Earlier this month, Salesforce sponsored a conversation with Chef Roy Choi in L.A. Of course, Roy, who was born in South Korea but grew up in southern California, is way more than a chef. Yes, he made his bones in the kitchens of New York and L.A., but he is also an entrepreneur credited by the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain (no less) with transforming the curbside food truck into a healthy, delicious, gourmet experience that everyone can have. And afford. It's no coincidence he was included in TIME’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2011 and 2016.
The conversation in L.A. ranged from how Roy’s efforts to bring good, healthy food to various communities has evolved, and why some communities have received support while others haven’t. In one exchange, Roy remarked that "if all the chefs around the world would say, 'we're going to change the food system,' what would people say? They'd have to say yes. Or else we'd stop cooking."
It got a nice laugh in the room. But another way to look at it is that the real power to change comes not from chefs, but from the people who visit and patronize restaurants.
Which got me thinking. Where does the power to change really come from?
The way I saw Roy’s words was that change could come from anywhere. That anyone, anywhere in the system could turn it upside down. Just substitute the profession. Literally, all that's required is a frame of mind that understands itself well-enough to know it has the power to change — as well as the confidence and security to try.
That’s a super-empowering notion and it has deep implications for the way people think about themselves and do business. It makes us all masters of our own worlds and responsible to our own values for making the world into what we want it to be. We aren't servants to the world we find ourselves in; we're active agents. (Which, I think, sits near or at the heart of entrepreneurism.)
So is it wrong to say that real change in the food system needs to come from restaurant patrons? As the source of the money that keeps any restaurant open, their presence makes a huge difference. Their patronage, in this way of thinking, is the only way people will change behavior.
But how many people who frequent fancy restaurants really care about the machinery behind the amazingly delicious food they are ordering? If people knew how much food is wasted, and how many people go hungry, and are malnourished even a few blocks from the restaurant they’re in, would they stop going to the restaurant?
For me, an interesting answer is found in the book, Switch. In it, Dan and Chip Heath recount the story of Jerry Sternin who was tasked by the Save the Children organization to address malnourishment in young children in Vietnam. The problem's underlying causes were well-accepted: lack of education and poverty. The authors call these “True But Useless” facts. Simply put, it would take so much machinery to change either one of those things, that it is impossible to do anything.
So what did Jerry, who was given this task, do?
Without a staff or money, he focused on villages where kids were developing and growing at the proper rate. In these “bright-spots” he found parents preparing the same amount of food for kids as in places where kids were not doing well, but serving it four times a day, instead of two. This made a difference because kids have small stomachs and were more likely to leave no calories behind if those calories were spread out over a day. Additionally, he found that parents in these places added shrimp from nearby rice paddies and sweet potatoes to the dishes for extra nutrition.
Jerry asked these parents to teach people in other villages to make these small changes — empowering them and turning them into agents of change.
At the end of his time in Vietnam, the root issues accepted as the cause of the malnourishment still flourished: there was still large scale poverty and lack of education. But there were a growing number of Vietnamese kids eating well and developing as they should with a better diet. Had Jerry thought he needed to change the way the government spent money or educate people differently to effect change, he would not have been wrong, but he most likely would have failed, according to the book.
Similarly, had Roy decided to try to change the way restaurant patrons think about the restaurant system, he most likely would’ve gotten nowhere. It’s too big an ask. But just as Jerry realized the power of individuals to take action and change in smaller ways, Roy knew that a chef — as someone who can control how food is dealt with in the kitchen — had a power that could make an immediate and direct difference to people for good.
Stepping back a bit further, Roy’s words suggest something truly powerful: No matter where you are in the “org chart” of life, you have the power to shape the future. It's a power that might seem small to begin with, but can have a deep impact for good for others.
We are, in other words, all chefs. And we all have power to create a new path in our businesses, our careers, our communities, and our lives. And what can people do but say yes. Because if they don’t, we can all stop cooking.
To hear more from Roy Choi about the trails he's blazing to bring better food to communities in need, check out our full summary of the MakeChange event in L.A.