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Enlisting Chefs In The Fight Against Wetland Loss

David Barbeau and Isaac Toups of Toups Meatery
Toups Meatery
David Barbeau and Isaac Toups of Toups Meatery

Isaac Toups was born and raised in Rayne, La., outside of Lafayette. He garnered national fame this year when he made it to the second-to-last round on the reality cooking show Top Chef.



Back in Louisiana, he decided to turn his media spotlight into a force for good, as an advocate for the state's disappearing coast.


"Once you get to a certain level you have to pick something to represent," Toups says. He cares about the wetlands, but didn't necessarily have informed opinions about coastal science or policy.

That’s where Ashley Graham came in. She’d been spearheading a new chef engagement program with the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Campaign (MRD). After 25 years in the food sector, Graham saw chefs as natural allies.


"The chefs that I know are smart, they have an appreciation for science, they have a vested interested in the health of our environment," Graham says. "They want to be fully informed, they want to be fully engaged."

Graham started taking chefs like Sue Zemanick (Gautreau's) and Susan Spicer (Bayona) with her on planes and boats to see wetland loss for themselves. After Isaac Toups wrapped up Top Chef, she got him out on a boat as well. He had plenty of questions about MRD's signature cause: river diversions.


MRD is focused on connecting the Mississippi River back to its delta to build marsh naturally with the sediment that the river carries. But the technique is controversial, especially among commercial fishers and oysterman, who may see their farming habitats ruined by the introduction of new freshwater.


"Any change to that is gonna affect your livelihood," says David Muth of the National Wildlife Federation. "A lot of these guys, they're working on very very small margins, right? The price of diesel, the price of insuring a boat, the price at the market, the world dock."

When diversions happen then oystermen, for example, will have to move. But as Isaac Toups says, it's sometimes hard to hear that message from bureaucrats and scientists. That's where he comes in—as a translator between the two sides.


"I go: 'Look, I buy seafood from you,'" Toups says. "I use it. I love it. I wanna continue to buy seafood from you. But if you don't change your ways now, if we don't get you help to get moved, then you're gonna be out of a job, and I'm gonna be out of a job, and we're none of us gonna have any seafood. It sucks. I am sorry."


When it comes to diversions, seafood producers are being asked to sacrifice for the greater good of saving Louisiana’s coast. It’s a losing situation for them, and right now they lobby aggressively against scientists like David Muth. Arguments can get heated fast. MRD hopes that chefs like Isaac Toups can help smooth communication between the two sides. He’s not a politician and he’s not a scientist. So, the idea is, he can be trusted.


"I am your customer and I am your cousin," Toups says. "I was born and raised down here. I am one of you."


MRD is using celebrity chefs to gain traction on other ideas as well. Several chefs recently signed a letter to the President, urging him to secure oil revenues for coastal restoration. Chef John Besh’s Foundation has put money into new methods of oyster farming. On the diversions question, MRD says the next step is to get seafood producers and chefs in a room, to see what solutions they come up with together.


Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.


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