Sustainably sourced: how the James Beard Foundation supports chef education

The James Beard Foundation seeks to continue James Beard's legacy by celebrating American chefs and educating the food community on sustainable practices.

Sustainably sourced: how the James Beard Foundation supports chef education

In the culinary world, the name James Beard evokes images of the famed American chef teaching classes out of his townhouse in the West Village of New York, or writing cookbooks and making TV appearances that, for the first time, brought American cuisine to the forefront of the gastronomy scene.

James Beard was dubbed the “Dean of American cookery” by the New York Times for his efforts in elevating American gastronomy. Photo courtesy of the James Beard Foundation.

When he passed away 30 years ago, his townhouse was turned into “The James Beard House” by friends, and later, the James Beard Foundation. The organization’s core mission remains intact: to celebrate, nurture, and honor culinary leaders making America's food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone. Today, around 200 chefs a year visit the space to showcase their talents, but the foundation itself has grown beyond the walls of the townhouse.

Sarah Drew works as an Impact Programs Manager at the James Beard Foundation, focusing on sustainability, aiming to facilitate eco-friendly supply chains. One program, Smart Catch, focuses on sustainably harvesting seafood–the team gathers data from their community of chefs, assessing and educating them on whether the items in their kitchen are being fairly sourced.

“We are using the best scientific information available to us to help the industry learn where we can make the most change,” Drew said.

The Smart Catch program uses ratings from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine whether food items are green (best choice in terms of sustainability), yellow (a good alternative but with some concerns related to how the fish is caught) or red. A red item is one that's been overfished or caught in ways that are harmful to the environment.

Consider the question, “What are the most common red items that chefs are using?” The answer will often be salmon, tuna, and shrimp, but the team looks out for surprises: specific species or regions of salmon, tuna and shrimp, which then helps them build out their educational programming. If many chefs are using a product that is being harmfully sourced, the foundation can host a webinar about why the product may not be sustainable to purchase at the moment, as well as offer alternative recommendations in order to foster more diversity in menus.

The James Beard Foundation seeks to not only gather data on fishing and farming, but to educate the food community.

“There's so many different components,” Drew continued. “We, on the very basic level, need to know who's in the program, who's interested in being in the program, and sorting the active statuses of our community members. Region, of course, is so important to us, so we need to track the city and state of our network members, and who their seafood suppliers are. But restaurants are all submitting at different times of the year, and we had a hard time refining the process for following up with overdue assessments. ... We were using a Google Sheet and it was like, ‘Has someone contacted this person?’ It had to be automated, these processes just couldn't be manual anymore.”

Drew credits Airtable for helping them develop the more streamlined processes the team needed for impact. When she first joined the project earlier this year, she inherited a spreadsheet with upwards of 15 different tabs, each with different names, color codes and highlights. To an outsider, the system didn’t make sense.

“For the past two and a half years, we have grown the program from 65 restaurants to close to 600 and we needed a solution where everything is built in. The information we collect from the chefs has to be easily accessible and customized for the many different stakeholders involved. Airtable’s views, fields, blocks and functions are built in and make it possible to work across a distributed team."

Using customizable, personal views, different stakeholders can each focus on just the information that matters most to them. For example, the science team looks at different information from Drew, who looks at restaurant information to see if there's a new chef or restaurant opening. The data team can drill down to get the details they need while Drew maintains a bird's-eye view of the program. Even chefs can plug into the system by sending their information directly through forms.

"To have these processes not be manual means we’re able to focus more on the educational piece–talking to chefs, rather than copy-and-pasting stuff from spreadsheets."

“The first thing I did when we set up Airtable was create surveys, using forms, to send out to our chefs,” Drew explained. “We also have link on our website with an interest survey, so if you want to sign up for Smart Catch, that’s where you can and that information feeds directly to the columns in our table.”

One table is dedicated to assessment. The team receives spreadsheet submissions from their network, which they can import into their Airtable base; with the system they’ve built (using features such as rollups), if all of the products are in the database, it can quickly generate an assessment, or highlight approved and unapproved items. The system also links the information and assessment date back to the participants.

“When you open the Airtable base, you’ll see the restaurant name, all of the basic contact information, website, suppliers, and a column that says ‘Number of Assessments,’ ‘Most Recent Assessment,’ and ‘Next Assessment,’ using rollups and formulas, and that's what's so helpful for us,” Drew explains. Using the information in the base, the team intends to start sending automated alerts when assessments are overdue.

“That’s gonna be really, really exciting for us to get this on a schedule because chefs in particular are very… I mean, think about their occupation. They're not at computers. Sometimes it's very hard to get their attention through just email, so we’re also setting up automated texts: ‘Hey, your assessment's due.’ To have these processes not be manual means we’re able to focus more on the educational piece–talking to chefs, rather than copy-and-pasting stuff from spreadsheets.”

Chefs are the backbone of the James Beard Foundation community.

Chefs are the Foundation’s whole network, and its integrity hinges on treating the community, and their time, with respect. The members of the community submit assessments by looking at invoices, seafood purchasing history–and with the seafood industry already lacking transparency, chefs truly are offering valuable time to bolster this mission of sustainability. Drew and her team view it as a vital imperative to be as efficient as possible, in order to respect the time their chefs are putting in.

“As the foundation grows, we receive a lot of new questions around the program,” Drew said. “I had a partner last week who asked, ‘What percentage of your Smart Catch network is fast casual?’ And I was like, ‘That's a great question.’ So, I went into Airtable and added a column on the interest form that says ‘Restaurant Type.’ It's easy to go in and make improvements without changing anything structurally. At the end of the day, our goal is to improve the transparency in the supply chain and sustainability of the ocean, and it’s been integral to have a system that accomodates this complex information, and makes for streamlined communication between diverse stakeholders, from chefs to suppliers to scientists.”

Sign up for Airtable for free