Judy Yao and Aly Lopez arrived in the Boston area from different directions, but it was food that brought them together.
Yao came to the US from Taiwan as a teenager, while Lopez was born in Mexico and grew up in Somerville. They first met while working for Somerville’s Nibble culinary program, opening a test kitchen for immigrant food entrepreneurs like themselves (Yao is a butcher and now the marketing manager at Savenor’s Market; Lopez works as a sous chef at Forklift Catering).
The two became friends and co-founded Open Hearth Gatherings, a sort of next-level farm-to-table experience where guests can help harvest and cook — and sometimes kill and butcher — their food. “Our focus at Open Hearth is connecting people to the land,” Lopez said.
They didn’t create the company to confront climate change, per se. But Lopez says the topic enters the conversation organically. “Once you care about something that you’re connected to, you’re not going to want to harm it,” she said.
WBUR spoke to Yao and Lopez about food, climate change and sustainable eating in New England for its newsletter “Cooked: the search for sustainable eats.” The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
A lot of people don’t make the connection between food and climate change, and I think that’s partly because we’re all so disconnected from the sources of our food. Do you get that sense as well?
Yao: The food system is so segmented. There’s farm-to-table, but there’s still a whole process in between that you’re missing: how the food got to grow where it is, how the animal got raised, the process of breaking it down. You see a chicken breast; you don’t see the guts. You don’t see all the stuff that some people consider cute and dirty. But that’s all part of that process.
And then there’s also that disconnect with the people who prepare your food. If you go to a farm-to-table restaurant, you know the chef’s name, but there are line cooks, there are dishwashers, there are people at every part of the process that make this happen. At our gatherings, we all have a hand in preparing the food — there is no hierarchy. And I think that’s what Aly and I are trying to do: break down the system in a very small way.
Lopez: We are acting as a link for people to be able to connect, not just with each other, but with the land, with the animals, to see the entire process, to get their hands dirty. It’s very intentional. I’ve always had an issue with “farm-to-table” because you’re highlighting “farm” but you don’t know, for instance, how much the farmer got paid. Even as a chef, you only work with 10% of the process. The rest of it’s already been done on the field by other people. So, we’re trying to give people more appreciation for that labor.
One of the things you’ve done at Open Hearth events is butcher chickens, and guests can watch or participate in the process. How do guests usually react to that?
Yao: It’s shocking to take a life. It’s shocking to see a whole animal [go from] moving and full of feathers to having been slaughtered, feeling — this is going to sound a little bit intense — feeling the life leave. And then breaking it down and consuming it for our own nourishment and really appreciating it. I think it’s always an emotional process for people, but it’s also renewing in a way that people don’t often feel when you buy a chicken from the supermarket.
Lopez: I love that we don’t rush the process. If somebody needs a moment to just feel what they’re feeling, there is space for that. You take that moment to feel it. I think that’s also part of the food system that we don’t really even think about. We go to the store, we pick up a chicken and it’s nice and clean. But when the reality hits us of the process that goes into it, it’s very different
Some people argue that the best way to slow climate change is to stop eating meat altogether. Do you think there’s a way for people to eat meat sustainably?
Yao: Absolutely. There’s a difference between meat coming from small, sustainable farms and big, factory farms where I think most of the this climate-harming practice happens. So for example, there’s a farm that I know Savenor’s sources from: Heritage Grazers in Vermont. They practice “pre-industrial” farming, and the farmer grows her own feed and the meat tastes amazing. Yes, it’s more expensive, but you don’t need to consume a bunch of meat to gain that nourishment.
And so I think there’s a balance there for sure. And by practicing a more intentional way of eating, and really seeing how the animals grow and the sacrifices that they make so that we can get nourishment, I think that increases the appreciation. You’re not buying pounds of ground meat and then throwing the leftovers away. You know, very intimately, the preciousness of each animal.
Lopez: If we look at the bigger picture, what is causing climate change is not you having a hamburger once a week. I think it’s a bigger problem. We want people to be questioning themselves when they go to the supermarket and pick up that meat on the shelf. Where does it come from? What did it eat? How much is the farmer getting paid? Why am I paying $6, $7, $10? Is it worth it? Why can I afford to pay that much money?
You can be vegan; you can eat meat; you can do whatever. But just question yourself when you’re doing it: who’s part of the chain, and who are you affecting and who are benefiting when you’re making that purchase?
Do you think the whole “sustainable food” movement has been co-opted by rich white people?
Lopez: Yes! one hundred%!
Lopez: You know, I grew up recycling bags in Mexico. I grew up being sustainable and I didn’t know that. And now all of a sudden, all these white people are like, ‘Oh, this is sustainable!’ My mom, she’s been sustainable. My culture is sustainable. All of a sudden because you’re saying that, it becomes a thing. It actually pisses me off.
Yao: It also just feels very commercialized. It’s like the whole targeting thing that’s all over my Instagram; all these products that if I buy, somehow I am helping the environment. I understand the sentiment and the mission behind it, but it’s becoming its own billion-dollar industry. It’s a whole big money thing, too; a lot of these products are expensive. Not everyone can participate in that.
Lopez: They’re not accessible at all. We in the restaurant industry are part of the problem, too, because we’re creating another hierarchy in the restaurant. We’re in a system that somebody created for us, and we want to disrupt that cycle, that system, so people are able to afford to eat healthy foods and people are able to take on sustainable practices a little bit better. Because we’re talking about everyone, whether it’s upper class or lower class, everyone needs to be part of this. It’s like the pandemic. That’s a very good example of how connected we all are. We live on the same Earth, so we all should be taking care of it.