and chefs).
The purpose of this hands-on gathering was to connect farmers/producers to chefs and to connect chefs to food. In essence, I recognized the value of engaging the players in this region in a conversation. Bringing together a group of such passionate, committed and talented people could create a foundation to shift how people think about, relate to and consume food. Indeed, Spence Farm Foundation Chef Camp turned out to be a fabulous beginning to an important conversation. And, I am clear it would not have happened without the patience, guidance and expertise of people like Matt, Erin and Marty.
One of the goals we set for the experience in Ohio was to get chefs out of the kitchen and onto the farm and to get farmers out of their own fields and all together, to have participants literally get their hands dirty together and experience first-hand a deeper understanding of what happens in the soil and how that impacts the taste of food.
In addition to spending the majority of the day on an organic vegetable farm, the group also visited a neighboring farm that raises pastured chickens, hogs and turkeys. For some, it was an eye-opening experience to witness the relationship between farmer and animal. Animals and fruit/vegetables that have been raised with care and appreciation taste very different from factory-farmed food that has been pumped with antibiotics or pesticides. Throughout the day, several artisans shared their crafts of bread, beer, juice, mead and spirits via demonstrations and tastings, which helped to further drive home the point that how our food is raised matters.
No company, organization, or movement in the history of time has ever been successful without collaboration. Likewise, it has been my experience that the ONLY way community-building can happen effectively is by having people work together to accomplish goals. Having farmers, producers and chefs engage in a dialogue together allowed for robust roundtable discussions and highlighted the impact buyers, producers and sellers all have on each other. Farmers realized that chefs can impact their business by offering input on what to grow; farmers can also influence chefs’ businesses by helping them understand what is available. The seed was even planted among perceived competitors that by working together, they can maximize what they grow, produce and sell, thereby expanding their reach far beyond what is currently available or what they currently know how to do.
In the evening, we explored a different sort of collaboration: the large group broke into smaller teams to harvest veggies, set up the room and prepare various courses for dinner. What surfaced was a kind of teamwork that doesn’t ordinarily happen out in the field or in the kitchen. Every person contributed something to the mix. The result was a group of farmers, producers and chefs who came together to create an absolutely delicious family-style dinner.
Spence Farm Foundation Chef Camp was a phenomenal conduit to connect more people to land, food and each other. As participants became aware throughout the day that they were all part of the same team – even amongst “competitors” – a sense of trust started to develop that cannot be overstated. Since our event, participants have forged new business relationships with each other and have continued the dialogue. That is the ultimate sign that Spence Farm Foundation Chef Camp was successful.
The biggest impact of Spence Farm Foundation Chef Camp was on relationships: The relationship between soil and food; the relationship between food and farmer; the relationship between buyers and sellers; the relationship between food and community and economy.
Ultimately, Spence Farm Foundation Chef Camp became far more than just a fun-filled experiential day. It was a starting point for game-changing conversations in the food community. At the end of the day, each person walked away with a deeper understanding about the impact of food and the opportunity to connect with those who produce it in a whole new way. Finally, despite the diversity of participants – a dynamic group of owners, chefs, producers, coffee shop owners, farmers, growers, entrepreneurs – a single, common thread emerged: food is a powerful vehicle that brings communities together.