Food justice for all

There is nothing more vital to the success of a child than proper nutrition.

Growing up in and around Detroit in the 1970’s and 80’s, things weren’t always easy for my family or those of my friends. During those tough times, we relied on support from programs, including food stamps and no-cost school lunches. These weren’t always a long term need, but there were many times when support was crucial.

I believe strongly, my success in life and career directly correlate to the fact that I had nutrition assistance early in my life. My foundation of basic cooking skills, passed down from my immigrant grandparents, were integral when dollar stretching was necessary. Unfortunately, most of the families of kids’ who I grew up with didn’t have those basic skills. All of this stayed with me as I grew up. Went to school. Started my career.

Chef Joe Nader
Washtenaw Community College grad Joe Nader is executive chef at Ford Field. Chef Nader is responsible for feeding thousands of people at football games and other major events. Photo courtesy WCC

I am the Executive Chef for Levy Restaurants and The Detroit Lions NFL team. It took many years of school and work in the industry to obtain this, my dream job.

My love for cooking began early in life as I watched my Italian grandmother prepare food. She also utilized old world techniques and customs to extend the edible life of fruits and vegetables. This included gardening, canning and preserving foods as in the old country. It’s cool to see the trends in my industry returning to all those old world methodologies. It has become the vogue to maintain gardens, to can and preserve foods. I was so fortunate to utilize these skills when I first began working at 15 years old.

As I embarked upon my culinary journey, I never forgot those lean years. ‘Often recall snacks in a friend’s house, watching him eat the contents of ketchup packets in place of real food. I look back at that now, knowing in my heart that no child should ever endure such pain.

When I started working in restaurants there were many things that attracted me to the business. A few friends, and I, believed it would be a cool job because we believed we would be able to eat whatever we wanted at work. That notion was soon dispelled. However, I came to fall in love with the industry.

I learned quickly, expanding culinary skills is a tough job, although rewarding. Graduating from high school and beginning college, cooking skills afforded me a nice line of work to help with the bills. Working my way up from short order cooking, to pizza making, to full service high end restaurants, I was caught between finishing philosophy and political science degrees or this good job, that I found fun, but I never imagined it as long-term career. Thoughts of teaching (my Mother was a teacher) while just short of finishing school didn’t blind me from seeing the culinary path as a career option. I decided to take the culinary thing by the horns and went full steam in that direction instead.

I worked with Chef Susan Jo Carter, [currently Ikea food manager) who I now consider one of my mentors. She pushed me towards this path, encouraging me daily to attend culinary school. I was almost done with my degree at that point, and wasn’t thrilled to think about another two years of schooling. Yet her persistence moved me to enroll in culinary school and pursue chef skills.

Embarking on my career, in the kitchen I utilized the tough blue collar work ethic of Detroit auto workers. I loved the job so much, that it never felt like work. Each day I woke and couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen to learn more and cook.

Even though I was firmly on the professional chef track, I never forgot the lean days of my childhood and my friends eating ketchup from packets. I never forgot that while I was preparing food for the affluent, there were folks out there wondering where their next meal would come from. Consequently, I felt guilty and wondered what change I could make.

Birmingham Farmer's Market, Uhlianuk Farm booth. Oct. 9, 2016
Uhlianuk Farm booth at Birmingham Farmer's Market. Photo by Lisa Morin

As chefs, we teach and nurture our staff every day. We show them techniques and skills to elevate their craft. We also employ mathematics to almost every aspect of the kitchen. I remember the first time I was tasked with such a problem. I had a recipe that made 24 four-ounce portions, and I needed to make 200 two-ounce portions. It suddenly dawned on me that I needed to use an algebraic equation to translate the recipe for my needs! If teachers had only made things this practical in high school classes! I also realized, as a chef we are obligated to teach and pass down our knowledge to the next wave of young cooks and chefs.

All of these revelations started me contemplating. What was I doing as a chef to address the needs of my community? Is passing my knowledge down to my staff enough?

It also made me think back to my childhood, raising more questions. What if all the families with food insecurities were shown cooking skills and general nutrition education to stretch their tight budgets? My quest yielded a way to share my skill set.

I was very fortunate to discover Cooking Matters doing just such work; and they were not far from Ford Field where I work every day. Operated by Gleaners Food Bank, Cooking Matters is funded by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, SNAP Ed is part of the program formerly known as the federal food stamp program.

As a volunteer instructor for Cooking Matters, I teach basic cooking skills and general nutrition to kids in and around Detroit. I look around these classrooms and these kids remind me of my childhood friends. They are full of potential and eager to learn something as fundamental and fun as cooking. I also see the joy that good food brings.

It all finally makes sense to me. Connecting all the dots: dots from my childhood, dots to my education and dots to my career. I feel obligated as a chef to pass along this knowledge. I also felt obligated as a person, a person who received assistance in the past, to share what I know.

In an industry where we feed people for a living, it is imperative for chefs to become active in their communities. We must ensure that the basic skills of cooking and proper nutrition are passed on to the kids. We must become activists; we must ensure that our basic needs as citizens are met. My studies definitely played a role in my passion for helping others, as well as did my experiences early in life. We need to use not only our knowledge and skills, but also our influence.

I was very honored and thankful for an opportunity to use my influence when I was invited to testify before a Congressional hearing regarding food and nutrition. It is powerful for a chef, in their recognizable white chef coat to stand before the folks who make laws and govern our society and share what we know. We need to procure an environment where there is food justice for all.


Fusilier Family Farms booth at the Birmingham Farmer's Market. Main photo by Lisa Morin.


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