There is a network in the United States of food professionals and chefs looking to advance their understanding of food. It’s 40,000 people strong, a number that has grown substantially since the network’s inception in the early 90s.
“By cultivating our national community, we foster connections, facilitate educational experiences, amplify inspirational stories across the U.S., and share resources,” says the network’s leader.
And while this work has a national foundation, a much more local footprint is forming. It’s a powerful one, too, rooted in the fight for equity in the food system, understanding that chefs and food professionals play a critical role in that fight.
This is Chef’s Collaborative. And this is their Knoxville story.
David Thomasson was born into a restaurant world. It was a time before the tourist boom had really hit his small hometown in southern Florida, a time when everything in his mother’s restaurant was made from scratch and, as he says, “Florida was still an agriculture state.” It feels whimsical to hear him talk about it.
Born into a coastal town, Thomasson spent time every week heading to the market for his family’s restaurant. By age 14, he was practically running the kitchen, stopping in during his lunch hour to make sure things were running smoothly. “That was my beginning with food.”
Fast forward through his life and you will see a very powerful relationship with food emerging. He spent ample time working in kitchens until he graduated with his first college degree from the University of Florida. And while he worked for the next 40 years advancing in a bio-conservation and environmental science career, most recently in the eastern Tennessee region, he returned to school somewhere along the way to earn a second degree in Physical Geography and a graduate degree in Cultural Geography, focusing in on what he calls “the cultural side of agricultural systems in the Caribbean.”
By day he was an environmental scientist, but by night his connection with food seemed to be growing. “All along the way, food has been on the tip of my tongue and brain one way or another,” he says.
When retirement began approaching, Thomasson was ready to take the next step into the culinary industry. He started catering and cooking—first with beer reps in the region to get a taste of the local industry. But when a throat cancer diagnosis caused a need for his diet to change, so too did his relationship with food.
Radiation took out his saliva glands; he needed to approach what he ate differently. “The natural change for me was to focus on foods that were moist,” he says. “At the same time, I was trying to design in my brain how to make a future living from food.”
The design eventually did come. And the result was the idea for a crêpe food cart.
“I went to Washington, D.C. and watched a man make crêpes at a farmers market for three days. With that, I started moving into the chefs livelihood and orientation.”
The Birth of a Local
It was around the time Thomasson was getting his cart together that he learned about a national organization called Chefs Collaborative. Founded in 1993 by a group of visionary chefs, the organization works to inspire, educate, and celebrate chefs and food professionals building a better food system.
“[These chefs] recognized the impact of food choices on our collective personal health, the vitality of cultures, and the integrity of the global environment,” says Holly Haddad, national Executive Director of Chefs Collaborative. “They recognized that chefs and food professionals are powerful change agents, and that their choices have the power to transform much more than just food.”
The organization seemed to be more than just celebrating chefs. It was rooted in supporting a strong, healthy and equitable food system. And it was this very idea that spoke so deeply to Thomasson. “I said, ‘Wow. This is what I’ve fought for my whole life from an environmental component: clean water, clean air, diversity’.” He immediately contacted Haddad about setting up a chapter—or “local” as the organization calls it—in the Knoxville region.
It wasn’t as simple as he hoped because Thomasson wasn’t technically a local chef at the time, but he became one shortly after when his food cart design came to fruition: Farm-to-Griddle Crêpes. “Today, I do street foods from all over the world, from tacos and Vietnamese food, to sandwiches and crêpes, even Mayan and Mexican food,” he says. And with everything he serves, he educates his customers on the food. “I advocate for everything that Chefs Collaborative believes in.”
With Thomasson at the helm, the Knoxville Local was officially formed, and while it is still in its infancy, Thomasson’s commitment seems to already have made an impact on the national network. “We are so impressed by the energy and dedication of our Knoxville Local group,” Haddad says. “It is a very collaborative community, and Dave is a strong champion of bringing people and businesses together.”
Those Who Do, Teach
Thomasson’s role as chef seems to come second to his role as educator. It’s one he speaks so vivaciously about. Within a matter of minutes of speaking with him, you are immersed in knowledge on the role chefs play in the sustainable food movement of today, on supporting the local farming and fishing economy, on human rights issues in the Asian seafood system, on the use of antibiotics on farm animals, on how the community in Florida he grew up in has lost all but one of its fishing docks. One might be overwhelmed with the topics covered, but not when you hear his passion for his work.
“My goal is to educate as I work through my kitchen, as I meet daily with the community,” he says. “I want to facilitate opportunities for chefs and the larger culinary community here to attend workshops, meal days, cookouts, social celebrations of food.”
So how does all of this education fit in to the Chefs Collaborative mission? Haddad sees it quite clearly, “A Local leader is a powerful manifestation of our core principles, and strong leaders are pivotal in elevating the food work of all our members. They provide the guidance and leadership to come together and form a community working to change menus and change lives.”
Change menus and change lives. That was really the concept behind the Knoxville Noodle Bowl series.
Thomasson came up with the idea a few years back to hold a noodle bowl festival as a fundraiser for a local nonprofit. This was before he started the Knoxville Local. Chefs from various restaurants would come together to put their own twist on the noodle bowl, and attendees would go station to station to taste the unique cuisine. The event was such a hit, that Thomasson brought it back the following year, planning for it to then become a series to raise money for Chefs Collaborative.
In the fall of 2017, the Noodle Bowl Festival, held at Hexagon Brewing, featured Thomasson, Chef Hux Jones of Balter Beer Works in Knoxville, and Chef Clark Barlowe of The Heirloom restaurant in Charlotte, N.C. (Barlowe heads up the Chefs Collaborative chapter in his own region.)
Jones met Thomasson after moving to the Knoxville region just two short years ago. Half Filipino, half African American, and raised in Japan for a good chunk of his life, Jones knew he could bring his unique background into the food he was cooking to create dialogue amongst his customers. “My role here is to open peoples’ eyes,” Jones says. “I am all about hard work, collaborating with people, local farmers and local businesses.”
Jones was ready to meet chefs in the local industry, and after meeting Thomasson at Hexagon, he joined Chefs Collaborative, got involved in the festival and is now finding new ways to make lasting culinary connections in the region and beyond.
More to Come
Events such as the Noodle Bowl Festival happen at Locals throughout the country. And the funds raised at these events go on to support the Chefs Collaborative’s national scholarship and education programs which provide member chefs and food professionals with professional development opportunities to learn about critical issues facing the food system. The funding additionally supports scholarships to the organization’s annual national Chef Summit.
While the Local here in eastern Tennessee is still in its infancy, it has taken off and Thomasson has big plans on the horizon for encouraging more culinary community collaboration. Workshops, breakdowns at cafes on closed days, picnic dinners to illuminate key food shed issues, these are all concepts Thomasson is hoping will come to fruition in the coming years.
“My goal is to have more and more chefs involved in education and being educated on the sustainable and delicious approaches to food,” he says. “I work around the clock to educate myself about being a chef.”
While there is no date set yet for the next noodle bowl festival, Thomasson says readers can contact him directly to get involved or simply remain on the email list for updates on what the organization is focusing on throughout the year. Visit chefscollaborative.org for more.