The Business of Food returns to Charleston Wine + Food for a second helping. John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance was tapped to program this year’s event, and, not one to shy away from the big issues, he's invited a lineup of activists, progressives and boundary pushers, he says, “to talk through specific actions and advocacy stances that these chefs are taking.”
The stances range from Diep Tran’s push for raising wages for restaurant workers to Ashley Christensen’s outspokenness against discrimination and harassment.
Tran, who owns Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, is a Vietnamese immigrant who spent her childhood watching her grandmother build a restaurant chain in Los Angeles called Pho 79. In an article for NPR's The Salt blog, Tran wrote, "I watched my aunts and uncles work 16-hour days, only to charge cut-rate prices for their food. And I also witnessed the grueling hours that their employees put in, also at cut-rate wages. It is a cruel reality that immigrant enterprise is powered by the cheap labor of fellow immigrants."
Not only do cheap food prices undercut wages, she wrote, it undercuts the value of ethnic food. The food she serves at her restaurant, made with sustainable sources by people paid more than minimum wage, is considered expensive because it's compared to other ethnic food made by underpaid workers. "Immigrant food is often expected to be cheap, because, implicitly, the labor that produces it is expected to be cheap, because that labor has historically been cheap," she wrote. Her position comes from deep knowledge and experience and her approach to how she runs her restaurant and pays her employees provides a path for other restaurateurs — and for food media and diners — to consider the true costs and inherent bias of cheap food.
Ashley Christensen, a regular visitor to Charleston, has built a restaurant empire in the Raleigh-Durham area and she has done it without compromising. She spoke out publicly against the North Carolina bathroom ban and continues to raise her voice against what she sees as injustice and discrimination.
As Edge says, "Restaurants incubate community. Restaurants abet inequities. Today, progressive chefs and restaurateurs recognize both truths. Working together, our panelists foster equitable treatment for staff and consumers and define future models for the industry."
Christensen's response on Instagram to a commenter who told her to "just cook and be quiet," after she posted a picture of Michelle Obama, was polite but blistering and received national attention. Her essential message: "In hospitality, it will never be wrong to create a safe and welcoming space and experience for ALL people at our tables."
In Savannah, Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano of The Grey are in the midst of transforming that sleepy Southern town into a better place by encouraging professionalism in the hospitality industry. They are doing this by creating a scholarship through the Edna Lewis Foundation and actually funding educational opportunities.
The lesson at this seminar will be that change can happen through one initiative, one restaurant at a time.
In Charleston, the recent discussion has been about the pressure on restaurants to donate gift certificates to every school auction, baseball team and worthy charity in town. This seminar could give restaurateurs and chefs insight into how to embrace one issue and invest in that exclusively, both monetarily and actively, to make real change happen. Just look at the impact Mickey Bakst's Feed the Need has had on Charleston. One guy, one idea and people are now being fed every week by the hospitality industry.
Tickets for locals are $25 to the Business of Food seminar, which will be held at the Charleston Music Hall on Friday, March 2 from 3:30 to 5 p.m.