Jeff Osaka may be a prolific restaurateur—he is the chef-owner of Congress Park’s 12 at Madison, Osaka Ramen, and three Sushi-Rama locations (with two more on the way)—but he’s not all that comfortable expressing himself. “I’m horrible at public speaking,” Osaka admits. But after participating in last week’s James Beard Foundation Chefs Bootcamp for Policy and Change, a prestigious event intended to educate and empower chefs and food industry professionals to act as advocates for change in our food system, Osaka feels ready to tackle all sorts of issues. “It was a great experience, getting to see how [the other chefs] express themselves,” Osaka says.
This year’s summit was about much more than communication. The primary focus was to inform the participants about the existing Farm Bill—an $867 billion piece of legislation that determines how our government spends money on agriculture and food programs—which is set to expire on September 30. Osaka and 15 chefs from across the country were invited to spend three days at Shelburne Farms outside of Burlington, Vermont, to listen, learn, and lean in on their ability to take direct action in favor of positive changes in the Farm Bill and the food industry as a whole. “Chefs have a huge voice,” Osaka says. “The hospitality industry is the largest employer in the country, and chefs purchase more food than anyone else. I have to be a good steward for this business while I can. It seems likely that the [Farm Bill] might get stalled, but it’s not too late to reach out to our representatives.”
The group spent a lot of time learning about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] in particular, which could lose funding and gain a qualifying work requirement if the House of Representatives’ version of the bill is passed. Many see such changes as a significant harm to low-income, elderly, and disabled populations.
Over the course of the summit, Osaka learned more then he ever imagined. “They also taught us how to apply the advocacy tools we learned to wherever you may want to take your career,” he explains. For his part, Osaka has been thinking about starting a nonprofit organization that supports workers in the hospitality industry. “We’re the most generous people I can think of,” says Osaka. “We give to so many local charities, but nobody really does anything for us. And the sustainability of a career in this industry is dwindling. I want to create something that makes our workplace better.”
In the meantime, Osaka is thrilled to have connected with the other bootcamp participants—from 2018 James Beard Award-winning chef Edouardo Jordan (of JuneBaby in Seattle) to Sasha Rajagopalan, a vegan chef from Tempe, Arizona—and to have been a part of the experience. “I’m still on a big high from it,” he says. “Now I need to digest it all and figure out where my efforts will make the most impact.”