The world of food is overwhelming. There are the farmers, harvesters, truck drivers - people planting, cultivating, and shipping fresh products around the world. Then there are the restaurateurs and retailers putting this fresh produce on the shelves to tempt our bellies! Millions of people work behind the scenes in each stage, from field to plate. It’s a lot. Over time, we created extremely fine-tuned systems. But these systems are not perfect.
Now, numerous people are working to create a more sustainable and just food system. One of them is Erik Oberholtzer.
Erik has been in the food game for over 30 years. He worked in restaurants around the world and started his own successful restaurant company, Tender Green. In the past 15 years, he’s been working in sustainable food supply chains and food justice. We’re fortunate at Toastee to speak with Erik on his journey disrupting the food world and extending the everyday joys of life.
Your work is from biodiversity to supply chain sustainability and the Sustainability Life Program. Could you tell us about what you've been doing for the past year?
I moved to Princeton, New Jersey about a year ago. We bought a small farm, just outside of town, where we grow heirloom vegetables and native flowers. I work with The Crop Trust, The Rodale Institute, and others to advance the value of biodiversity in our food systems. There's also native food on the property, like cattails, wild mushrooms, wild berries, and wild horseradish. As a chef, I translate them into something delicious and relatable.
I also help founders of food brands, restaurants, and consumer product goods transition their supply chain from conventional or commodity to organic. I do that in a way that helps both their bottom line and differentiates them as a brand.
I work a lot with people on scaling good behavior. We successfully proved with Tender Greens that you could do good food for everybody, not just the privileged few, and do it at scale.
I work in advocacy, whether it's with Foodtank, The Crop Trust, UN Food Systems, Google Food Lab, and the Rodale Institute. I have my hands involved in the long view, high-level work of food sustainability, as well as the day-to-day handling of the farm.
If we go back to the beginning of your journey, what inspired you to become a chef?
Though I had a good relationship with food growing up, it was never something that I imagined doing professionally. Back then, very few Americans went into food at a high level. Most of the chefs were coming from Europe.
In college, I worked for the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, and I fell in love with elevated hospitality. This was the mid to late 1980s when California Wine was coming of age, and the original slow food movement was happening in Berkeley and San Francisco. I was tracking it from afar through Wine Spectator and Gourmet Magazine. The more I read, the more I was drawn to it. Food and hospitality were more interesting than what I was studying in college.
I graduated with a degree in Psychology with the option to go to graduate school or law school, but neither one appealed to me. I was drawn to food and beverage. I felt it was a skill that could take me anywhere in the world.
In my freshman year in college, a student asked my humanities professor, “How do you define success?” This was 1986-1987 when Donald Trump and the zero-sum game were in full swing. This professor saw himself as a Hemingway character. He said, “It's very simple to me. You find a job that is intellectually challenging, stimulating, and affords you with enough resources, so that at the end of every night you can sit down to a well-prepared meal, a beautiful glass of wine, and the company of your choice."
It was that simple. It became my lifestyle mantra. The celebrations of daily life versus the very American attitude of you work till you win, sleep when you're dead. I began moving in that direction of living and doing things that I was passionate about. It took me to Paris, San Francisco, Hawaii, and other places. Not on vacation, but to live in flow.
When did you come to California and what inspired you to start Tender Greens?
There was something special happening in Napa Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area in particular.
I went to Johnson and Wales University in North Carolina so that I could live, work, and go to school in the city. Plus, they had an exchange program. I spent my second year cooking and living in Paris. When I came back, I moved to Berkeley, California, and worked with Bradley Ogden of Lark Creek. He is one of the pioneers of the slow food, farm-to-table generation. The East Coast was influenced by Europe, but California was all about ingredients, which is what I wanted to focus on.
The seed to start my restaurant was planted years before opening. I was working in the very luxurious world of expense accounts and one-percenters. But, in the Mission District of San Francisco, there is this place called Pancho Villa. I was standing in line thinking to myself, “Wow, this is so efficient and so democratized. Everybody from the mayor to the guys working on the street could be in line eating together. How could I do this while making the food that I do?”
When I was at Shutters in Santa Monica, I looked at the landscape of Los Angeles. It was very high-end and low-end, with not much in the middle. I saw an opportunity with a price point that was above fast food but well below the places that I had worked at. I wanted to create a place that could be spontaneous and fit a busy lifestyle. It was also the kind of food that I would cook at home for friends. Simple, relatable, crave-able, inherently healthy. A celebration of balance, never overly indulgent.
When we opened, it was incredibly successful. We had lines down the street in Culver City. With Sony Studios, we had all these creatives that worked in the area. Everybody came through and created a lot of opportunities for us. We filled a need in the neighborhood.
Is that when you got into supply chain sustainability?
My approach, my understanding, my philosophy shifted when I got to California. In San Francisco, everything came in fresh every day from farmers that we knew. We would go to the market in Marin County three times a week with a van and load up. That became my standard as a chef. I developed direct relationships with farmers who grew ingredients that were better than anybody else. If it wasn't available locally, we wouldn't put it on the menu.
