“Why is it that in conversations about ‘sustainability’ we talk about vegetables but not about people?” Ben Miller of South Philly Barbacoa and Masa Cooperativa asked me. He’s right—look to the list of lauded and celebrated restaurants of any given moment, and it’s almost certain that the pedigreed agricultural origins of the ingredients, not the treatment of a restaurant’s workers, will be the signifiers-of-choice for restaurant morality and equality, and for customer health and wealth. Yes, responsible food origins from land and soil are vitally important, but what about the worker who grew and picked the crops? Or the driver who loaded and delivered the case? Or the prep cook who washed, chopped, and processed them, the line cook who plated the dish, and the food runner who dropped it at your table? Out of the canon of “notable and prestigious” restaurants, projects prioritizing the ecosystem of labor around and within restaurants are few and far between. Fewer still are worker-owned cooperative restaurants. To paraphrase art historian and theorist Linda Nochlin: Why Have There Been No Great Worker-Owned Restaurants? Silly questions deserve long answers.
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