It looks like it's just a piece of toast—albeit a very fancy piece of toast, artfully laden with greens and flower petals and part of a $12 appetizer. But the bread is actually an example of the future of sustainability in food: The grains used to make the flour were bred to help suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
Welcome to The Perennial, a new restaurant in San Francisco that aims to be, as the founders put it, "the most environmental ever."
Two years after coming up with the idea to create a restaurant that could serve as a lab to test new approaches to sustainability in the food world, restaurateurs Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz have built something that incorporates every possible green feature.
Kitchen scraps, for example, are sent to an aquaponic greenhouse across the bay in Oakland, where worms compost the food waste. The worms are then turned into fish food, and the fish help fertilize a crop of greens that are sent back to the restaurant.
"I think the biggest thing that we want to share is our relationship to food waste," says Leibowitz. "We're trying to address it in a commercial context, where a fine dining restaurant is so wasteful…portions can be so wasteful. That's one of the things we're innovating on and want to share with others."
Even the paper menus are printed with ink that can be safely eaten by worms, so when the menus wear out, they're also sent to the compost bin. When I went to visit the restaurant the night before it opened, the straw in my drink was made from actual straw.
The bright, open kitchen is filled with extra-efficient appliances (and even pots that heat up more quickly to save energy). The cocktails are mixed in advance to save water. The ceiling is lined with wood scraps from the construction of the posts in the dining room, which were recovered from the nearby Transbay Terminal. Every element in the restaurant, from the chairs to the refrigerator in the bar, was carefully chosen for its sustainability.
But when you dine there, you don't get preached at. The wood-filled space is beautiful, but apart from an aquarium in the corner growing a crop of cardamom to demonstrate aquaponics, it might be mistaken for another high-end restaurant. It isn't immediately obvious that the food is different or aiming for anything other than creativity or deliciousness.
"We're trying to put the environment on the same footing as our culinary values," Leibowitz says. "They sort of have equal weight. ... The chef isn't going to put anything on the menu that's good for the environment but doesn't actually taste good."
The servers don't necessarily bring up the environment, and when they do, they're learning to talk about it in a more optimistic way than they might have in the past. "I feel like we've become used to thinking about environmentalism in terms of deprivation or a certain kind of righteousness," she says. "What we're trying to explore is the way that the food world can be part of a positive contribution to the environment and even absorb some carbon dioxide and actually combat climate change directly."
Because the restaurant wants to attract anyone who likes good food—and not just zealous environmentalists—it serves meat, despite the fact that meat is one of the world's biggest contributors to climate change. But the meat they've chosen, from a local farm called Stemple Creek Ranch, is raised using "carbon farming": when cattle graze on rangeland treated with compost, the process helps grow perennial grasses that can store carbon in their roots. The milk in the cafe comes from a dairy that also uses carbon farming.
"We had to think about whether to use meat," says Leibowitz. "For us, it was really important to be operating at a level that other people would aspire to and be inspired by and to draw in a large crowd, and try to change their relationship to meat, as opposed to being this super specialized and kind of austere style."
They worked with Tartine, the ultra-popular Mission bakery, to create a new bread recipe using Kernza, the carbon-sucking grain. It's incorporated in the menu in a few different ways, and they're hoping it will become popular elsewhere as a substitute for traditional wheat.
Ultimately, they want the restaurant to serve as a resource for the rest of the industry. "We really want to make it an open-source kind of place," she says. "We don't want to be unique. We're trying to be leaders. ... We feel that with environmental action it's much more powerful if you can get some momentum going."