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Top Chefs Push Obama to Improve Food Policy

Top Chefs Push Obama to Improve Food Policy

Mary Clare Jalonick | Associated Press

WASHINGTON—Visiting one of his favorite Chicago restaurants in November, Barack Obama was asked by an excited waitress if he wanted the restaurant’s special margarita made with the finest ingredients, straight up and shaken at the table.

“You know that’s the way I roll,” Obama replied jokingly.

Rick Bayless, the chef of that restaurant, Topolobampo, says Obama’s comfortable demeanor at the table—slumped contentedly in his chair, clearly there to enjoy himself—bodes well for the nation’s food policy. While former President George W. Bush rarely visited restaurants and didn’t often talk about what he ate, Obama dines out frequently and enjoys exploring different foods.

“He’s the kind of diner who wants to taste all sorts of things,” Bayless says. “What I’m hoping is that he’s going to recognize that we need to do what we can in our country to encourage real food for everyone.”

Phrases like “real food” and “farm-to-table” may sound like elitist jargon tossed around at upscale restaurants. But the country’s top chefs, several of whom traveled to Washington for Obama’s inauguration this week, hope that Obama’s flair for good food will encourage people to expand their horizons when it comes to what they eat.

These chefs tout locally grown, environmentally friendly and—most importantly—nutritious food. They urge diners, even those who may never be able to afford to eat at their restaurants, to grow their own vegetables, shop at farmer’s markets and pay attention to where their food comes from.

Dan Barber, chef at New York’s popular Blue Hill restaurant and a frequent critic of the country’s food policy, says a few small gestures from the president and first lady Michelle Obama could accomplish what many of the chefs have been working toward for years.

“I recognize that I’m an elitist guy,” says Barber, who cooked a $500-a-plate meal for incoming Obama aides and other guests at a small charity fundraiser the night before the inauguration. “Increasingly raise awareness, but don’t do it through chefs like me. … My advice would be more of a symbolic nature, and to not underestimate what can be done through the White House.”

Barber said good food needs more publicity, and he hopes Obama and his wife will advertise what they are eating and what they are feeding their children, 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha.