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Cooking Up Community

Chef’s Consortium events bring together artists, preservationists and foodies of all kinds to make food education and advocacy fun

by Amy Halloran on September 22, 2011 · 1 comment

Photo credit Jane Feldman

Like “a rock band of chefs”—that’s how Martin Ping, director of Hawthorne Valley Farm, described the Chef’s Consortium when the group recently did a gig there. Yes, these chefs gig just like bands, and they have groupies and invite other chefs and food enthusiasts to sit in on their sessions and jam.

The group is composed of four chefs and sustainability advocates clustered around the Hudson Valley. Rebecca Joyner is the coordinator of dining services at Darrow School in New Lebanon. Nicci Cagan is a director of From the Garden Up, a school-garden and farm-to-school advocacy and action group. Hudson-based chef and caterer Jeff Loshinsky is also a part of the Chef’s Consortium, as is Noah Sheetz, who is the executive chef at the Governor’s Mansion.

The band of chefs first worked together a year ago at a historic-preservation fundraiser on Bannerman Island in Beacon.

“It was total MacGyver catering,” says Joyner. “We had a lot of fun. We just did Bannerman again, and can’t believe it’s been a year. We’ve done all these great fundraisers. We bring in other local chefs, and culinary artisans using local products. We are all into being food advocates and see food education as important, and have fun going out in to the community.”

Last year at Bannerman Island was not the first time the parties involved met or worked together. Sheetz and Cagan met a few years ago at a school-garden conference organized by Honest Weight Food Co-op, and the two teamed up to do presentations about changing school food highlighting city gardens and farmers markets. Joyner, in her capacity at Darrow, has plenty of experience linking local foods to the school’s menu, working within a corporate structure to use nearby resources. Sheetz and Joyner also share a history in high-end dining.

This past weekend, the Chef’s Consortium worked in Tivoli on a fundraiser called Dinner With Eleanor, the dame in question being Eleanor Roosevelt, whose country home Val-kill was opened up for the evening. The event also benefited AIDS Related Community Services.

“We’re adrenaline junkies, first and foremost,” says Joyner. “Typically people come together and have a business plan and move forward, and I think we’re all just standing back saying what just happened? We’ve had so many requests to do these events supporting programs in local ag, farm to school, historic preservation.”

Entertaining is at the root of these events. Everyone involved in the Chef’s Consortium shares a passion for promoting local food. Of course, in this they are not unique, but because these events are fun, the politics of local, sustainable food can slide onto the plate quite smoothly.

“Entertaining was always a big part of my life,” says Nicci Cagan. “I learned to cook from my mom because she had a lot of parties, and she had a garden. I always was passionate about cooking.”

Cagan grew up in Wisconsin and once won the state’s apple pie contest. She worked for the doctor-writer Deepak Chopra for five years, and then became chef at a retreat center in Stone Ridge. Recently, she helped prepare food for a friend’s wedding on a small vegetable farm in Fayetteville, Ark. The trip gave her a chance to compare the agricultural systems in the two states.

“I think New York state is in a really great position,” says Cagan. “The movement toward growing small farmers is really strong, and we have a lot of land.”

Plus, the farmers in New York don’t have Tyson looming overhead, making the battle for alternatives to agribusiness seem impossible. The Chef’s Consortium’s celebration of local foods and food producers helps in the effort by tastily, and cheerfully, introducing so many people to the agriculture and agricultural products in New York state.

One-night food events are the group’s specialty, but they know the cheese does not stand alone, and work with art, music, and the region’s history to draw attention to sustainable foods. They’ve partnered with such area chefs as Ric Orlando and Brian Molino, as well as artist Chip Fasciana. They did a series at Harmony House in Cohoes, pairing food, art and New York State wines.  Spring Deliverance at St. Joseph’s featured bands that played actual music in addition to the food music delivered by the group. They’ll be at the North Country Heart Walk in Saratoga Springs on Oct. 22.

And on Oct. 2 at Washington Park, the rock& rollers of food will play to a Brazilian theme at the third annual Local Harvest Festival.

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