Mitchell Davis is Chief Strategy Officer at the James Beard Foundation, a cookbook author, journalist, and scholar with a Ph.D. in Food Studies from NYU. Davis also holds a chair on the Academy of the London-based World’s 50 Best Restaurants, for which he oversees the region of eastern North America. In 2013 The Forward selected Davis as one of the 50 most influential Jews under 50 in America. And in 2017 epicurious.com included Davis on their list of the “100 Greatest Home Cooks of All Time.”
We caught up with Davis to talk sustainable dining, the future of food and the upcoming Experimental Gastronomy event.
You have been with the James Beard Foundation (JBF) for over 20 years. What does your role as CSO entail? I just passed my 25-year-mark in December. My primary role now is setting the agenda for the foundation’s strategic priorities, which include what we call our Impact Programs about sustainable food production, gender equality, diversity and food policy advocacy, our thought leadership in areas of food-system change and gastronomy, and our awards, with which we honour those doing things the best that can be done.
The JBF has spent more than 30 years celebrating the unique food culture of the U.S. Can you talk about the Foundation’s mission and key values? Our vision is a world in which everyone has access to delicious, sustainably-produced, wholesome food. Our mission is to cultivate and capture the voices of chefs and the broader culinary community in effective ways to make the world so. You can read more about our values and reason for being in my blog post here.
Why is it important to celebrate diversity in American cuisine? How does the JBF aim to do this? We think one of the hallmarks of American food is the myriad of influences from around the world that have been brought by immigrants to our shores and that are now part of the fabric of American culture. As an organization we want to shine a spotlight on these influences, people, and foods, in addition to the more dominant Western European influences. So we look at inviting people to participate in our events that show the real breadth and diversity of our culture and food. We also create programs that help more marginalized communities succeed and thrive in the food world, whether by offering scholarships, mentorships, or other forms of support. We believe there is much to be gained in the kitchen and in the dining room from a more open and diverse gastronomy.
Sustainability is one of the JBF’s main focuses, and a major factor in the TL&CC guidebooks. How does JBF define or examine sustainability? We look at sustainability as the product of a well-functioning, agro-ecological food system that is built on regeneration, rather than exploitation. We’ve articulated our good food system values in ten points that we think are the most important:
How we define and examine sustainability within this framework depends on the what we are talking about. We rely on input from experts in the field and organizations working in different sectors to help inform our understanding.
In sustainable seafood, for example we have a program called SmartCatch. To participate and be rated, restaurants must regularly upload a large amount of data about their seafood purchases in order to get a score that indicates how sustainable their menus are. We have a seafood expert on retainer to help chefs understand the data and make suggestions for more sustainable substitutions. We have a council of seafood purveyors working to help us understand the challenges in supply and distribution.
How can the culinary industry become more sustainable and ethical, without compromising the quality of its food? I actually don't believe the worry here is the quality of the food, as we have come to a moment in time when local, ethically-raised products are often the most prized. Instead I worry about the viability of the restaurants and other businesses who want to do things right and who buy the most sustainable ingredients. The margins in restaurants are already so small, and the dining clientele does not want to pay more for food. And yet rising costs of food, labour, rent and other business pressures are breaking the restaurant business model.
That’s why we put economic viability in our values statement. We hear over and over that those who do things ethically are not yet recognized or rewarded in the marketplace, other things equal, at least not by critics in America. It’s one reason why projects like this, like our SmartCatch program and GoodFood100 are so important—we need to drive people to the places that invest in their values.
You have also worked as a food journalist. Have you noticed the food industry change or develop throughout your career?
Completely and totally. In too many ways to write. But more and more people are interested in food, not just as a hobby or a pursuit but as an expression of identity and values. I believe the reason food is the most posted subject on social media is because everyone can relate, and everyone has an innate understanding of the identity semiotics of eating. You are what you post, and I think that’s a good thing. When you believe people are sizing you up based on what you eat, you have to be more aware of what goes into your food.
What do you perceive as the biggest issue or obstacle the food industry faces right now? There are so many. I’ll pick two. One is the way we deflect the true costs of producing our food in an effort to keep it “cheap”, which forces the externalities of production to go unaccounted for. The other is the lack of “food” in so much of the food-system work. I sit in meetings upon meetings where people are discussing spreadsheets and tonnages and nutrients and aquaculture feed, but rarely to people ever talk about food, the end result of this work, the culturally-rich, pleasure-giving thing we celebrate, enjoy, and nourish ourselves with.
A number of TL&CC restaurants and chefs have been acknowledged by the JBF, including Highlands Bar & Grill, which was named Restaurant of the Year (2018), and Sarah O’Brien of Little Tart Bakeshop, who has been an Outstanding Baker semi-finalist for the past three years. Can you speak to any of the restaurants in our guidebook? I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t seen the list. But from those you mention, I stand by my statement above that we are at the unusual moment when trends in sustainability align with trends in gastronomy, so people producing things the right way are also producing the things we find the most delicious. This has not always been the case and it will likely change as trends by definition need to take us in new directions. To prolong the moment, we need to continue to infuse our values into the food we produce, purchase, and eat.
The JBF is collaborating with Steinbeisser for the New York City premiere of the Experimental Gastronomy initiative. Can you describe what this event is all about? This event is an unique collaboration between chefs and artists that embraces gender equality and the values of a plant-forward ecology. We have some of the best chefs in America, who happen to be women, cooking a vegan meal that will be served on artistic tableware pieces with ethically-produced wines in a beautiful setting. It’s a particular vision of a future that underscores a values system that nourishes and stimulates at the same time. While I am not a vegan, and I’m agnostic about the desirability of a vegan vision of the future, I do love the creativity that comes from this sort of collaboration and I can’t wait to see what they create. It will be a very special, delicious, and memorable event.
What do you look for when going to a restaurant? Cooking with intention and genuine service, whatever the level, from diner to tempole of haute cuisine. I want to know thought was put into the food and the people serving care about your experience. I take this into account when I assess the value, which is a slippery subject. I have had $500 meals that were bargains and $5 meals that were rip offs.
Do you have a favourite meal? Last summer I ate at Asador Extebarri in Spanish Basque Country. I had been ten years prior when the experience was a little less elaborate. To be honest, I didn’t totally get it then – but this time was something else. The first dish they served was house-cured anchovies on crackers. I took one bite and said to my dining companions, “I think this may be one of the best meals of my life.” And it was. I had never had a salted anchovy with such sweetness and such a creamy texture. It was amazing. I asked for more of them. Everything we ate was pure flavour and pleasure, right up to the entrée, a rib chop from a ten-year-old dairy cow. Thinking about it all still makes me swoon. I want everyone I know to come back there with me.
Is there anything else you would like to add? I think it is really important for everyone to use their money to support people who are doing things right. Food is so important. It is so difficult to produce it well, to cook, etc. I think we undervalue it tremendously and I think we need to make people understand that good, ethical food isn’t a luxury – it’s a right. I feel like we need to heed Carolyn Steel’s advice and figure out how, if we really believe good food is precious, we can reorient our priorities and economies to treat it that way.
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