In high school I hadn’t read a lot of books, but one that I had read was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. That book really resonated with me. It’s about a family that lost their farm during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. They lost absolutely everything. So, to make a living, they packed up whatever scarce belongings they could carry on their dilapidated old truck and headed west to California following the promise that they’d find work picking fruit.
But the promises turned out to be lies. Work was scarce, conditions in the migrant camps were miserable, and the pay was so low that the family could barely afford to buy enough food to survive on. It was a humiliating and degrading existence.
There’s a scene in the book where the camp has a square dance. And, even though they’re poor and their clothes are threadbare and worn, the ladies spend the morning washing and drying them in the sun. They scrub all of the children, too, and tie ribbons in their hair. And when the men return from work, they put on freshly washed overalls and clean shirts. The few who had them wore tattered bow ties, and everyone arrived at the dance with all the dignity they could muster, their heads held high.
In the 1980s, we also lost our family farm. Ours was done in when a catastrophic hailstorm destroyed all of our crops. We were forced to auction off everything ─ our farm, our equipment, even our house. We had a neighbor who kindly let us grow what we could on a piece of his land, and we started over from ground zero, traveling to farmer’s markets and selling whatever we could grow.
I own 18 pairs of overalls and 18 pressed white shirts. I wear clean ones every single day to always keep our family’s spirit of resilience and determination at the forefront of my mind. Because, no matter how bad things got, we never accepted defeat. With hard work and persistence, we faced an uncertain future with our heads held high, and the result is The Chef’s Garden.
In a way, coming to work every day is my way of showing up at the square dance. I wear my overalls and red bow tie to the most formal black tie events where I’ve met the world’s most famous and accomplished chefs. I have a picture of myself standing between Chef Alain Ducasse and Julia Child. I’m very proud of that picture. I even officiate weddings in this outfit.
I was touched and honored recently when a 12-member tour group arrived at the farm. Every single person was completely decked out in bib overalls, white shirts and red bow ties. Even though it was a lighthearted gesture, for me it was moving and a little emotional. So I took the opportunity to share the story with them, and now with you.
God knows I’m no John Steinbeck, but I feel a very strong kinship with his story and the history it contains. As our vegetables grow, I like to think they’re soaking up my family’s history from the very soil of the land beneath our feet, and that they’re flavored with the sweet taste of hard work and heart work, sorrow and blessings.
I wear this outfit as a uniform, steadfastly serving as a visual reminder of the people who grow the food that we put on our plates. "It's for every small farmer out there." he says "For everyone who has ever lost a farm, or dreamed of owning one. For the pride and integrity of what we do. Because if we don't respect it, who will?" - Eating Well Magazine