Solar Power Can Provide Hot Meals for the Masses

In every one of my restaurants, each day begins with the same routine. Chefs receive their orders, line cooks start prepping their ingredients, and the front of the house starts polishing the silverware and setting the tables. Along with all of that, someone goes into the kitchen and lights the stoves. Every burner is lit and immediately put to use.

In some of my kitchens, the ranges can span ten burners across, and they’re constantly topped with pots and pans of food simmering all day long. Without these burners, nothing would be possible. Not the food we serve, the experiences we create. This business that I have built my life upon for the last 25 years would not exist. 

In countries that don’t have efficient cooking technologies, these stoves aren’t just affecting their businesses; they’re affecting their lives. For so many people around the world, just being able to light a stove, and to find the fuel to be able to do it, is an incredibly difficult effort. Each day, 3 billion people around the world cook their meals using fuels that are having a heavy impact on their lives. People in countries like Haiti, Cambodia and Kenya. They’re burning wood or charcoal and creating smoke that is killing more than 4 million people a year, mostly women and children. And those same women and children have to travel far from their villages and from safety and are putting themselves in danger just to find those fuels.

These people and me, we’re the same. We rely on this flame, whether it’s to feed our families or feed a business. And our solutions are the same, as well. Clean cooking fuels and improved cookstoves are not a complicated answer to these issues, and they can be affordable and pragmatic solutions for all. Everyone from the small family of four living in a village in Haiti, to the chefs who are feeding a few hundred people a day.

A restaurant chef using a solar cooker to feed 300 orders a day? Impossible, you might think.

Picture from the Life is Beautiful Festival

Photograph by Nate Mook

Well, recently I was able to prove that it is possible. Last month, I was at the Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. A three-day gathering that brings together amazing music, world class food, iconic public speakers and phenomenal art, it is an event that aims to motivate and inspire people. I was excited to be there to see some of my favorites, such as Kanye West, St. Lucia and the Roots, but I was also there because I was inspired to do something big. As the Culinary Ambassador to the Global Alliance of Clean Cookstoves, I wanted to feed the masses, some of the 50,000 people attending the event, with only clean, safe and efficient energy. To do this, I created a pop up restaurant called Sunny Day that ran entirely on a combination of clean cooking solutions.

During the day, our restaurant ran on the power of the sun to cook its signature dish—vegetarian tacos. We set up more than 30 solar cookers right in the middle of this city in the desert and went to work feeding thousands of people. One kind of cooker was the SolSource, made by One Earth Designs, that was primarily used to cook our taco fillings. They are large, round discs with shiny reflector panels that make them look like they are from outer space. For simmering our sauces, we used GoSunStoves, which are smaller and more compact but still have incredible power. Our tortillas were cooked using BioLite stoves, another efficient technology that uses only a very small amount of biomass and reduces the emission of smoke by 95 percent. At the same time, it converts that biomass into electricity, so while we worked away all day outside, we were never without power!

Picture of corn tacos from the Life is Beautiful Festival

Photograph by Nate Mook

When the sun went down, our cooking did not stop. Without the sun, we cooked with Everclear, which is—some of you may already know—a grain alcohol that is also a type of ethanol that can be used for fuel. This kind of ethanol can be made from natural resources like sugars, starches or grass, and it burns clean, without any smoke or soot.

Overall, the restaurant was a success, and it proved that not only do these technologies exist, but that they work and they can be a reality to all of us. We should be investing in these kinds of technologies that make cooking healthier, quicker and more efficient. And we should work towards making them more accessible to the people who need it the most.

We used Sunny Day as an opportunity to test all of the different clean methods in a busy environment and to teach people here in our country how they work and why they’re essential to those billions through our world. And the festival was the perfect place to debut a project like this. I am so grateful to all those that supported our taco shop and came out to see what we were doing, ask questions, and share our efforts to so many around the country and the world. It was a celebration of the art and music that keeps us all moving through the soundtrack of our lives, with the food that feeds us all and the power that helps us do it.