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Top DC Chefs Talk Sustainability and Healthy Eating At GWU

Chefs Todd Gray, Nora Pouillon, José Andrés and Spike Mendelsohn
Chefs Todd Gray, Nora Pouillon, José Andrés and Spike Mendelsohn
Photo: Amy McKeever/

Last night, four of the District's better-known chefs — José Andrés, Todd Gray, Nora Pouillon and Spike Mendelsohn — gathered before a sold-out crowd in a George Washington University auditorium to discuss healthy eating and grapple with the definition of sustainability in their kitchens. Moderator Jane Black led the chefs in a debate over the merits of corn-fed beef and eating local. With White House food policy advisor Sam Kass in the house, they also discussed their involvement in Michelle Obama's Chefs Move To Schools program. Naturally, things eventually devolved into a discussion of reality TV and how Snooki can save us all.

Mendelsohn and Gray kicked the night off on a surprisingly practical note on the topic of grass-fed beef. The Good Stuff Eatery chef said that while he tries to use as much of it as he can, he'd be out of business if he used 100 percent grass-fed. Gray seconded the notion that restaurants' decisions have to be based on survival, too — while white truffles can sell for $100 a plate, he said, that wouldn't fly with grass-fed beef.

Andrés pointed out that sourcing locally doesn't always make sense: "You're going to come to my restaurant, a Spanish restaurant, and I'm going to send you cheese from Vermont?" And, after a question on fair trade, he pointed out that chefs wouldn't be able to buy anything if they had to think of every potential issue that came with it. The key to sustainability in a kitchen, these chefs agreed, is balance. Meanwhile, Pouillon (one of DC's original organic champions) played the contrarian, strongly opposing feeding animals corn that they cannot digest and insisting that her menu is always organic and fair trade, regardless of economies.

With Kass in attendance, some of the chefs fell over themselves to praise the White House initiative to teach kids healthy eating habits and share their own contributions. Mendelsohn, who works with the KIPP DC, announced plans to launch something called Good Stuff Gardens, in which he'll be planting rooftop gardens with select students from the charter school. Meanwhile, Andrés argued that teaching kids about food is more important than French lessons — and, yes, Spanish too.

A member of the audience challenged the chefs to compare DC's "conservative" image with New York's "innovative" one. Gray replied that it's insulting when big names open a restaurant in DC and then leave immediately. But he noted that younger diners have created dining scenes in NoMa and the 14th Street corridor that didn't previously exist. In fact, the chefs all agreed that DC's dining scene has grown substantially in the last 10 years or so — a fact that Mendelsohn attributed to the Obama factor. Pouillon joked that DC should get its own TV show to showcase how its melting pot of cultures mixes in with "all the steakhouses that the federal government supports."

Though the topic was serious, it wasn't all a dry affair. With Andrés cracking one-liners and the chefs poking a little fun at their New York counterpart Rocco Dispirito, the mood was fairly lighthearted. Mendelsohn shared his favorite DC dining secret, the Columbia Heights taqueria, which he says are the best tacos he's had in DC — except for Oyamel, of course. And he suggested the Jersey Shore cast could make sustainable a sexy topic for reality TV. Snooki on a farm? We'd watch that.