Meet the inspiring leaders using food to challenge conventions, empower their communities, and make positive change.
America’s food culture is at a turning point. Pandemic-related shutdowns proved just how fragile the restaurant ecosystem has always been, while last summer’s protests put a spotlight on the work still needed to dismantle white supremacy in all aspects of American life, especially in an industry built on a history of racism and inequity. And addressing hunger, an everyday reality for millions of Americans, became even more urgent as food banks struggled to keep up with the overwhelming need due to the pandemic’s devastation of the economy.
In the midst of all this, people stepped up, creating better ways of feeding, working, and living — and in the process, they are redefining what providing food and community truly means. They started and joined mutual aid networks and nonprofit organizations to weave together the strands of empathy and empowerment missing from our social safety net. They worked on farms and in urban gardens to champion food sovereignty and ecologically sound growing practices, driven by a desire to fortify their communities’ ability to thrive. Those dedicated to restaurant work adapted, designing new business models, new service structures, and new ways to connect with diners and one another. As our food systems and restaurants rebuild in the wake of a profoundly transformative year, these changemakers are ensuring what comes next is far better than what we had before.
Here now is Eater’s inaugural New Guard cohort. Chosen from over 1,000 nominations, each winner has risen to the challenges of the current moment, prioritizing the well-being of others and making a meaningful change in their community. They’ve also signed the Eater New Guard mission statement, affirming their commitment to building a more equitable food and restaurant industry. They are chefs, community organizers, restaurant operators, farmers, bartenders, founders, educators, entrepreneurs, and, above all else, they are the leaders we need now. They are the New Guard.
—Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater restaurant editor
Chef, creative activist, founder of Black Feast
Berkeley, CA and Portland, OR
Two words you’ll often hear Salimatu Amabebe use when explaining their work as a chef, activist, host, and creator are “nourish” and “nurture.” To them, creating spaces and experiences that center, celebrate, and support the Black community revolves around care. That can manifest in many ways: through a precisely designed event like their Black Feast dinners, which merge the worlds of food and art; or communicated through a thoughtful note, skin care products, and desserts packaged and sent to Black people, as with their Love Letters to Black Folks project. Whatever form it takes, care always comes back to making creative spaces that are kind for them and for others.
Director of service operations
and co-founder, SF New Deal
With the pandemic exerting tremendous pressure on both San Francisco restaurant owners and people experiencing food insecurity, SF New Deal sprung into action, raising funds — from donors and from government contracts — to pay independently owned restaurants to make meals for those who need them. Co-founder and director of service operations Jacob Bindman understands that the problems his nonprofit addresses aren’t new and that the solutions can be found in the communities affected by them — and the community organizations that have been doing the work for a long time. What he excels at is connecting the dots, building “connective tissue,” as he calls it, between communities, businesses, city government, and, most of all, people.
Community empowerment coordinator,
Soul Fire Farm
Rooting out the inequalities that exist across our food systems is at the center of Kiani Conley-Wilson’s work. This is especially true when it comes to their role as community empowerment coordinator at Soul Fire Farm, where Coney-Wilson runs the Soul Fire in the City program, which provides raised beds, seeds, and training to people living in New York’s Capital Region who want to grow their own food. But Conley-Wilson embodies the Soul Fire Farm mission of breaking down racism in the food system outside of the Soul Fire umbrella, too: Conley-Wilson is also the founder of Common Greens, a community garden and education center in Troy, and as they run for Troy city council, they seek to address inequality more broadly by protecting renters and advocating for immigrants.
Patricia Howard & Ed Szymanski
Owners, general manager, chef, Dame
New York City
In 2019, Ed Szymanski and Patricia Howard decided to open a restaurant together. But when the pandemic made their initial vision for a British, meat-focused restaurant an impossibility, they found a model that would work — and one that benefited their wider restaurant community in the process. Dame became a pop-up takeout-only fish-and-chips spot, and when the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests prompted Howard and Szymanski to consider how they could support BIPOC communities, they launched the weekly Dame Summer Club with a dual purpose: to give their restaurant friends a platform and raise money for social justice organizations. When Dame opens in its permanent space this spring, the duo will make equity part of their ongoing mission as they create a working environment designed to lift up their employees and ultimately make it possible for others to achieve the same restaurant ownership dreams.
Urban farmer and cultural food worker
Kirsten Kirby-Shoote is a member of the Tlingit Nation, and the seeds the urban farmer preserves and plants are a critical part of protecting Indigenous culture, separating the act of food cultivation from corporate agriculture and the profit demands of capitalism. By growing and teaching others to grow these plants — not to mention hosting gatherings and pop-up events to raise awareness around Native food and cooking — they’re promoting food sovereignty for the Indigenous, Black, and brown communities in and around Detroit. Kirby-Shoote finds particular inspiration in imagining a future in which Indigenous children will eat, know, and understand their own history and food culture — a new generation of stewards for the traditions Kirby-Shoote is safeguarding now.
