Last year, the United States spent 1.2 trillion dollars on food. Of that money spent, half of those dollars were spent outside of the home, in places such as restaurants, cafeterias, delis, and more.

Those statistics led Nashville’s Jeremy Barlowe, chef and owner of Tayst and Sloco, and outspoken green-living and local farm advocate, to one basic yet startling conclusion: “Chefs have the power to change the world.”

Since it's opening in 2004, Tayst has remained a fixture in Nashville’s fine dining scene. A recurring partner in the Dining Out for Life campaign, it has become well-known and highly regarded throughout the GLBT community, as well.

“It was the first place where I was able to establish my own style of food,” he said fondly of his first restaurant, “and develop my own touch to it.”

That passion for food and taste led Barlowe to discover a freshness and nutritional value and from local farms that could not be beat. As he developed relationships with the farmers and saw the benefits of being green and using better produce, Barlowe found himself wanting to extend those values to other parts of the restaurant.

“All right,” he thought, “if I'm focused on buying this type of [‘green’] product, which naturally makes me a more environmentally friendly chef, which is the nature of what I'm purchasing, how do I take this philosophy, or why do I not take this philosophy, and spread it throughout the whole restaurant?"

In 2006, he began searching for a way to make the whole restaurant as ecologically friendly as possible. Barlow asked himself, “Are there green restaurants? What does it take to green a restaurant? What is all entailed?” Then he found the Green Restaurant Association and began the 8 month long certification process.

As a “charter member” of the GRA, and at the time, the only GRA certified restaurant in Nashville, Barlowe found keen interest in his commitment from other members in the community. With the amount of public speaking requests he received, he thought he should put his thoughts, ideas and methods into words. A few years later, Chefs Can Save the World was released.

“It started out as just a 'how to green restaurants' book,” he said. “‘This is what's entailed; this is why you should do it; here's what you do.’ That's still a portion of the book.” His advocacy work and immersion in the topic, along with the knowledge of how much Americans spend eating outside the home, forced the scope of his book much wider.

“A chef of some sort has had control of half the dollars spent on food in our country,” Barlow said, adding that many other restaurants have begun thinking about their environmental impact too. “If you look at all the articles in the last 5 or 6 years about what chefs are doing around the country, they’re all about buying local and other things that we're doing — and that's happening everywhere. That's what everybody's writing about, and that's what everybody's reading about, and then everyone says, 'Well, we need to eat like this.' You can see that shift change already happening.”

In writing Chefs Can Save the World, Barlow realized that he could take the philosophies and values of a high-end green restaurant and apply them to a fast food concept accessible to everyone.

“I really wanted to put my money where my mouth was and open up a restaurant that could be for everybody,” he said of Sloco, his latest venture on 12th South that opened last fall. “I call it a 'food fast' restaurant, in that it really mimics the fast food industry, and we can actually change that food system as this business expands and builds. We're taking the fast food model, and we're taking everything we learned here, and all the philosophies of Tayst, and putting it into a 7 dollar sandwich. And then we re-regionalize the food system and rebuild an infrastructure that can then supply a much larger population.”

Barlow’s passion for the environment became even more evident when he considered the way that sustainable green restaurants such as Tayst and Sloco obtain their food compared to the mass-produced food industry versus. “Buying local, you're gonna get your best products,” he said. “When I get my produce, it was harvested this morning. Naturally it's gonna be more nutritious, and it's gonna have a lot more flavor.”

The same can be said for the local meat industry that raises its animals at pasture where they re-fertilize the land instead of being packed into Confined Animal Feedlot Operations and producing a vast amount of ecological pollutants.

Running an ecologically friendly restaurant has had its economical benefits as well. While there was the initial investment in going green with the purchase of new lighting, fixtures and the like, Barlow found the savings more than made up for it.

“When you add in my savings on my electric bill, just from lighting, and you look at that five years from now, I just saved a bunch of money on electricity over a five-year span that easily covers the cost of light-bulbs, plus some,” Barlow said.

Even considering all their environmental benefits, Barlow found that running two green restaurants appeals to the core of his passion as a chef: he gets to play with food.

“It's awesome!” he said of the direction his role as a green chef has taken. “Just being able to play with food and build relationships with the people that grow it. Monday morning I'm going to one of my farms to check it out. I might help them plant a little bit. They're always coming to me, so I go see what they're doing, check out their place.”

With a palpable excitement and childlike enthusiasm, Jeremy Barlowe has had the time of his life as he works with food on the table and in the field and truly shows that chefs really can save the world. 

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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