Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

From Ebru Baybara Demir to Anthony Myint, these chefs are humanitarian heroes

Many chefs are committed to humanitarian efforts and mobilise to provide help in extreme situations, such as in circumstances of war or when an earthquake kills several thousand people

Published: Jun 9, 2023 03:16:29 PM IST
Updated: Jun 9, 2023 03:40:04 PM IST

From Ebru Baybara Demir to Anthony Myint, these chefs are humanitarian heroesTurkish chef Ebru Baybara Demir has been awarded the Basque Culinary World Prize for her commitment both to the victims of the earthquakes in Turkey and to Syrian refugees. Image: Tansel Baybara

Supporting populations in wartime or after an earthquake, distributing food after a hurricane, initiating anti-obesity programs... many chefs are committed to making the world a better place and this isn't limited to extolling the virtues of agriculture that respects the environment and human beings. The latest chef in the spotlight for humanitarian efforts is Turkish chef Ebru Baybara Demir who was this week awarded the Basque World Culinary Prize for her commitment to helping Syrian refugees.

Highlighting a local ingredient, a farmer's story, ethical values around the food chain from soil to plate... Chefs frequently tell the media how important it is to them to highlight the people who provide the raw materials for their work—and for good reason. This forms part of their cooking philosophy and is an essential element in their respectful approach to cooking. But many chefs are also committed to humanitarian efforts and mobilize to provide help in extreme situations, such as in circumstances of war or when an earthquake kills several thousand people. Who can forget the mobilization and dedication of Chef José Andrés in the aftermath of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine? The Spanish-American chef founded the World Central Kitchen Association in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, bringing his team to the island to deliver food and basic necessities. The organization has since built its reputation by responding to natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 and Hurricane Ida in New Orleans in 2021. José Andrés' latest high-profile intervention was with Ukrainian refugees on the Polish border. In the spring of 2022, a Russian missile destroyed one of World Central Kitchen's freight trains in eastern Ukraine.

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Cooking as a tool of change for a better world

Since 2016, the Basque Culinary Center has been honouring chefs who contribute to society and make a positive impact beyond the kitchen, earning the award nickname of the Nobel Prize for Gastronomy. It's all about making use of the "transformative power of gastronomy" in a way that affects real change. The Spain-based award which is international in scope aims to "recognize chefs who take advantage of their knowledge, talent, creativity, and strength to be part of systemic changes demanded by our society," explains the BCC. And change can be found in many fields. In 2023, the jury, made up of such gastronomic luminaries as Joan Roca, Gaston Acurio and French chefs Michel Bras and Dominique Crenn, selected a laureate who is demonstrating, for example, that cuisine can be a tool for integration. From Turkey, the winning chef, Ebru Baybara Demir, hails from the town of Mardin, close to the Syrian border and a point of arrival for many Syrian refugees. She orchestrates the coming together of Turkish and Syrian populations in a project entitled "From soil to plate," which aims to combat female unemployment by reviving ancestral agricultural practices. Baybara Demir's work has already been recognized with the Terre de Femmes prize awarded by the Yves Rocher Foundation in 2019. Recently, chef Baybara Demir philanthropic efforts came to the forefront when she came to the aid of the victims of the two earthquakes that shook Turkey and Syria in February, killing over 50,000 people.

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The recipients of the Basque Culinary World Prize demonstrate the extent to which female chefs are at the heart of change. Back in 2022, Fatmata Binta was awarded the prestigious prize for her work on increasing recognition of the Fulani culture. The Sierra Leone-born chef has also launched a foundation in Ghana to give women the opportunity to become landowners through the cultivation and marketing of fonio, a West African grain that has recently come to the fore for its capacity to adapt to dry conditions, something increasingly essential in this era of climate change.

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In addition to improving conditions for women, children are also a focus of many award-winning chefs. In 2021, the Basque World Culinary Prize highlighted the importance of culinary education -- a central theme in the work of Spanish chef Xanty Elías's foundation, which works to structure healthier menus for children. Chefs' involvement in societal change is not limited to social issues. Cooks are also doing their bit for the planet. Californian chef Anthony Myint's "Zero Foodprint" system is proof of this: 1% of a restaurant bill is donated to farmers. The aim is to stimulate the implementation of regenerative farming (also known as carbon farming), a concept in line with permaculture that encourages producers to favour grazing so that carbon dioxide contained in the atmosphere is stored in the soil.