Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles was there. So was Sonya Curry, representing her daughter-in-law, food star Ayesha Curry. The James Beard Foundation, the New York-based culinary foundation, sent a delegation, including chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis.
And it all happened in Charlotte on Wednesday night, in a crowded private room at Upstream in SouthPark.
Why they were there is harder to explain. The reception, which also included Upstream executive chef Gene Kato, who has recently been turning the restaurant’s menu on its head with more innovative cooking techniques, was a kickoff for a new program that’s aimed at bringing chef attention to in-state produce at Walmart.
The two people behind all this are John Fogelman and Cristina Magno Patwa, the CEOs of a Los Angeles-based company, www.factorymade.com, that puts together Hollywood talent for a lot of ventures, from El Rey, a channel on the Latino network Univision, to products. They were also involved (somehow, because who understands the workings of Hollywood?) in convincing producers to turn the Transformers toy brand into a movie.
Their new baby is Rediscovering America, a program that aims at matching chefs and farmers in five cities with produce that’s locally grown and sold in Walmart. Yes, part of the idea is taking the cheap-food stigma away from Walmart, which has pledged that 25 percent of its produce will be organically grown in the U.S. by 2025.
Another part of the program is a potential documentary series on the five chefs and farmers, possibly hosted by Curry, a Charlotte native and wife of basketball star Steph Curry — and a restaurateur, TV star and cookbook author in her own right — who has signed on as a Factorymade.com partner.
The final part of it is that Factorymade has gotten the James Beard Foundation’s considerable clout to draw attention to the program to make the rest of us want to use the vegetables the chefs are using. It’s part of the foundation’s mission to focus on food all over the country, not just the glamorous places like New York and Los Angeles.
Drop those magical letters “JBF” and chefs tend to sit up and pay attention.
Here’s clout: Lyles, who surely had a packed agenda on the day when the Republican National Committee announced that it’s most likely to bring the 2020 convention to Charlotte, slipped in to say a few words at the kickoff in front of a group of specially selected Charlotte food media influencers.
The five chefs in the pilot program are Kato, a Charlotte native who has recently returned after a long stint in Chicago; Brittany Anderson of Metzger Bar & Butchery in Richmond (the only chef who didn’t come in for the kickoff event); Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & the Till in Tampa, Florida; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in Houston; and Rui Liu of Masterpiece in Duluth, Georgia, near Atlanta. The North Carolina farmer featured was Randy Bailey of Bailey Farms in Oxford, N.C., whose peppers are featured on Kato’s menu.
How did they pick those five cities, including Charlotte? Fogelman says they used a Wharton School of Business grad to create an algorithm that looked at 10,000 to 15,000 restaurants nationwide, searching for cities that have a lot of financial attributes, from affordable housing and access to affordable food (AKA, Walmart locations) to affordable artisan restaurants and chefs with cultural diversity.
Magno Patwa, the daughter of immigrants herself, came up with the idea of focusing on American food systems and got interested in the idea of pairing chefs, local farmers and Walmart because of research that shows young adults — aka millennials — have both a love of Instagrammable fine dining and budget food shopping. This is all sort of a way to bring those things together.
For Charlotte, what does it mean? The national culinary spotlight tends to go where the James Beard Foundation points it, and right now that attention is starting to focus on less-flashy cities that still have growing food scenes.
So keep an eye out for Ayesha Curry, discreet messages at the bottoms of menus about North Carolina-grown food that came from Walmart, and Gene Kato. Definitely watch out for Gene Kato.