Sarah Stegner has long been an advocate for the farmers who supply the vegetables and produce for her restaurant. Stegner help found Green City Market back in 1999 which helped ignite a new awareness for supporting local farmers in bringing attention to the importance of a sustainable supply chain for Chicago’s restaurants.
Since the pandemic, the industry has transformed with workers demanding better pay and better treatment from their employers. In order to attract talent, chefs like Rick Bayless need new revenue streams to offset the losses from the suspension of indoor dining and other costs suffered last year. Twenty-two years after Green City, Stegner sees a new challenge.
“They need to be able to pay their bills,” says Stegner, who operates her own restaurant, Prairie Grass Cafe, in suburban Northbrook.
That’s why Stegner and Green City Market board member Darren Gest, a principal at Deloitte Consulting, have created Event|Full, a new platform and website designed to promote unique events like backyard happy hours with One Off Hospitality’s Paul Kahan that discuss gardening or special dinner exploring barbecue hosted by Luella’s Southern Kitchen’s Darnell Reed with a companion event that talks about the origins of the dishes. The chefs will get to keep all the profits from sales of their events.
Stegner, a James Beard Award winner, pondered what she could do to help give farmers and chefs a new revenue stream. Chefs, like Stegner, took to Instagram and Zoom for virtual events during the pandemic. But those events were lacking, and chefs couldn’t keep all the profits. Stegner yearned for a better way to connect with her customers, a way they could come together to “support each other and their passions.”
Gest says chefs “play an elevated role in society” and feels that diners want to hear the people who make their meals: “It’s not just the food and restaurant construct,” Gest says.
Gest and Stegner say they want to stress “moments that matter” between chefs, farmers, and diners. The platform gives them a way to monetize content with more control, allowing them to go below the surface in ways social media forums won’t allow. For instance, if a chef, say like Parachute’s Beverly Kim, wants to talk about issues facing mothers in the industry including why many employers don’t offer proper maternity leaves, she’ll have a new way to connect with her fans, a channel that colleagues like Bayless and others could also support.
Instagram and other channels can be too shallow for some discussions, Bayless says. Bayless, who has often been the subject of discussion regarding cultural appropriation, compared the subtleties to extractive tourism. In the culinary world, the practice is apparent when American chefs vacation in countries to scout foreign restaurants with the intention of bringing recipes and techniques back home with them without giving back to the culture they’re taking from.
“They have to understand what’s behind the experience,” Bayless says, adding he wasn’t trying to sound “hippy dippy.” “To understand how to participate in more than the way of tourism itself.”
Through this platform, Bayless is hopeful to connect with his fans to provide them the cultural context. He’s been very passionate about increasing worker wages, and this gives him yet another way to push that agenda. Stegner wants to make the platform open to all chefs who are committed to two tenets: 1. To continue Green City’s mission of supporting a local and sustainable food supply. 2. To show a commitment to equity in their restaurants.
The second part is an important one for Gest. Restaurant owners have griped about how government relief programs have distributed funds. It’s especially demoralizing for owners who see bad actors, ones that are in the news for sexism and racism in their workplaces, receiving funds from government entities.
Bayless, Kahan, Kim, and Stegner are part of a lineup of heavy hitters that includes Darnell Reed (Luella’s Southern Kitchen), Carrie Nahabedian (Kostali), Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe), Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno), Paul Virant (Gaijin), Barry Sorkin (Smoque BBQ), Sandra Holl (Floriole Cafe & Bakery), and Arshiya Farheen (Verzênay). The platform will eventually add farmers, giving them a way to talk directly with Chicago-area customers.
Reed was delighted to be included in the group. He comes from working at hotels, and doesn’t have the same network as a Black chef as his colleagues. The restaurant world can be notorious for gatekeeping, something that alienates chefs like Reed from learning best practices and exchanging ideas with other chefs. Event|Full aims to dissolve this clubhouse atmosphere.
“I know I didn’t have them,” Reed says about connections within Chicago’s culinary world. “I knew that part was missing from me.”
Sorkin operates Smoque, one of the city’s most reputable barbecues. He marvels at Bayless and other established chefs who have made great strides when it comes to responsibility sourcing food and reducing waste. Sorkin supports those values, but struggled with implementing them. Now, thanks to Stegner and Gest, he has access to a new network of chefs he can rely on for support.
“I think this group is even more than I expected,” Sorkin says.