With every violent Gordon Ramsay outburst, every drama-filled season of Top Chef, and every viral Guy Fieri restaurant review, the image of the rock-star chef gets more deeply ingrained in pop culture. At this point it’s a full-fledged character trope; if you need proof, just look back at Bobby Flay’s on-screen affair with Ari Gold’s wife in season eight of Entourage.
But not all chefs are using their platform for cameo roles on scripted HBO shows and personally branded lines of mediocre cookware. The new age of Food Network–induced stardom has also ushered in a new chef hybrid: the chef activist. These foodie do-gooders have set their sights on America’s school lunch system, corporate farms, GMO labels, and childhood hunger. Even Mario Batali wore his orange clogs to a few anti-fracking rallies this year.
But they’ve also been met with criticism. In October, British restaurant critic Jay Rayner wrote an article titled “Being a chef doesn’t make you an agent of social change.” He argues that “taking massively extravagant ingredients and processing them into finely honed dishes for people with big bank balances” doesn’t qualify one as an expert on global food crises.
But do you really have to understand geopolitical game theory to create positive, measurable change? Does Jamie Oliver’s lack of expertise on international agribusiness somehow negate the fact that he made America’s broken school lunch system a matter of national political importance?
If a chef has the platform and ability to champion positive social ideals, there’s no reason he or she shouldn’t do it. This was a huge year for changing food policies—here are five chef activists who played paramount roles.