Assistant farm manager, Love Is Love Farm
Whether he’s weeding, harvesting, or adapting new practices at Love Is Love Farm, the organic farm in Georgia where he works, farmer Demetrius Milling is all about making things better than they were before. He teaches farmers how to use two-wheel tractors through the Food Well Alliance. He serves on the Rockdale-DeKalb County Farm Bureau, ensuring there’s a voice at the table representing young farmers and farmers interested in sustainable practices. And whenever he finds a fellow young person who’s even a little bit interested in farming, he will gladly share his own story — often inspiring them to make the leap, too. Along with four other farmers, including his current mentors at Love Is Love Farm, Milling will soon co-own and operate a farming collective east of Atlanta. The produce will be organic and sustainably raised, of course, but crucially, operating as a worker-owned, consensus-driven farm will allow each farmer to sustain a livelihood and work-life balance that’s proven elusive in the industry. Because if there’s anything Milling wants to see more than hard work leading to results, it’s people growing, not just crops.
President and founder, Chocolate City’s Best; co-founder and director of operations, Empowering the Diner
Kapri Robinson’s life as a bartender changed when she started winning cocktail competitions. The networking and brand partnerships that came as a result of the events opened doors, but even more important, those opportunities inspired her to start a cocktail competition of her own, one that would ensure that BIPOC bartenders like her had their own platform. Chocolate City’s Best was born just three years ago and is now a thriving cocktail competition and educational hub. Robinson’s expertise as an event planner and ambitions as an advocate for diners and workers of color have continued to guide her activism. And with her enthusiasm for her craft only strengthened after more than a year of virtual events and teaching online, she’s more excited than ever to have guests sidle up to the bar for her drinks once again.
CEO and co-owner, Heray Spice
What if there was a spice that could change the world? For Mohammad Salehi, there is. His company, Heray Spice, sells Afghani saffron, getting high-quality product into an American market rife with fakes while getting money directly to Afghani farmers. Salehi has made a commitment to pay his suppliers fairly, and he also dedicates a portion of the proceeds to education-focused charities in Herat, where he grew up in a farming family. Prior to the pandemic, Heray Spices focused on wholesale clients, but last year, Salehi started selling saffron to home cooks and now hopes to expand his selection further, with each sale enabling him to do more good for both the Afghani farming community and for everyone cooking with better saffron.
New York City
There was a time when Eric Sze didn’t think he, as the owner of a small East Village restaurant, was capable of making the kind of change he feels the world so desperately needs. But over the past year, as the pandemic wreaked havoc on his community, Sze began to believe that the size of his restaurant had no bearing on the size of his potential impact. He pivoted 886 to stay afloat through a year’s worth of changing regulations while simultaneously preparing thousands of bento boxes for health care workers and local shelters. In February, he started Enough Is Enough, a campaign to raise awareness of the hate crimes against Asian Americans. All the while, Sze has maintained his mission to bring Taiwanese food to New York City diners, and soon he’ll open his second Taiwanese restaurant — the most recent sign that he’s a long way from the small restaurant owner he thought himself not so long ago.
Owner, Guerrilla Tacos, Gogo’s Tacos, Tiago Coffee
Brittney Valles has always been cool with working behind the scenes in the restaurant world. As the general manager and now owner of LA’s famed Guerrilla Tacos, Valles’s work is all about setting her team up to do their best — whether that means providing health insurance, offering Spanish and English classes, or, in the case of the pandemic, only reopening when there were protocols in place that prioritized workers’ safety. She sees now that being the person facilitating others’ success is important in its own right, and she’s making the most of her skills at it, serving as a founding board member of Re:Her, which offers grants to women in hospitality. A new restaurant opening this summer called Gogo’s Tacos will help fund Valles’s biggest goal: a nascent nonprofit community center, which will focus on providing financial and culinary education, and, ultimately, empowerment to her Los Angeles community.
The New Guard
In joining the Eater New Guard, we are committing to making the food and restaurant world respectful and inclusive. We understand that not perpetuating abuse through our words and behavior is the beginning, not the end, of how we reach that goal. We denounce and seek to dismantle the discrimination that results in inequity in our industry, including but not limited to sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and harassment. We urge all members of our industry to do the same.
Hillary Dixler Canavan
Gabe Hiatt, Mona Holmes, Brenna Houck, Brooke Jackson-Glidden,
Beth McKibben, Jaya Saxena, Elazar Sontag, Jenny G. Zhang
Fazl Ahmad, Gary He, Chelsea Kigano, Wonho Frank Lee, Rey Lopez, Michelle K. Min, Konrad Odhiambo, Lynsey Weatherspoon, Clay Williams, Rosa María Zammarón
Diana D’Abruzzo, Tracy Spangler
Special thanks to
Matt Buchanan, Erin DeJesus, Tim Forster, Missy Frederick, Pelin Keskin, Amanda Kludt, Ellie Krupnick, Ruchi Kumar, Milly McGuinness, James Park, Stephen Pelletteri