As we watched the nearly 200 guests mill about at the Slow Food South Texas Harvest Gala at the Botanical Gardens last Saturday, it became clear that the slow food movement has caught on here in San Antonio. In a city where obesity is prevalent and a chain restaurant can be found on almost every corner, it was refreshing to see so many people brought together by the idea that good, clean and fair food should be accessible to everyone.
“Slow Food South Texas is a local chapter of Slow Food USA,” explained Susan Rigg, Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate and founder/director of Slow Food South Texas, “Many people ask me ‘What is slow food?’ It’s really the opposite of fast food. It’s healthy, well prepared food enjoyed with friends and family. Not something eaten driving down the highway at 65 miles per hour.”
In “Iron Chef” style, several local chefs prepared tapas-type snacks from baskets of farm fresh foods. Chef Michael Sohocki, a pioneer in our local slow food movement and owner/chef at Restaurant Gwendolyn, prepared a soup and an amazing Asian-inspired beef salad.
Chef Michael’s mission is to serve "honest food" – meaning everything is prepared the way it was before the Industrial Revolution. All perishable foods are sourced from farms and ranches within 150 miles of the restaurant and no electric appliances are used in preparation. You will find no factory-prepped foods here; the staff butchers and ages its meat, cans fruit and vegetables and even renders all the fats they use.
Accessibility to healthy food for all is important to the mission of the Slow Food organization. One of the biggest proponent of that ideal is Chef Joseph Dominguez of the San Antonio Food Bank and Community Kitchen Program. Like Chef Michael and Susan Rigg, Chef Dominguez is also a CIA graduate. Through a variety of programs focused on feeding the hungry and teaching sustainable job skills, the Food Bank and its local chefs execute on its mission of fighting hunger and feeding hope.
Perhaps the most effective programs are the Food Bank Community Kitchen and Catalyst Catering, which both address hunger by providing disadvantaged adults with the job skills they need to sustain employment.
As the Executive Chef of Catalyst Catering, the social enterprise arm of the Food Bank, Chef Dominguez sees strong alignment between the missions of the Slow Food and Food Bank organizations:
“With food, everything comes full circle We are able to teach skills that allow those who have fallen on hard times to pursue culinary careers.
During the program, the students contribute to the community through efforts like Catalyst Catering, a venture to bring in money to fund other Food Bank program, such as Kids’ Café, which provides school children with perhaps the only good meal they receive all day.
We teach our students where food comes from … and the hope is that when our students are able, they remember their struggle and choose to support small farms, local farms that may also be struggling.”
Some critics of the Slow Food movement view it as an elitist venture – a "yuppie" trend. But Chef Dominguez, his staff and students at the Food Bank prove that’s not the case – at least not here in San Antonio. I chatted with students Robert Gratteau and Rudy Fernandez as they served delicious tacos at the Food Bank station. Robert, a husband and father of two, lost his construction job a while back and was unable to find other work. He raved about the exposure and skills the program has provided. He feels hopeful about his future. Through serving in the kitchen at Haven for Hope and working with fellow students students living there, like Rudy, he says he has put his struggles into perspective.
Rudy lost his job at Wal-Mart a couple years ago. He couldn’t find another job and eventually couldn’t pay his rent. He ended up living at Haven for Hope, and is so thankful for the opportunity the Food Bank Program has given him. He hopes to open his own restaurant some day.
And then, there was David Rodriguez, part of Chef Dominguez’s staff. He was incarcerated for some time, and after his release, went through the Community Kitchen program and is now on staff. With the support of Chef Dominguez, he hopes to pursue his dream of attending the Culinary Institute here in San Antonio.
The students and staff work hard and the industry requires long hours – but David said it best: “When you do what you love, the hours don’t seem so bad.”
As the evening began to wind down, we watched happy silent auction winners claim their prizes and hand over their committed bids. This is important funding that will be used by the Slow Food School Garden program, currently working with Bonham Academy and Lamar Elementary, which teaches children that healthy, local food is important our community’s health, the environment and our local economy.
Chef Dominguez is right. Food does allow us to come full circle. It’s an important lesson for all of us. Seeing the excitement, passion and commitment to the full circle of food among the chefs and guests alike on that beautiful night in the garden, I have no doubt that San Antonio is well on its way to learning this lesson.
Megan O’Kain Lotay and her husband, Jesse, are recent transplants from Houston. Megan works in Marketing at USAA and in her spare time keeps a blog, The San Antonio Palate, to chronicle her dining adventures. Connect with Megan via her blog or Facebook page.