Q&A: James Beard award winning chef Bryant Terry talks food politics, eating healthy in college and veganism


Courtesy of Melissa Leigh

By Brady Langmann / Staff Writer

Growing up on a Tennessee farm — where family life centered around smallholding farming — San Francisco-area chef Bryant Terry’s grandfather told him, “If you have to rely on someone else to feed you, then you’re enslaved — you’re not truly free.”

Terry, a 2015 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award winner and Chef-in-Residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, is set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh as a keynote speaker for the Three Day Blow Festival, a three-day event from August 25 to 27 for local chefs and food writers to discuss the city’s culinary scene. As a food justice activist, much of Terry’s work is outside of the kitchen, using food as means for community development.

And despite growing awareness about food and farming issues at Pitt — including Pitt Cares’ partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, a weekly Farmers Market at Schenley Plaza, and Conflict Kitchen’s educational efforts — many incoming students will trade their home kitchens for meal plans and fast food this fall, calling to mind Terry’s childhood lesson in self-reliance.

In advance of his keynote, Terry talked to The Pitt News about possibilities for further action on campus. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

The Pitt News: At Pitt, you know we’re starting to get involved in food politics. Is there anything else we can do to be more mindful about our eating?

Bryant Terry: I think students need to understand the power that they have at their universities, contrary to the way most people put so much power in the hands of the Board of Trustees and the president, provost, the administrators or whomever. If there are changes around the food and farming policies within the school that you want to see, students need to organize.

There’s a lot of really moving, powerful and successful models of the farm-to-table movement throughout the country. I mean it’s not like when I first started doing this work 15 years ago — it’s like this movement has exploded from the Yale Sustainable Food Project, I mean it’s a great model that I think other schools can replicate. Small changes from starting teaching gardens on the campus, to having the school look towards supporting local farmers, to providing more healthful options in the dining hall.

TPN: How about in the dorms or apartments? You’ve recommended even having a little plant on your windowsill.

BT: Yeah, I mean I always say it’s whatever we can do. I’d like to think that growing food, producing our own produce or vegetables, just whatever we can grow — I see it as a way of kind of healing the earth. And so, you know, they might be small symbolic steps — growing fresh herbs on your windowsill. But I think more than just those individual acts, which can be impactful in some ways, I think keeping one eye on the larger, structural changes can contribute too. What if there’s a communal kitchen that is well-stocked, that actually taps into local chefs or educators to do cooking classes and teach students?

TPN: A couple months ago, Thrillist ran an article that criticized food media for “sticking to one particular story, and just rewarding a new city every time one does its 2007 Portland impression.” I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about.

BT: (Laughs) Right.

TPN: Still speaking from a college student’s perspective, where our food culture is pretty young, and assuming some will stick around and go into culinary or nonprofit work, how do you think Pittsburgh can avoid the “hot new food town” story and start talking about social issues through food the way you have?

BT: I think it’s exciting when cities, and individuals, and just the larger city starts to invest in trying to create a burgeoning food scene. But the thing about that is oftentimes that food scene does exclude a lot of people. It can appeal to a certain segment of the population, you know, the more fluent segment of cities — the younger professionals that are often described as gentrifiers. I’m not saying that, but you know, just the new demographic, it often excludes people who’ve been living in those cities for all their lives — working class, working poor people, people of color. It’s important that stakeholders throughout cities think about creative ways to ensure that everyone in the city is eating interesting, healthful, fresh and local foods. You know, the new farmers market that comes to town isn’t just for a small segment of the city — it should be for everyone.

TPN: You’ve described yourself as kind of an in-your-face vegan when you were in your late teens. Is there anything you wish you would’ve known back then? Or wish you would’ve told yourself?

BT: You know, that phase of my life has informed the way in which I approach educating everyone, particularly young people. A lot of people, when you start with the heavy intellectual ideas, or if you start with the politics, public politics, of you know, high-level public policies, that loses people. But when you start with simple things like making people a meal, or teaching people how to grow their own food, those are the things that move people and get them excited, and ultimately inspires people to shift their attitudes, and their habits, politics and approach to food. And so I always think about the way in which I started off being that kind of annoying, in-your-face person and how that has allowed me to know that, and know that’s not the best way to be.

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