The reality of “A Chef’s Life”

Vivian Howard samples a persimmon. (Image courtesy of the Washington Post)

Reality TV, despite the name, mostly serves up scripted dialogue, manufactured drama and plenty of well-worn stereotypes. If, like Vivian Howard, you are a) Southern and b) have moved from New York to your home town in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, the show that most TV producers want is something more like megahits “Duck Dynasty” or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” “People want me to cook muskrat on the side of the road,” Howard said, not bothering to hide her irritation. “That, I could get money for.”

But the 36-year-old chef doesn’t cook muskrat. Nor does she see why she should have to, just to be on TV.

And so where most reality programs hurtle from one disaster to the next, “A Chef’s Life” ambles along, trailing Howard as she buys buttermilk from one neighbor, then learns from another how to perfect a Southern biscuit. The series paints a sensitive portrait of her life and the lives of her neighbors in Kinston, N.C. And along the way, it has done something else: helped to revitalize their city by luring culinary tourists.

In my latest story for the Washington Post, I illustrate the difference that one chef can make to a small town. Besides doing great work, Howard is a marvelous chef. You heard it here first: She’s the next great Southern chef.

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In search of a school food playbook

Along with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, the first and most famous children’s food-education program in the United States, FoodCorps is one of the most visible and successful.  And over the past decade, hundreds of such programs have sprouted. But despite the explosion of programs, we still don’t have a school-food playbook, a guide to what works, what doesn’t and what provides return-on-investment for cash-strapped schools. And we need one—both to win over skeptics and to justify funding for programs that teach kids to love and value food.

As I write in my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, we have an outline of one: a 1998 research study about Cookshop, a New York food and cooking problem. What do you think? Weigh in.

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Can high tech grow on small farms?

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester County is an idyllic place. The grand fieldstone buildings overlook miles of green hills and woods. Dozens of heirloom crops grow in the fields. Even the poultry slaughterhouse, a shingled, lemon yellow building, is pretty.

It’s a model of sustainability. And as such, people expect it to be pretty low tech. But the truth is that Stone Barns and many other small farms use all sorts of technology to promote sustainable practices: portable energizers power lightweight electric fences; the roof on the greenhouse is retractable; and sensors ensure that plants get only the water that is needed. Most visitors are surprised. A handful probably leave disappointed.

My question is why?

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center, I look at how and where technology can be used to promote environmental and financial sustainability. As Danielle Gould, the founder of Food + Tech Connect told me: “Technology also has the potential to level the playing field for small and mid-sized farms, by making it easier for them to manage operations, better utilize resources and sell their products.”

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New fast food chains improve business as usual

It’s only natural that the boom of new healthy and sustainable fast-food chains would provoke an eye roll. But the new crop of healthy fast-food start-ups — Sweetgreen, LYFE Kitchen, Tender Greens and Native Foods —are not companies trying to dress themselves according to the latest fad. As I argue in my piece for the New York Times Room for Debate, they are chasing a multibillion dollar market of well-off moms and Millennials who are demanding healthy and sustainable food that’s also convenient. Things like kale-banana smoothies, grass-fed burgers and salads of local zucchini, squash, corn and chicken. These emerging brands will only succeed if they differentiate themselves. The incentives are there to do the right thing.

That’s the good news. The better news is that if these chains succeed, food that is better for us and the planet won’t only be available to those with a taste for quinoa or the means to spend $12 on a salad. The upstarts’ higher standards are already pushing mainstream chains to change their businesses, even though that change is costly and runs counter to their business model of offering food fast and cheap. Earlier this year, Chik Fil-A vowed to phase out meat raised with antibiotics by 2016. McDonald’s has been forced to revisit where it gets its beef. It has pledged to buy only “verified sustainable beef” within two years (even if what qualifies as “sustainable” is still undefined).

Read the rest of the piece here.

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It’s official: kale has peaked

There is a phrase in economics: when something has hit its high, saturated the market, it’s peaked. Marketplace Weekend started a new economic indicator on its show, and they’re saying it: We’ve reached Peak Kale.

Take a listen to my first commentary for Marketplace on kale’s mad rise to the top.

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The meat of the matter

The debate over meat—what kind and how much to eat—is particularly partisan. The vegans face off against the Paleos; the nose-to-tailers sniff at the no-holds-barred foodies who think that everything tastes better with bacon. It’s no wonder: In the 21st century, a juicy steak or burger off the backyard grill is probably more American than apple pie, and everyone has a point of view. It also makes sense. The meat on the center of our plates is central to the future of America’s health and that of the planet. Changing what we eat, even a little bit, can have a huge impact.

My latest column for the Stone Barns Center argues that we should encourage families to make small, painless changes: Skip meat—whatever kind they are eating–once a week, as Meatless Monday does. Reduce portions of meat by an ounce or two at each meal. (This is not as hard as it seems. At the recent Menus of Change conference in Boston, a chef from the Culinary Institute of America demoed a dish of soba noodles, vegetables, herbs, and just two ounces of grilled meat that could easily have sold at a chain restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory.) Higher-income Americans should cut their consumption, too, and buy only meat that is sustainably raised.

Check out the full column here.

Posted in Food Politics, Healthy Eating, Sustainable Food | Leave a comment
  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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