For the love of food

Chef Von Topel cooking at the Gardens of the World

Photo courtesy of the Ventura County Star

Mark von Topel ’01

I sometimes joke that I majored in theater because Colgate did not have a degree in social justice organizing. I was very active in environmental organizing while on campus and took a job with Greenpeace after graduation, rolling out a new form of fundraising: “Hello, do you have a minute for the environment?”

After successfully organizing myself out of a job, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a two-person clean energy nonprofit. The recession in the early 2000s put the organization out of business and sent me in a new direction.

Serving at a restaurant to pay the bills, I ended up falling in love with food. With no previous kitchen experience, I enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) chef program.

By the time I graduated first in my class, I had worked in two of the best restaurants in the country and prepared dinner for two U.S. presidents. First, I got a job at The Maisonette in Cincinnati, Ohio, which was the most highly respected restaurant in the country at the time. I talked my way into that kitchen because six months of experience was a condition of enrollment at the CIA. Then in 2005, I worked at The White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine.

There, I cooked for George H.W. Bush twice (once with him and his National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and then for him and Bill Clinton). But in the end, I learned that the professional kitchen was not for me (imagine Hell’s Kitchen without the cameras).

So in 2006, I took a job with Whole Foods Market doing marketing and teaching healthy cooking classes. Working in the grocery industry exposed me to food systems and food security, and I began to see the connections between my passions for social justice and food.

In 2012, I got my master’s in food policy from NYU, and then for the last two years, I oversaw the policy department for one of New York City’s department of social services agencies.

I have also been able to get back in the kitchen the past two years when cooking at the James Beard Foundation Awards — an opportunity of a lifetime.

This past July, I returned to D.C. After living in six states since graduating, this is the first time that I moved without a job, but my fiancée and I wanted to be together after living apart for the last three years. Only time can tell what the future holds for me now.

As this new chapter begins, I am excited to explore new ways to use the tools Colgate gave me to serve others.