Change Food Fest Speaker Highlight: Justin Johnson

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Justin JohnsonWe’re excited to introduce you to our speakers for the 2016 Change Food Fest through a series of personal Q&A’s. Today we are talking with Justin Johnson, CEO and Founder of Sustainable|Kitchens in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Justin Johnson is the CEO and Founder of Sustainable|Kitchens, a “real” food transformation company that works to implement food service systems, processes, trainings, menus and recipes to support a scratch food operation. He is also graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College in Chicago and the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and has worked as a chef in the Milwaukee area for the past 20 years.

What inspired you to get involved with the good food movement?

It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when I became aware that there was such a thing because in order to believe that there is a “good food” movement, you’d have to believe there is a “bad food” movement. And regardless of the segment you’re in and what sort of food you’re doing, you always think it’s good.

Most of the people contributing to the Justin Johnsonproliferation of “bad food” don’t realize it. They, by and large, feel pretty good about what they’re doing. And there are different areas of “good food,” so it’s important to understand how you define it.

Do you define it as healthy? Local? Organic? Humane? From scratch? Grown on-site? It’s a confusing topic. I always chuckle at the notion of “humanely-raised” veal because wouldn’t it be most humane not to kill it? If you’ve ever seen a veal processing plant, even when it’s done humanely, it’s pretty horrifying. That doesn’t stop me personally from eating it though.

So, what’s important to you? What is your value system when it comes to food? There was probably a shift when I became the chef at Hotel Metro in Milwaukee, where I realized that if we know how to make something from scratch, why wouldn’t we? I know how to make mayonnaise like any chef worth his or her salt does. So, why would I buy it? It’s been less of an inspirational pursuit, and more of a practical one. Why buy something from a factory that I know how to make myself? And from there, it’s sort of just evolved as I’ve learned more.

Eating delicious, healthy food at hospitals, schools, and other institutional settings is far from the norm. Do you think that it will ever be common everywhere?

I’m not sure if it will, but I do know that trying to make it the norm is why I get up everyday. I also know that if making delicious, healthy food in a hospital isn’t easier and cheaper than buying
a convenient alternative, it’ll never happen. This is the entire basis of our business. It has to be easier and more efficient to feed people using our system.

If it only yields a better product but is harder and more expensive to do, it won’t work. So, as much as we push ourselves to create interesting and dynamic food, it has be operationalized. And every operation is a little different. I’m very much a food driven person, but our projects focus enormously on operations and how to make a from scratch, good food system sustainable.

Sustainable|Kitchens provides a whole package to help clients make a transition from industrial food service to more sustainable and whole foods preparation. Where have you found the most resistance in the process?

Sustainable Kitchens LogoYou might assume that the most resistance comes from the staff, and they certainly give their share of push back, but ultimately they just want to learn, be listened to and be supported. The most resistance really comes from the organization and the administration, though not intentionally.

People who don’t work in food service don’t really grasp how it works. I once had a client say “Why would we make all soup from scratch when there’s so many good bagged products?” At that point, we’re not even speaking the same language anymore. When we come onto a project, it is usually one or two people’s personal mission to take the operation in a better direction, and the onus usually falls on us to get everyone else on board.

Tell us about a successful transition — and will you be able to use success stories like this one to entice other hospitals/schools to do the same?

The best example of our system at work is the Harvest Market at the Watertown Regional Medical Center in Watertown, Wisconsin. It’s actually where our system was born. Not only has it helped entice other operators to sign on for projects with us, it’s really the whole reason we exist.

After we won numerous awards and were featured in many national magazines, many people visited Watertown to see it for themselves. What’s amazing about Harvest is that everything is made from scratch and made-to-order for patients, customers and employees alike.

They have a fully functioning meat and vegetable processing room. We installed an 11,000-square-foot farm on site, which produces up to 75 crops in the growing season — all of which were used in the operation. There is no freezer in the main kitchen. There are no deep fryers. You will not find Mountain Dew there. Or Doritios. Or anything mass produced or commercially processed. And, the operation runs a 12 percent lower food cost than it did previously as a institutional kitchen. Plus, the food is amazing. It has twice been nominated by the National Restaurant Association for “Operator Innovations in Sustainability.”

The amount of food that is purchased by larger institutions could really make a difference in the demand for better food. Do your clients understand the impact of their choices on the overall food system? We applaud them for their transition.

I firmly believe that we cannot topple the commercially manufactured food system by simply providing a premium alternative. Or by demonizing it. Or by idolizing “good” or “local” food. We will topple it by making it obsolete. Our clients understand this because it is required that they do in order for our projects to work. It’s the whole point.

What’s one thing individuals can do to contribute to a better food system?

That’s easy. Stop buying bullshit food.

The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement”  will take place in New York City on November 12th and 13th, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community. Follow the action at #CFFest2016!

Change Food® works toward a healthier food system for people, animals & the planet.  Learn more about Plant Eat Share – planting food in public spaces. For free.