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Melissa Kogut Sustains a Chef-Led Movement

Melissa Kogut at Seattlle Sustainable Food Summit 2012

Melissa Kogut at Seattlle Sustainable Food Summit 2012. Credit: Courtesy of video from Chefs Collaborative website

Chefs should be advocates for the environment. After all, if feeding people is your business, sustainable food is your responsibility.

This call to arms has guided the Chefs Collaborative since the Boston-based nonprofit was founded 19 years ago. And its appeal only grows.

Today, the Collaborative boasts more than 1,000 dues-paying members and a network of 12,000 supporters across the country. Last week, a standing-room-only crowd of 325 young chefs and cooks jammed the Seattle Culinary Academy for the Collective’s annual Sustainable Food Summit, evidence that a new generation is fully engaged in the cause.

As much as anyone, Collaborative executive director Melissa Kogut deserves credit for transforming the organization’s mission into a movement. While it is the chefs who instill the group with purpose, Kogut is in charge of raising the funds that allow cash-strapped kitchen junkies to organize local self-help networks across the country.

“I’m a community organizer at heart,” Kogut says. “This work is more than a job. It’s a cause.”

Kogut has enlisted food purveyors including Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Niman Ranch and the American Lamb Board along with food-service giants such as Sodexo to support Chefs Collaborative. Google was one of dozens of sponsors of the Seattle conference. The funds enabled many of the young chefs to make the journey to Seattle.

On a local level, chefs teach each other practical solutions to common challenges. Which fish are plentiful enough to serve? How do you use a whole pig and reduce waste? Is there a high quality local dairy near my town? A Chefs Collaborative member probably has the answer and is willing to share.

In Seattle, it was clear that these passionate earth-first chefs have been tempered by the challenge of financial survival. The emphasis was on helping their kitchen brethren start down the road toward sustainable practices. No one preached environmental orthodoxy.

Everyone starts by taking “baby steps,” one chef told the group.

Collaborative national board chair Michael Leviton, chef/owner of Boston-area’s Lumière, opened the meeting. “Small pricey restaurants are only going to reach a few people every night. So how are we going to reach the big corporations who serve most of the world?”

The answer, he said, is through building the sustainable community. “We need to shorten the distance between farm to table and scale that up. And we need to do that together.”

By the end of the three-day event, the group had butchered a goat, taste-tested frozen versus fresh beef, and debated the Farm Bill, immigration policy, minimum wage and foie gras bans. No topic was taboo. And every meal was a feast.

Before Kogut joined the Collaborative staff in 2007, she served for 11 years as executive director of NARAL Massachusetts, a statewide organization that advocates for women’s health. In 2006, she received the Abigail Adams Award from the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, which recognizes and honors outstanding women leaders.

Zester Daily is proud to have Kogut as a member of our Advisory Board.

Top composite photo:

Melissa Kogut at 2012 Sustainable Food Summit in Seattle. Credit: Screen shots from video courtesy of Rival Marketing

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.