This column is part of a series called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Matthew Beaudin, Executive Chef, Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In the Western world, the farm-to-table movement has emerged as a cultural badge of honor.
Guests who choose to dine at a sustainable restaurant tend to do so out of a sense that they’re helping their local farmers, reducing waste, mitigating their carbon footprint, and supporting economic and environmental harmony. In our world, “sustainable” is an archetype for contributing to the greater good overall.
I run a sustainable restaurant in Monterey, California. But “farm-to-table” takes on a different meaning when you’re surrounded by starving kids. Depending on where you live on this planet, “sustainable” isn’t simply an ideal or an archetype. It’s about one very practical, essential thing: survival.
Every party, every gala was the same, same, same. It was empty and unfulfilling, and not a legacy I wanted to leave.
I had the successful chef story. I began working full-time in restaurants at 16, coming into the kitchens in the early morning to prep, and cutting classes to work the dinner shift. My grades suffered, but I knew I was worth more than just my marks. I wanted to prove everyone wrong. So I went to tech school for a year, applied to the Culinary Institute of America, and I got in.
I worked my way to the “top”: The Ritz, The Broadmoor. Before I knew it, I was in charge of 400-plus cooks at Gaylord. I was making more money than I ever had. But I was also burning out.
I may have been running a massive operation, but when you have 600 team members, sometimes you get lost. I was lost. I wasn’t feeding anyone directly. Amidst the glitz and glamor, I lost that essential connection. Every party, every gala was the same, same, same. It was empty and unfulfilling, and not a legacy I wanted to leave.
That’s when I got a call from the founder of Rwanda’s Musanze Opportunity Center. “I’ll give you $10,000 a year, I’ll give you a place to live, and I’ll get you a car. But you need to move to Rwanda. I need you to open a school for me. The Rwandese government wants a school for culinary arts and hospitality management, as well as construction. I can do construction, but I have no idea how to cook.”
He said, “Can you open a school for me?” I said, “Sure.” I quit my job.
I arrived in the Rwandan jungle and settled into the compound. The compound had the comforts of home, but walking through the villages was different. There were mud huts, gas cans, and containers full of water. I’d look back over my shoulder and see 15, then 30 kids, watching me and wondering what I was doing there.
In the U.S., you’d charge $25 because you’d call it “farm-to-table.” In Rwanda, it sells for 50 cents.
Every single thing we ate, we grew ourselves under extremely difficult conditions. We’d grow to produce 6,500 feet up on the side of a volcano. There are only a few days between the time produce can be harvested to when the rainy season comes, and there are plenty of threats to a healthy harvest. One time, we went to harvest after a torrential downpour and the rain had washed feces from the outdoor toilets into the crops. So, we had to start over.
Even to make something as simple as French toast, you’ve got to bake the bread the night before, slice it, dry it out, grate the nutmeg, get the milk from the cow, get the eggs from the chickens. In the U.S., you’d charge $25 because you’d call it “farm-to-table.” In Rwanda, it sells for 50 cents. We like to talk about moving toward a farm-to-table concept, but, in fact, we are moving back. No chef right now is reinventing the wheel.
We started hiring people to work at the restaurant and on the property. Theirs are the stories that I’ll never be able to forget, and the stories that made it hardest to come back to the States.
In the U.S., you might get a text saying, “Hey, chef, my cell phone screen broke and I’ve got to go to the mall to get it fixed, so I’m going to be late.” In Rwanda, a woman that worked for me told me how her family was killed in the genocide, how she had to hide under her mother’s body, how she saw her sister get blown up. One morning I found her crying and I said, “You’ve had a really rough day. What happened?”
“My daughter died this morning,” she said.
“Your daughter died this morning?”
“My daughter died of malaria.”
She had to keep working to put food on the table. That’s what sustainability meant to her.
I see how food and work can work in a cycle to give these kids a chance.
In Rwanda, the forest floors are picked clean, but you need wood to boil water. Eucalyptus wood is green and doesn’t boil well, but it burns just enough. Families send kids up to get the eucalyptus branches for firewood. A 13-year-old boy died in my arms after he fell 60 feet from a eucalyptus tree. I picked him up and went to bring him to the doctor, but he died as I was carrying him. I brought him on a bus to find his family. I was the white American, in the middle of Rwanda, holding a dead child. I didn’t speak the language, and couldn’t explain in words what happened. I felt absolutely terrible. Helpless. I put him in the back of my Jeep and brought his body back to his mother since they didn’t have a car. I helped bury the kid.
No matter how bad it gets, there’s nothing that will ever touch that depth of despair again in my life. Nothing.
It changed my perspective, my attitude, on everything. Today, I’m still focused on food and kids. I’m working to raise funds to start restaurants in Tijuana, Mexico, where kids who drop out of school can earn a wage and all the profits will support local orphanages. I see how food and work can work in a cycle to give these kids a chance.
Today, all of our produce (except for lettuce) comes from this single farm. This translates into about $300,000 going to one local family farm.
But it also changed how I think about sustainable food in my own restaurant back in California. You learn to appreciate the life cycle of food when you see kids starving.
Now, I make deals with farmers just like I did in Rwanda. In return for housing our sheep and pigs at a farm called Green Acres, we purchase our milk, goat cheese and duck eggs from them, and the partnership continues to evolve. Today, all of our produce (except for lettuce) comes from this single farm. This translates into about $300,000 going to one local family farm. That’s a huge deal.
That’s just how it is. It is more practical financially. More restaurants can do this, it’s just a matter of more people demanding it.
To keep a tomato on the vine for three months, that’s hard work. To raise a cow for a year? Heroic. For me to grill a steak for three minutes on each side and put salt and pepper on it, and take credit? That’s only 1% of the story.
Life is a game of putting food on the table, it just depends on how you’re getting that food, and where your table is.