Slow Food Leaders: Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell was standing alone in the middle of a rice field at Kensington Plantation in South Carolina on a visit to the Culinary Institute of Charleston (CIC), debating whether to take the job offered to him there as Chef Instructor. Suddenly, he felt a pull and thought to himself, “Kevin, you never know, your ancestors could have been right here, cultivating rice.” In that instant, he knew what his answer would be. But he still needed to talk to his grandmother.
From North to South
Growing up in New Jersey, Kevin graduated with degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and cooked in many different kitchens, including restaurants, country clubs, universities, hotels and casinos, from Ithaca to Atlanta to Detroit. While he always tried to incorporate education into his cooking — talking to children about healthy eating and helping out as a judge at culinary high school competitions — he was not a full-time educator. But when Kevin visited a soup-making class at the CIC, an African-American student approached him and said, “You have to take this job. We need a black chef here.” And his grandmother agreed. She gave him his love of food and is the reason he became a chef; she knew it was time for him to give back.
Kevin always wondered why, during his own professional development, he didn’t see any executive chefs or James Beard winners who looked like him. And with over 40% of CIC students identifying as African-American, he knew how much influence he would have on future chefs — white and black alike — just by walking in the door in his tall white chef’s hat with his academic credentials. After receiving his fair share of media coverage and buzz, this was more important than any accolade. Kevin doesn’t just have degrees from CIA. He also has a Master’s degree in southern studies (with a focus on southern food culture) from U. Mississippi, where he was a graduate assistant for the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of his mentors, John T. Edge. One of Mitchell’s goals is to be as influential a leader in food as John.
Bringing Slow Food to Life
His involvement in Slow Food began with the local Charleston chapter, which he joined to help people understand the importance of healthy eating, of locally grown products, and how to source products from people who are “morally sound,” treating their employees well and paying a fair wage. In essence, Kevin promoted food that was good, clean and fair in his work with the Charleston chapter. Upon returning to Charleston after his Master’s work on stories of formerly enslaved and freed cooks from Charleston who shaped southern food, Julie Shaffer asked him if he wanted to get involved at a national scale. Kevin decided that if he wanted his voice to be heard louder, this was a great opportunity. He was elected to the board of Slow Food USA in 2018.
“White or black, it doesn’t matter — We can all bring the tenets of Slow Food to life. I’m working to get people to think about it at the grocery store and farmers market. To ask questions, like how was this produced, who produced it, who’s in the field picking those peas, how are they being treated, and to make good decisions about choosing food.”
Whether at the chapter or national level, whether cooking at home or teaching in the classroom, Kevin encourages future cooks to join Slow Food or at least research the movement. He helps them to see that it’s not an elitist group that requires you to spend large sums of money to go to Terra Madre or Slow Food Nations. He tries to dispel these misconceptions and focus on the great work of Slow Food to preserve heritage seeds, to encourage diversity, to celebrate the roles of Indigenous people and the African-American influence on food. His message is that you don’t have to be a millionaire to eat good food or spend gobs of money to eat ingredients that are grown in a way that is natural and healthy for you.
For Kevin, fair treatment of those involved in food production is one of the most important values, whether for a worker in the field or a dishwasher in the kitchen. Slow Food promotes this understanding of the producer, the farmer, those who take the time to care and love for that ingredient. When he talks about Slow Food, he talks about products of the African Diaspora, about school gardens, about Slow Food’s work in Africa, and about the Ark of Taste.
In his kitchen, he celebrates Carolina gold rice, Sea Island red peas, and Candy Roaster squash – all Ark of Taste foods, all heirloom ingredients. And this Thanksgiving, which he spent with his family in New Jersey, Kevin (known to his family as the benne seed king!) cooked with benne seeds, a delicious and versatile African diaspora food. At home, with family, he gets in the kitchen and cooks. And talks with his family about African diaspora foods, where they come from, why they are important to African-Americans, why they are important, period. His family meal is a teaching moment, an opportunity to share the history of people who have no names, and a time to give thanks.
The Next 30 Years
Looking to the future, Kevin hopes that Slow Food can reach a wider audience. He notes that, with the Slow Food movement thirty years in, many people still have not heard of the movement or if they have, they think it has an air of pretension. To move forward, we should come back to why Slow Food was created, and emphasize that anyone can be involved and access good food.
He will continue to be involved at the national board level, with the Charleston local chapter, and with his personal work to promote diversity in America’s kitchens. He says, “White or black, it doesn’t matter. We can all bring the tenets of Slow Food to life. I’m working to get people to think about it at the grocery store and farmers market. To ask questions, like how was this produced, who produced it, who’s in the field picking those peas, how are they being treated, and to make good decisions about choosing food.” We’re all part of Slow Food.
Chef KMitchell at the Kitchen Counter at Slow Food Nations 2019.