Coauthored by Sascha Agran
Where we go out to eat says more about our culture and us than we might think. Every individual restaurant serves as a kind of snapshot in time, expressing our pleasures and our values, and reflecting our ideas about sustenance and community.
I recently met a couple of idealistic restaurateurs who are trying to shape the restaurant industry for the twenty-first century. The husband-and-wife team of Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz has built a new kind of public eatery where environmental sustainability is on the table right alongside the food and drinks. The duo has a history of successful restaurants with societal goals: they are the team behind Mission Chinese Food, which has donated $300,000 to the local food bank, and Commonwealth, which has raised over $250,000 for an ever-changing list of charities.
Their newest restaurant, The Perennial, donates a hefty chunk of its proceeds to a brand-new foundation called Zero Foodprint, which educates and enables restaurants to reduce their carbon footprint. Myint serves on the advisory board of Zero Foodprint, and is proud that the long-term goal of both the restaurant and the foundation is “to establish carbon neutrality as a new kind of value in the restaurant industry, along the lines of organic, local, and artisanal.”
The Perennial recently opened in downtown San Francisco (Ninth St. at Market), epitomizing not only a farm-to-table ethos, but also a new “table-to-farm” philosophy that makes better use of resources, including food waste. Myint and Leibowitz are expanding the meaning of a restaurant with an ambitious roster of ecological projects designed to spark conversation and encourage community participation. One particularly exciting project is the 2000-square-foot aquaponic greenhouse they are launching through a crowd-funding platform, to be operated with the help of Nathan Kaufman, of Viridis Aquaponics.
In an aquaponic system, plants and fish co-exist in a symbiotic relationship: the plant’s roots filter the water for the fish, while the fish provide essential nutrients to the plants as their waste is converted into nitrates. The Perennial’s aquaponic greenhouse will be powered by scraps from the restaurant’s kitchen, creating a closed loop in which unusable food is eaten by California sturgeon, whose waste feeds herbs, lettuces, and other produce.
Unlike a hydroponic greenhouse, the inputs in an aquaponic system are completely organic, and I was surprised to learn that aquaponic greenhouses use up to 90% less water and can be 8 times as productive per square foot than traditional, soil-based farming. As Leibowitz told me, “This feels like the future of farming, especially in drought-plagued California, but it also draws on a long history of cultivating rice and carp together in Southeast Asia.”
As I learned more about The Perennial, I was pleased to discover that the name was inspired, in part, by Wes Jackson and The Land Institute’s efforts to restore perennial root systems, which can sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil, as perennial plants convert carbon dioxide into fabulously long root systems. I was thrilled to learn about this connection to Jackson, who I visited at the Land Institute several years ago to learn about his work with Kernza, a perennial naturally bred intermediate wheatgrass. Myint and Leibowitz have arranged a collaboration with Chad Robertson, of the Tartine Bakery, to serve bread made from Kernza. Kernza boasts high yield, root-based carbon sequestration, pest resistance, and a tasty alternative to traditional wheat.
The Perennial also takes a sustainable approach to its meat offerings by supporting carbon farming, which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Chef and co-founder Chris Kiyuna also procures large cuts and whole animals to reduce waste. Kiyuna is the rock star who makes The Perennial tick, because of course none of this cutting-edge ecological agriculture matters unless customers want to eat at The Perennial. Fortunately, Kiyuna is a master of connecting culinary satisfaction with ecological engagement. He bills The Perennial’s culinary style as “climate-conscious California cuisine,” and develops dishes that showcase their in-house agriculture alongside outstanding local produce, and sustainably raised meat. He draws not only on his own passion for fresh ingredients but also on his recent training at Copenhagen’s Restaurant Noma, where Chef Rene Redzepi has led the charge to make restaurants more thoughtful about their place in the food system.
Food critic Michael Bauer was blown away by Kiyuna’s ability to present food both sustainably sourced and undeniably delicious, claiming he wanted more of the “magnificently seasoned pumpkin seed bisque.” Bauer was particularly impressed with the “fully realized” steak tartare: “the meat — some was ground and the rest chopped, a technique that provided textural layers — was powerfully punched with pickled chiles, green peppercorns, and tepary beans; […] these beans, native to the Southwest, are drought resistant and have modest water requirements.”
These days, there are plenty of restaurants that call themselves “farm-to-table” or claim to use “local, sustainable, and organic produce whenever possible,” but I’ve never encountered a restaurant that is so thorough in its commitment to sustainability. Bauer was particularly impressed that the bar serves wine by the glass from taps to reduce unnecessary emissions from transporting bottles; the coffee is from a local sustainable roaster, Paramo Coffee; and there are narrow slats at every table serving as flatware rests, because the staff does not automatically change out utensils (resulting in fewer items in the wash). Even aspects of the restaurant that will be invisible to the public are environmentally responsible: the whole kitchen is being built in consultation with an energy consulting group, so that it will become a showcase for environmental best practices within the restaurant industry.
Could The Perennial be a sign of a larger shift in the culture? Only time will tell, but let’s hope so. If others follow The Perennial’s lead, sustainability could become the watchword of the restaurant world, and that would really be something to celebrate the next time you go out to eat.