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August 31, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Lunch with Chef Ann

story and photos by BOB DORAN

She wasn't hard to find, although the description from one of the Organic Planet Festival volunteers didn't help much. "She's kinda short with dark, wavy hair," he'd told me, not mentioning the salient fact: Ann Cooper, aka Chef Ann, was the only one at the festival wearing a chef coat -- to be exact, a dazzlingly white one, with her name embroidered on it.

I trailed the so-called "Renegade Lunch Lady" backstage into the "performers and presenters only" area, striding purposely past a guard who ignored my lack of a "Very Organic Person" laminate. I had a good reason: I had promised O-Planet Fest photo of Chef Annorganizer Matt Lang I'd give Chef Ann a ride to the airport. With the sweet steel drums of Pan Dulce playing in the background I introduced myself, and we made arrangements to reconnoiter after her keynote talk.

Chef Ann's rabble-rousing speech offered an introduction to issues she lays out in her latest book, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. Essentially, she'd like to see a revolution in school food services. The reason is simple.

"The Center for Disease Control has said two important things recently. One: Among 6-year-old kids -- the ones starting 1st grade this week -- one out of three Caucasians and one of two Hispanics and African Americans will have diabetes in their lifetime, the majority of them by the time they're 18.

"And two: The CDC went further to say that the generation starting school today is the first who will die younger than their parents -- because of the food supply. How can we not make this a huge issue? We're talking about killing our offspring. What is there not to get about this?"

She wants to sue the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, who she holds partially responsible for the epidemic of childhood obesity facing our nation, and she'd like to see school lunches become an issue in the next presidential race. And yes, she also wants you to buy her Harper Collins book, which officially hits bookstores Sept. 5.

She touched briefly on her progression from upscale restaurant chef to "queen of the cafeteria." Her career evolution was a topic of conversation later, but not until after we'd had lunch.

Since the festival was all about organic alternatives, we had plenty of good food to choose from. We began with generous portions of Eureka Natural Foods' "world's largest organic salad," with spring mix from Gourmet Vegpac, Coke Farms baby spinach, slices of Bunny Luv carrots and local cucumbers (from a farmer who prefers anonymity) and juicy, sweet tomatoes from Norman Coates' Gem of the River Farm. I should mention that Ann asked for a reduced portion after seeing how high they piled the sugar cane plate the woman ahead of us was carrying. She had hers dressed with Annie's Natural Green Goddess; I went with the Follow Your Heart Caesar.

Next stop, the Eel River Organic Beef booth, where Clint Victorine and his dad were flipping burgers. We chatted with Clint about what it takes to break into the organic beef market (a topic for another column) and somewhere along the line he mentioned he'd been selling hamburger to a school in the Bronx. "What school?" Ann wondered, and in a six degree of separation moment it came out that Clint was dealing with a charter school in Harlem where Ann had instituted an organic food service program.

Another small world instance happened at one of the organic wine booths. As we tasted some fine reds from Parducci and Frey, she learned that her friend Andrew Dolan, formerly with Fetzer, purchased Parducci, which was recently certified organic.

Noting that she "doesn't usually have wine with lunch," Ann decided since she was "sort of on vacation" she could sample some from Coates Vineyards. The abovementioned Norman and his partner, Robin, poured us samples of a few more good organic reds and sliced open an amazingly sweet Doubloon melon.

With reggae by Clinton Fearon and his band pumping from the stage, we headed for a quiet bench along the bay to about talk food. Chef Ann's culinary career began when she was around 18, after she left her home south of Boston.

"I'd been thrown out of high school for behaving badly" she began. "I decided my avocation was going to be ski bum, so I hitchhiked out to Telluride, Colorado. I talked my way into an assistant breakfast cook position and started cooking. I fell in love with food, with working with food and the sensibility of food. That's how I started. I've never had another job in my life, never had a job that wasn't food-related."

Getting more serious, she'd returned to the East Coast to study at the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1979. CIA diploma in hand, she landed a series of jobs, first on cruise ships, then as executive chef at one place after another: the Grand Junction in Colorado, Gladstone's, the Radisson Hotel chain in Virginia, the Telluride Ski Resort.

By the early '90s, she was at the Putney Inn in Vermont. That's when she discovered "sustainable cuisine." While working on her first book, A Woman's Place Is in the Kitchen: The Evolution of Woman Chefs, she met chefs like Alice Waters, Nora Pouillon and Odessa Piper. "These were women who were really passionate about these issues. I, frankly, had come up through the French chef mentality. When you went to CIA, especially in the early years, it was all European chefs, so there wasn't that sustainability model. You'd always import everything because it's 'better.' I was intrigued that all these women were into this sustainable organic stuff, really thinking of food in a way I hadn't learned about."

photo of organic saladShe became a member of Chefs Collaborative, "a group of chefs dedicated to educating other chefs and the public at large about sustainable food issues." Even though she'd worked in the food business for years she realized she had a lot to learn.

She started instituting changes in the restaurant, overcoming resistance of owners, waiters and customers. She wrote another book, Bitter Harvest, touching on "what's going on with our food supply and why food makes us sick and why it's a 'follow the money' story."

Another epiphany came with a visit from her nieces. "We were deciding what to do and I said, 'Let's go pick strawberries.' My little niece said, 'But, I can't reach, Auntie Ann.' I thought, well, if my nieces don't even know that strawberries grow on the ground, that they think they grow on a bush or a tree or something, what do they know?"

Turning her attention to children, she left the Putney and took a job running the food service program for the Ross School, a small upscale private academy in East Hampton, New York, converting their lunchroom to a model program using "regional, organic, seasonal, sustainable" foods.

The next step was replicating the Ross model at a place that didn't have its money-is-no-object environment: The Promise Academy, a charter school in Harlem. Then, last October, she became Nutrition Services Director for the Berkeley Unified School District.

Chef Ann insisted to me that teaching kids about good food "has to be part and parcel of an education program. And all the stakeholders have to participate: the administration of the school, the food services people, the educators, the children and their parents. You have to teach everybody. You need an educational component and you need social marketing and community outreach to teach parents that letting kids eat Pop Tarts, potato chips and Coke for breakfast is really bad for them."

While changing bad food habits is a struggle, she said, it's getting easier.

"Look at the phenomenal growth of a chain like Whole Foods, or [the fact] that Safeway has an organic label. This is a huge paradigm shift. Now people buy that stuff for all kinds of different reasons, but basically because they think they're eating healthier and feeding their kids healthier.

"People are thinking more about what they put in their bodies, but unfortunately it's still tied to demographics, to income and education. I think healthy food should be a right of everyone, every child, every adult, everybody. And we certainly are not there yet -- we have a long way to go."

For more on Chef Ann's new book and her work, go to

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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