Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts yesterday began his acceptance speech for the Chefs Collaborative Pathfinder prize by asking his partner Catherine Schopfer to stand, a tribute to the years she’s spent marketing his heirloom grains. While Roberts was nursing forgotten Lowcountry crops back to viability, “Catherine’s been in the field, selling things to you,” Roberts told the hundreds of chefs gathered at Lowndes Grove in Charleston for the awards ceremony.

The recognition provided a fitting conclusion to a three-day conference at which speakers emphasized the need for chefs to not merely make responsible kitchen choices, but to publicly promote and explain their decisions to serve sustainable food. As New York Times bureau chief Kim Severson told the crowd, eaters have never been more primed to listen.

“It really speaks to the importance and power of chefs in our culture,” Severson said of various political movements’ recent attempts to recruit chefs to their sides. Severson ventured that just as music helped the nation work out issues relating to race and cinema helped define issues pertaining to gender, the culinary arts stand to play a central role in shaping contemporary debates.

Author Rowan Jacobsen, who served as the National Summit’s emcee, later added that cooking has surpassed both film and literature as a springboard for serious conversation.

“This is the healthiest art movement in America right now,” Jacobsen said.

Sean Brock, who sat on a panel with Severson and author Michael Ruhlman, urged his fellow chefs to clamber atop the platform that a food-obsessed culture has given them. While he cautioned against neglecting the fundamentals, saying “stories can enhance a meal, but if the products aren’t delicious, people aren’t going to care,” he believes befriending and educating customers is as critical as forging relationships with ingredient producers.

According to Brock, guests frequently tell him they don’t want to hear about the farm which raised the chicken on their plates.

“That doesn’t mean you should give up,” he said.

Ruhlman framed chefs’ obligations in even starker terms. “Don’t overestimate the American population: It’s largely stupid,” he said, recounting a run-in with an unsuspecting grocery shopper who he confronted over her purchase of fat-free half-and-half. “I said ‘what do you think they’re using to replace the fat?’”

Those sort of combative tactics are a hard sell in the manners-minded South, but nominees for Tuesday’s two regional awards have found their own ways of conveying the importance of sustainability. Sustainer Southeast recipient Anne Quatrano is a longtime proponent of cooking with seasonal, organic produce; she recently published a cookbook themed around her self-sufficient farm.

White Oaks Pastures’ Will Harris was named Foodshed Champion, an award reserved for food producers committed to maintaining high environmental standards. “Not only do we get product from these people, we get inspiration,” Mike Lata said, introducing the nominees. Finalists included locals “Clammer” Dave Belanger, Abundant Seafood’s Mark Marhefkha and grower Celeste Albers.

“(Albers) is the reason I’m here,” Lata said, remembering how Roberts lured him to town from Atlanta with a tour of Albers’ farm.

Roberts received the Pathfinder award, which “recognizes a visionary who has been a catalyst for positive change within the food system.”

Jacobsen concluded the Summit by calling for more outreach.

“You guys have been doing a great job,” he said. “But we’ve been talking for 20 years, and there’s still a hell of a lot of work to be done. Let’s change menus and change a lot of minds.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.