Putting Chicago's violence on the table

CLAVERING, England — In this rural Essex village stands The Cricketers, the once-quiet pub that launched the career of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who first cooked in his parents' kitchen. Trevor and Sally Oliver's place has grown with their son's huge fame and influence: Autographed copies of his new book are available behind the bar, and the pub proudly notes that its vegetables are supplied by Jamie Oliver's organic garden, which is nearby.

Some celebrity chefs have cultivated images of flashy entrepreneurs cooking for the trendy and wealthy. Jamie Oliver's strategy has been different: Despite owning a fleet of restaurants and endorsement deals, he mostly has set out to make his name, and colossal fortune, by improving the food, and thus the lives of ordinary people. Although only 37, he has taken on the daunting task of improving school lunches in Britain, a culinary experience generally thought of as occupying the bottom of the food chain, and succeeded in coaxing the British government to invest 280 million pounds (about $425 million) in kids' midday meals. And he spun off the notion of children's diets into a U.S. TV series focusing on obesity in Huntington, W.Va., and poor nutrition in Los Angeles. These efforts haven't always worked — social change and good TV have oft-contradictory aims. And some have, of course, noted the omnipresent cameras and cult of personality. Still, Oliver was voted "most inspiring political figure" in a British TV network's 2005 poll.

Note that term: political figure. Which brings me to Chicago and Rick Bayless.

At a Tribune event a couple of weeks ago, Bayless noted, with some amazement, how far chefs have come in the last couple of decades, moving from unseen figures in the kitchen to cultural leaders whose opinions now are sought out and followed. As Americans have better understood the myriad consequences of what they put in their bodies, the power and prestige of the teaching chef has greatly increased. As Bayless noted, it is a dazzling transformation. One generation ago, chefs were regarded as people who had not succeeded at more traditional professions. Now they open their mouths and people listen. Oliver moved from The Cricketers to transforming the lunchtimes of millions of British kids.

So what is Chicago's most pressing problem? Young people shot dead on the city's streets. What is one of Chicago's most important cultural assets? Brilliant, powerful, influential, world-famous chefs. Perhaps it's time to put those two things together.

The notion of a bunch of chefs solving gang violence might sound strange: Shootings would not, on the surface, appear to have anything to with food.

Or do they?

I asked Bayless outright what he would do to curb the killing in Chicago, and he spoke not only of the consequences of eating nothing but processed junk, which does nobody any good, and the aching need to somehow find a way to get farms closer to the murder-plagued Chicago neighborhoods of the South and West sides, but also about the importance of the "communal table."

If we have such a table in our lives, he argued, where we break bread, preferably fresh bread, with those around us, our mental health improves and our petty disputes are less likely to end with someone being shot. Especially if that someone was at the same table for dinner. That is not just Bayless talking, but a truth with plenty of research behind it. Studies at Columbia University, Rutgers and elsewhere have shown that communal meals have a plethora of benefits, especially in an era when food is a cheap and ubiquitous commodity and often not appreciated for its sustenance. Meals don't just feed us, they are cultural rituals that civilize us. A good meal might actually stop a murder.

So how does one put that into practice in the communities that need it most? A daunting question? Sure. But it should not be beyond the great chefs of Chicago, if they are convened around this problem, and if city leaders are willing to listen.

Oliver, of course, had the benefit of a TV megaphone to move politicians and sway public opinion. Most Chicago chefs, maybe even Bayless, don't have that level of exposure or media control. You typically have to leave Chicago to get such a thing. But the chefs of Chicago are, by nature and practice, innovators and revolutionaries. And Bayless is by no means the only chef with ideas that go far beyond the traditional boundaries of the field.

Take Homaro Cantu of the Moto Restaurant in the Fulton Market district; here's a man who was homeless when he was a little kid, who says he wants to use his experiments in molecular gastronomy to help fight world hunger. How about we make it possible he apply some of those ideas, right now, to helping change the culture of violence in Chicago? Bring Stephanie Izard to that table; invite Art Smith (he's an evangelist when it comes to kids and nutrition); coax Grant Achatz (he has one of the best creative minds in Chicago). And that's just for starters.

Perhaps it's pie in the sky to imagine one of Chicago's dangerous parks being filled this summer with tablecloths, baguettes and fresh cheese, with kids invited to break bread with the kids from across the street, the kids with the different affiliations. That stuff all costs money. But so do emergency rooms. And as another hot and dangerous season approaches, it's not a time to wash up any ideas, especially not in a town with this level of culinary talent.

Of course, none of this is the only solution to what ails Chicago. But bring this city's chefs to the table and set down the problem of youth violence. Maybe Oliver would turn it into a TV show: "Chicago Chefs Stop the Killings." It would have to work. TV likes success stories most of all.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@chrisjonestrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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