Real, Good Food: Chef-Advocate Maria Hines Serves up More than Dinner

Erik Fruth

Chef Maria Hines is an advocate for real, organic food. With a long-standing commitment to using seasonal and organic products, Hines was awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest in 2009, only three years after her critically acclaimed restaurant Tilth opened in Seattle. Since then, she has opened two more certified organic restaurants, Golden Beetle and Agrodolce, served as a founding board member for the Chef Action Network (CAN), and been inducted into the first American Chef Corps by the US Department of State.

Hines’ has collaborated with Washington policymakers on the Pulse Health Initiative to fight obesity, promoted rescued farmland and sustainable food with PCC Farmland Trust, and supported the Seattle-based government program Fresh Bucks to improve low-income food security. Food Tank spoke with Hines to find out more about her excellent work in sustainability.

Food Tank (FT): You’ve been a chef for over 20 years and worked all over the United States and in France. How did you develop and grow your passion for sustainability in food?

Maria Hines (MH): I grew up like most Americans thinking that food came frozen or in boxes and plastic wrap from the local grocery store. Peaches came in sugar water in a can. I didn’t know there was more than one type of fresh peach. Then when I was 18, my mentor took me to Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego. It was a farmstand, we walked the fields, and I ate raw vegetables. I really remember the fresh corn. It was like candy, so fresh, sweet and crunchy. I was hooked. It grew deeper in France where all the food came in fresh from the people who caught it, killed it, or grew it. The fish were whole; the vegetables still had dirt on them. It was all a revelation to me.

Those experiences started a life-long passion. Moving to Seattle only made it more intense. Here in the Northwest, we have access to great organic wines, beautiful milks and cheeses, the most amazing fruits and vegetables and the seafood! While growing seasons are short, we have so much available to us. Promoting these products – and the people that produce them – is really something that I feel it is our duty to do. Both for them and for our customers.

FT: Your work as a chef at three Seattle restaurants focuses on crafting well-executed meals that support the local organic community. What came first: the idea to use sustainable organic ingredients or the creation of the restaurants themselves?

MH: Nora Pouillon is one of my mentors. What she did with Restaurant Nora in DC is just amazing to think about. Hers was the first organic certified restaurant in the country and [my restaurant] Tilth was the second. It’s hard work to get that certification but so worth it. And it informs everything we do at the restaurants. We do it all – mill our own grains, source from small producers, help people grow their businesses. It’s selfish, really, but if I wanted to use cream from Fresh Breeze Cream, we had to help them figure out a delivery system.  We’ve helped ranchers out in Skagit River Ranch understand the type and size of animals we need at the restaurants. So when we think about each menu, we’re always thinking about the food.

FT: You are a founding advisory board member of the Chef Action Network (CAN), a former board member for the PCC Farmland Trust, and a supporter of the Seattle-based Fresh Bucks program. How has your advocacy work grown alongside your work as a chef?

MH: Chefs are trusted members of the community. We feed people every day. People trust us with their everyday comfort and their most special moments. I recognize that and to honor that trust I wanted to find other ways to give back. I just didn’t want to cook at fundraisers for every charity in Washington. While that is useful and I still do it, I wanted to do more. The James Beard Foundation invited me to their first Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, and that’s where I met all these other chefs who were having the same thought – how do we do more, how do we use our voice to make a difference? After the Boot Camp, I came back and got deeper into the big issues such as antibiotic reform, seafood sustainability, climate change, school food. There are so many issues, and it was just as overwhelming as how to build a sustainable, organic restaurant group. So that’s when we started the Chef Action Network (CAN). CAN is really there to help chefs decide which issues they want to get more involved with and build partnerships so their voices have real impact.

The Fresh Bucks program is one way that I do that; it’s such an important program. It literally puts more food into the hands of low-income families. By matching food stamps dollar for dollar, Fresh Bucks allows families to buy more fresh produce at farmers markets. It is a win-win for everyone. Farmers sell more. Families eat better. It’s awesome.

FT: What unique role can chefs – in addition to policymakers or advocacy groups – play in transforming current food systems into ecologically sustainable ones?

MH: Chefs play important roles throughout the food system. In our restaurants and at the table, we can help educate our customers on better, more sustainable food choices. We promote farmers, fishermen, small dairies – all the places where we buy from. That helps change customer’s minds about what is delicious, and they start looking for things in the local market. We are also very active in our community doing everything from fundraisers to cooking demos in schools to helping with farm education programs.

Chefs are everywhere. We can help shape public policy. As a chef-owner of four restaurants in Seattle I’m employing hundreds of people, helping promote other local businesses and that’s all economics. So when chefs like me go into a member of Congress’ office or into the Governor’s office, we’re going as more than just someone whose restaurant they like.

FT: In your experience, how exactly do chefs bridge the gap between food producers and food consumers? What insight can they offer up in the broader conversation about sustainable food systems?

MH: As chefs, we have the privilege of supporting farmers keep farming by buying their product and having food consumers taste first-hand why sustainable food works for their health, the land, and their palate! Food consumers and my staff have had the pleasure of eating Pete Knutson’s salmon, King’s Garden’s tomatoes, Aspen Hollow’s lamb, and so many more through the table of Tilth, Agrodolce, and Golden Beetle.

FT: What inspires you to continue your work? What are some of your proudest moments?

MH: Winning the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Northwest in 2009 was pretty awesome, helping build the Chef Action Network, the relationships with all of the farmers that are our partners in creating delicious food, traveling and collaborating with my chefs. I get to do so much and it's pretty damn cool.

FT: How can our readers get involved with what you do?

MH: People can follow the Chef Action Network at @ChefAction, they can learn more about Fresh Bucks. I would also encourage people to shop and buy more local products. Here in Seattle it feels like the norm but it isn’t in the rest of the country. There are so many cool farmers, dairies, ranchers, fishermen – seek them out, talk to them, buy from them. Your stomach will thank me.