Some of the most-recognized names in the culinary, environmental research and food policy fields will meet in Monterey this May, when the Monterey Bay Aquarium presents its pioneering Cooking for Solutions event for the tenth time. The weekend-long celebration of sustainable food features a stronger-than-ever schedule packed with panel discussions, cooking demonstrations and opportunities to meet the country’s brightest culinary stars.
Cooking for Solutions grew out of the aquarium’s SeafoodWatch program, a national effort encouraging consumers and chefs to make menu choices that promote ocean health and protect threatened species. In addition to discussing responsible decisions, organizers wanted to provide a taste of the resulting benefits—literally.
“In terms of shifting public tastes in the direction of things that are both delicious to eat and also good for the planet, you really want to have great chefs presenting food sourced in those ways,” says Monterey Bay Aquarium Communications Director Ken Peterson. Since the start, Cooking for Solutions chefs have celebrated the versatility and flavor of sustainable food while also providing examples of how attendees can prepare their own. In the event’s early years, however, the concept of sustainability was still evolving.
“[Participating chefs] were getting a lot of new information they hadn’t been exposed to,” Peterson says. “They were really excited to realize that they could incorporate this level of sustainability into what they were doing in the kitchen.”
That excitement continues today, according to Carmel chef Wendy Brodie. She’s been involved with Cooking for Solutions since its first year, when she hosted an in-home media luncheon with Alice Waters, Rick Bayless and other culinary greats. Professionally speaking, Brodie finds great value in meeting chefs, growers and producers focused on the same cause. Participating colleagues learn about each others’ efforts, and leave inspired to use new ingredients in new ways.
“The various chefs just always want to be a part of it,” says Brodie. “They are so thrilled to be asked and included.” She believes that by spotlighting new culinary talent and adding fresh events each year, Cooking for Solutions continues to boost public understanding of issues related to healthy eating as well as green living and global responsibility.
“The sustainability of the whole food chain is really where the aquarium is focusing, not just on seafood. It has been really helpful,” Brodie says.
The intent has always been to look at food systems in relation to both oceans and land, explains Peterson. “We want people to draw that line,” he says, “and understand that if you put excess pesticides and chemical fertilizers on the soil and they wind up washing down the stream, it’s all going to affect the ocean food web.”
To extend the reach of conversations taking place during Cooking for Solutions, organizers have expanded the Sustainable Foods Institute run in association with each year’s event. The now two-day media symposium has panels led by top environmental scientists, speakers, chefs and journalists; presenters on the 2011 schedule include Ted Turner, who will discuss land preservation and restaurant issues, author Anna Lappé and food sovereignty expert Raj Patel.
“They ask great questions, and they look at people they meet here as potential sources of information,” Peterson says of the Sustainable Foods Institute media participants. “They then get their audiences— readers, viewers or listeners—to think about food systems as integrated into general environmental awareness.”
On the public side, this year’s Cooking for Solutions opens with the Friday night gala that sells out nearly every year. More than 70 restaurants and 60 wineries share their best blends and favorite dishes over the course of three hours, and the aquarium’s award-winning displays serve as a delightful backdrop for the festivities. Rick Moonen, P. Allen Smith and Cindy Pawlcyn will be on hand to sign books, while food and wine packages sold in a silent auction will raise funds for SeafoodWatch.
Several new events headline an expanded Saturday and Sunday schedule, including two days of presentations at the Coastal Living Pavilion. Alton Brown, Robert Irvine and PBS host Nathan Lyon top a list of well-known personalities who will share stories, sign books and show off their cooking skills in several one-hour appearances. New Salon Series events on both days bring together leaders, such as former Bon Appetit food editor Kristine Kidd, Maria Rodale of the Rodale publishing group, and Earthbound Farm’s Myra Goodman, to discuss current culinary topics in small-group settings. And, a Sunday morning Savor the Gulf Coast breakfast buffet pairs sustainable, Southern-style fare with stories from chefs who will speak to the region’s post-oil spill recovery.
Returning this year are Saturday food and wine adventures that get guests out into area fields, vineyards and kitchens with the likes of Charles Phan and Rick Moonen plus the local chefs who partner with them to lead tours and tastings. The lively Sustainable Seafood Challenge, held that night at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa, will be hosted by Chef Chris Cosentino and NPR’s Lynne Rossetto Kasper.
Chefs and producers also will be at the aquarium throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, conducting cooking demonstrations and chatting about their work. Those experiences and related children’s activities are included with regular aquarium admission.
Cooking for Solutions 2011 takes place May 20-22. For a full list of events, along with ticket prices, celebrity chef biographies and information on participating restaurants and wineries, visit www.montereybayaquarium.org. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 831/647-6886