To mark a significant anniversary, Chefs Collaborative has brought its annual conference to Charleston, a city where two decades sounds like a very short stretch of time.

Rick Bayless on Monday morning gave attendees a clear sense of how much the restaurant business has changed in the 20 years since he and fellow chefs established the group’s guiding principles.

“One very well-known chef was proclaiming, on his menu and to the press, that he would never use anything local,” Bayless said of the culinary inferiority complex that then prevailed in Chicago and other American cities.

Specialness in the early 1990s was defined by French cheeses, Italian pastas and Spanish pork. When Bayless tried to exercise the sourcing sensibilities he had picked up in Mexico, where he would learn to appreciate the deep connections between cultivation and cooking, produce sellers mocked his interest in local strawberries. “They said they were too small, too fragile; they said they were terrible,” he remembered.

Bayless persisted, as did the other chefs who launched the network of sustainably minded food professionals that now claims 12,000 members. More than 500 of them this week are congregating at the Francis Marion Hotel to chew over what it means to fight for a safer, saner food system in an era when even McDonald’s outwardly celebrates local potatoes and the farmers who grow them.

The first full day of sessions touched on many of the complexities posed by scaling Bayless’ initial dream of buying a locally grown, in-season strawberry within Cook County limits.

“I’m not interested in window-dressing my menu,” Bayless said, explaining that he now needs to find environmentally sensitive farms that can sell him 50 pounds of garlic a day.

At times, the conference veered toward the kind of starry-eyed boosterism that’s popularly associated with eaters who trade fermentation tips and tut over new studies of genetically modified foods: “Go out to love and serve this diversity in community and in peace!” ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan exhorted attendees, after first bringing them to their feet to take a spoken vow of culinary responsibility. Later, Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts led the largely-new-to-Charleston crowd in an “R-I-C-E” cheer.

But examination and reflection easily trumped self-congratulation, with speakers thinking aloud about everyone involved in a robust local food network. While early local food models centered on farmers and chefs, food advocates are now equally concerned with consumers who don’t seem to care about healthy food, media members and restaurant employees.

“What I want to do is create good work, where people are treated with respect and feel good about what they do,” said Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., of his efforts to bring sustainable values indoors.

New York City chef Peter Hoffman wrestled with how Chefs Collaborative members can distinguish their multifaceted stories of environmental protection and cultural conservation from the seemingly pro-local messages of industrial food producers.

“What distinguishes us is what’s on the plate,” he said, arguing that the aesthetics of food presentation convey the politics behind a dish. “When we cut our vegetables, we can take the opportunity to show growth patterns. We can plate it to make people want to take a walk in the woods.”

Writer Jane Black took a very different tack in her discussion of promoting cooking fresh, local and seasonal food at home. Black, who with her husband temporarily relocated to Huntington, W.Va., in hopes of better understanding Americans’ food choices, said sustainable food advocates need to “stop lecturing, make it simple and make them laugh.”

Other speakers took up the use of antibiotics in agriculture and the massive destruction of estuaries. Roberts urged gardeners to plant rice in their backyards, and South Carolina pork producer Emile DeFelice called for the continued strengthening of relationships between growers and restaurants, which he credited with fueling the city’s culinary renaissance.

Yet as chef Mike Lata said in opening remarks, “Our success goes well beyond restaurants and producers. ... A city’s culinary identity is only as good as the demands of its audience.”