When I wrote the menu for Tender Greens, I would write a menu supported by farmers with whom I had a relationship. One of the early innovations was an equity deal with Scarborough Farms in Ventura. They gave us lettuce. We gave them equity. It was a true partnership, not a farmer-chef relationship.
That model secured our key ingredients in terms of quality, price, and supply. We were sourcing where Wolfgang Puck and the best chefs in the city sourced their ingredients. It was the same ingredients Spago in Beverly Hill and Shutters in Santa Monica used but for a fifth of the price and a bigger portion. Our goal was to show that we could do as well, or better, in terms of quality than the fancier restaurants and hotels in the city.
How did you start the advocacy and the social entrepreneurship side of things?
It's a bit like oxygen theory. If you're on a plane and you need oxygen and you have a child with you, you take the oxygen first. Once you take care of yourself, you give it to the child because if you’re unconscious, you can’t help. It's the same thing with business. You have to be healthy as a business first. Our first goal was to make sure we were stable, healthy, and profitable.
However, through your business practices and culture, you can do a lot of good along the way. If you're supporting small farmers versus big agriculture, you're doing good. If you're creating pathways to career growth for folks who may otherwise have been left out, you're doing good. If you're bringing better food to those who previously didn't have access, you're doing good. The tenets of conscious capitalism are that everything you do should have a positive impact.
I have been frustrated by homelessness since moving to Philadelphia for college. Living in Venice Beach, I volunteered with a group called Stand Up for Kids. We would do Wednesday night meals. The kids got a hot meal, but it's just feeding symptoms. It's not addressing the root cause. As I got to know these kids and built a relationship and trust, it became clear that most of them needed stability. I believe that if I provided a job, some mentorship, access to good food, a sense of family and belonging, and an achievable path forward, we could change people's lives.
Back in the Four Seasons days, there were folks from neighborhoods who carried a lot of behaviors that were not appropriate for the Four Seasons. As soon as they walk through the doors, put on the uniform, they transform. A culture of care and clear values transformed people. We believed that our culture at Tender Greens was strong. We could handle some of the dysfunction that would invariably be invited in as we helped to redesign and reshape those behaviors into something functional, productive, and positive over time.
We had a lot of success with it, and we had a lot of failures. But, there was a problem going unsolved and we believe that we can make a difference. If we make a difference and inspire people, we might be able to scale that change. It's not just through scaling the program as we grow but by encouraging others to do something. It doesn't have to be food. It can be technology. It can be entertainment. It could be whatever.
Now, you’re exploring your passion for regenerative farming. When did you get into it?
It started a few years earlier. I didn't know a lot about it, but I was always searching for new heirloom varieties as a chef because they were more interesting. I was supporting it without fully understanding the layers to it.
Then I was invited to a dinner in Beverly Hills some years ago where Marie Haga, who was the new director of the Executive Director of The Crop Trust, was speaking. By chance or privilege, I sat next to her at dinner. We connected, and that started a long relationship with Marie and The Crop Trust.
I started bringing in rare seeds nobody had access to and testing them out with various farmers. If we found something awesome, we would scale that up and get it into the food system. My work with The Crop Trust got me deeper and deeper into agrobiodiversity.
Then wild systems and indigenous food wisdom sent me down another rabbit hole of discovery. It overlaps with regenerative organic agriculture, agrobiodiversity, climate change, and the spectrum of flavors and textures. I don't consider myself a seed scientist, but my role in this movement is to find edible pathways to communication. When you are in a room full of climate scientists, seed scientists, or soil scientists and policy people from the UN the World Wildlife Fund, it can get pretty clunky and boring - but it's not to say it's not important.
My role is to take little nuggets, figure out how we can commercialize them, and then plant some of those seeds in the food culture in a way that is digestible for people who are not thinking about it all the time. They may be the beneficiaries of regenerative agriculture or biodiversity, but they don’t have to fully understand it. They just have to know it’s delicious and want more of it. Maybe, they’ll find their way to advocacy or a deeper understanding, or maybe they’ll support it as a consumer.
What is the story you want to tell through your advocacy and food?
That good and positive change and better outcomes can be delicious and poetic. We can shape the world that we all want and give ourselves great pleasures, moments, and micro indulgences along the way.
There’s this misunderstanding of food that if it's healthy, it's not good. If it’s good for the environment, it might be expensive or it might be hard to get. I think it's the opposite. Food prepared from a diverse field of ingredients is far more interesting than the 4 ingredients that processed food and big agriculture are built on.
We’re in tomato season right now. At the point when you just can’t have another tomato, they’re out of season, something else comes, and you wait for next year. You celebrate the diversity of the ingredients available to you when they’re here. That’s part of the connection to the Earth rhythm and the poetry of life. I know I’m saying while overlooking green meadows. But in bringing bits of that to people, they’ll feel better, the community would be more interesting, less generic and corporate, and ultimately the planet is going to benefit. It takes everybody.
Erik Oberholtzer is a regenerative chef, social entrepreneur, food activist, practitioner of mindfulness, co-founder of Tender Greens, and advisor at Cohere. He sits on the boards of organizations like the Rodale Institute and Food Forever 2020, as well as regularly writes for The Rolling Stone magazine. You can keep up to date with Erik @ErikOberholtzer on Instagram and Twitter.