6 previews of the future from James Beard nominees

Before the James Beard nominees took their seats at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House for the awards gala on Monday night, half a dozen took part in a Sunday morning panel at Kendall College hosted by Choose Chicago and the Illinois Restaurant Association.

Moderated by one of Chicago’s star chefs, Rick Bayless, and local broadcaster Steve Dolinsky, the panel included Mark Ladner of Del Posto in New York, Renee Erickson of The Whale Wins in Seattle, Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground in Washington, D.C., Beverly Kim of Parachute in Chicago and Ari Taymor of Alma in Los Angeles.

The topic was “The Future of Food” but the takeaways covered more territory.

1. Normalize back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house money issues.

There’s a huge discrepancy between the salaries for kitchen workers and those for servers and other FOH staff. At Alma, a small restaurant, Taymor distributes 30 percent of gross tips to his cooks. Bruner-Yang started Toki Underground by hiring his friends and to be fair, paid everyone in the front- and back-of-house the same salary. “Our profit margins are lower because we pay our employees more but we’re small enough to make it work,” he said.

2. Climate change is going to change the way we feed ourselves.

Several chefs echoed this concern, but in L.A., the drought is having an immediate impact on sourcing. “We had to help one of our farmers dig a new well or we would have lost him and his crops,” said Taymore. “We are mindful of every vegetable we wash and have to be flexible about menu changes.”

3. Raising the minimum wage will scare off investors.

A minimum wage of $15 will shrink profit margins and ROI. “Who will want to invest in restaurants?” asked Erickson. “Everyone is looking at Seattle to see what will happen.”

4. Food is bigger than what’s on the plate.

It’s crucial for chefs to consider how food connects to the community, our roots and our health … to look beyond technique and ingredients, said Bayless.

5. Hire for emotional intelligence.

The panel agreed that a new employee has to offer more than culinary skills. “We look for drive and how an applicant identifies with our concept and fits into our culture,” said Gjerde.

6. Protein is not sustainable.

“We have to look toward other sources of protein, maybe do more experimenting with insects,” said Ladner. At Parachute, Kim is embracing vegetables and digging deeper into her Korean roots to bring vegetables to the forefront.

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