Cooking for a Cause: Q&A with Chef Jamie Simpson

Jamie Simpson, executive chef at The Chef's Garden and The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Huron and Milan, Ohio, talks advocacy, sustainability and the role of restaurateurs.

jamie simpson
Photography Cedric Angeles

Jamie Simpson, executive chef at The Chef’s Garden and The Culinary Vegetable Institute, in Huron and Milan, Ohio, came to cooking through rock and roll, in a fashion. After leaving his life as a punk musician and a job at a recording studio behind, he began working at The Charleston Grill, one of Charleston, South Carolina’s most acclaimed restaurants, and from there moved on to other culinary adventures. Today, he’s working with a variety of people in the food system to promote and grow the sustainable food movement. In March, Simpson joined more than a dozen other chefs for the Chefs Boot Camp in Avery Island, Louisiana, home of Tabasco sauce, where the group learned how to better advocate for their cause and ended the weekend by teaming up to cook a dinner for 60 people. Simpson took some time recently to answer a few questions for Modern Farmer.

Modern Farmer: What inspired you to become involved in issues related to sustainable agriculture?

Jamie Simpson: Two big moments in my life have inspired my involvement in sustainable agriculture. Long story short: A living legend I worked with at the Charleston Grill named Mickey Bakst created a project called Feed the Need. An article in a newspaper inspired him to create an organization that has now fed hundreds of thousands of people in need. He did this all while maintaining excellence both in and out of work. It blew my mind. Before that, making meaningful change seemed far from attainable. Fast forward six years and I’m at the Chef’s Garden, a sustainable (and yes, it’s small) family-owned farm, tucked away in the agricultural belt of the country. The Jones family farm has changed the game for agriculture around the world. Waste not. Every part of a plant’s life offers something new and unique to the plate. I’ve lived on the farm here as the chef for the past two years and it has changed my views on practically everything. “Why isn’t every carrot this delicious? And why don’t we eat the leaves? Or the seeds? And the blooms? Or the peels? Where do all of these items go in large scale methods of agriculture and why in the world are they grown in waterless California?”

MF: Do you feel that as a chef you have a greater responsibility to be an advocate for sustainable agriculture than people in other professions?

JS: I feel that as a chef I have a greater responsibility to advocate sustainability in our food system and our workplace. Every person that walks into your dining room provides an opportunity to teach and an opportunity to learn. We as consumers determine the future of food. Food is perhaps the most meaningful form of communication the human race has to experience. Chefs with a voice can speak on behalf of diners, farmers, purveyors and employees. Agriculture and service is by far the largest labor force by occupation in the world. By educating people on the power of sustainable farming, we’re not only doing ourselves a favor, but we’re doing our children’s children a favor. This is for the benefit of people and their health as well as the land and its health.

MF: Why did you choose to become a chef and what has the journey been like so far?

JS: I actually made a conscious decision to cook professionally and with purpose at a relatively young age… but I was going to be a rockstar when I grew up. Playing music in a band professionally allowed me the ability to travel and deliver a message. When I left the band and studio, I decided those were two things I would never lose. My experiences with cooking professionally and playing music professionally are actually incredibly similar. A great restaurant is an absolute symphony.

I’ve lived on the farm here as the chef for the past two years and it has changed my views on practically everything.

MF: What was your time at the Chefs Boot Camp like and what did you take away from the experience?

JS: The James Beard Foundation’s Chefs Boot Camp opens up a new world of opportunity. There are others in your industry who share the same issues as you. There are others who actively challenge every issue that they face. Some have successes to share and some do not, but either way, these are opportunities to learn. My takeaway from the experience is that positive change is incredibly accessible. There are resources and ways to go about affecting the world in which we affect the most.

MF: Do you have any advice for other chefs who might be thinking about becoming advocates for a cause?

JS: You are not alone, my friend. There are others who might be thinking, others who may be acting, and others who are certainly doing. Every year we host a conference called ROOTS. This is an opportunity to learn with people from all over the world who are not only talking about, but doing meaningful work in this industry. If you are thinking about becoming advocates for a cause, any cause, I encourage you to come out to the Chef’s Garden for ROOTS because it’s more than thinking, it’s taking action.

MF: Is there anything else you’d care to share that I haven’t touched on?

JS: Right here and now, along with maintaining a sustainable business, our focuses at the Culinary Vegetable Institute and the Chef’s Garden are education and collaboration within the world around our food system. Collaboration with chefs, farmers, educators, scientists, and diners from all over has brought us to where we are today. Here, sustainability is not a trend, it’s a way of life. A better connection with the water, soil, plants, and sun determines the appropriate future of our food system. It’s as if you were stepping back in time while respectfully embracing technology to produce a model that can and has been adapted by the networks we influence most. Agriculture is certainly at the heart of what we consume. Every meal begins with a farmer. Every farmer begins with a demand, and we as consumers determine collectively the future of food. Thus, education and collaboration.

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