America’s Most Environmentally Conscious Restaurant Happens to Serve Amazing Food
With its own aquaponics system and bar program designed to reduced water waste, The Perennial in San Francisco verges on Portlandia territory while serving top-tier food and drink.
Celtuce and Kumamoto oysters with mouse melons, mint marigold, and gin gelée at The Perennial. All photos by the author.
There are things about The Perennial that come off as very Portlandia, and the restaurant's co-founder, Karen Leibowitz, is the first to make that claim.
"The napkins are cotton, natural dye, and they're not seamed so that then when they are worn out we can just shred them and feed them to the worms," she said, referring to the worms that make up part of the restaurant's aquaponics system.
"That is when I feel like we're approaching Portlandia territory."
But what could induce eye-rolling doesn't at the San Francisco restaurant. Maybe that's because those environmentally driven details are not forced down diners' throats like foie gras geese. If you want to learn about the worms and the carbon farming, just ask your server, or don't.
"I think it's really important that a person just come, have a date, know that it's beneficial for the environment and just get to know the other person and not talk about it," Leibowitz said. "You don't have to engage with it deeply, but there is that potential."
That dining at The Perennial is beneficial for the environment is not an empty claim. The restaurant is working to curb and reverse the harmful effects of climate change.
When Leibowitz and her business partner/husband Anthony Myint became parents in 2012, the restaurateurs behind spots like Mission Chinese Food and Commonwealth shifted their focus to the future, narrowing in on the environmental impact of their industry.
"We were learning more about how the food system interacts with climate change. It turns out that by some estimates up to 50 percent of greenhouse gasses can be linked to the food system," Leibowitz said. "That felt like a big responsibility."
They decided not to open another restaurant unless it was hyper-environmentally conscious, which turned out to be an easier sell to investors than Leibowitz and Myint predicted. Before long, they were working on their ambitious new concept.
A friend introduced them to John Wick, co-founder of The Marin Carbon Project. Leibowitz and Myint took a field trip to his farm to learn more about his work.
"He takes compost and spreads it on the land where his cattle graze and that jumpstarts the soil biology," Leibowitz said. "Then he manages the herd really intensively to graze on the annual grasses and allows the perennials that are native to rebound.
"The reason it matters is that the perennial roots are so much deeper and they support this whole ecosystem under the soil. It actually draws CO2 out of the air and increases soil carbon."
Wick had been working with Berkeley scientists for a decade to measure the rising soil carbon levels in his land. It was the most optimistic thing the restaurateurs had ever heard about climate change.
"It always just feels like there's this inevitability and all you can do is slow it down," Leibowitz said. "[Wick] was actually talking about pulling greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and back into the soil where they came from—that was amazing."
The couple named the restaurant The Perennial on their way home from the farm, and set about building out the space from scratch using reclaimed, recycled, environmentally conscious materials (see also: napkins that get turned into worm food).
"It has required a little bit more forethought in some ways," chef Chris Kiyuna said of developing The Perennial menu. "If we wanted to smoke something, traditionally I would just go to a farm or I'd go to a purveyor and buy wood chips. Can't really do that here."
As Leibowitz had hoped, the self-imposed limitations have been a good catalyst for creativity. For example, Kiyuna and his team saved every walnut shell they ever used—a byproduct of a walnut dish served for three months after opening in January—and use them to smoke things in lieu of wood chips.
Instead of importing bonito or smoked skipjack tuna from Tokyo, The Perennial kitchen calls on its own leftover fish bones to make stocks.
"If food waste were a nation, it would be the third worst polluter after the US and China. Food waste is crazy," Leibowitz said.
"But I think up to now, people have seen it as uncool or unsexy," she said. "People are starting to say, 'What if I use those fava bean shells? What if I have a root-to-stem orientation like nose-to-tail?'"
Nose-to-tail definitely comes into play at The Perennial (with carefully chosen noses).
"There was a lot of conversation early on about the value of particular cuts of meat, and how that drives the overproduction of livestock," Kiyuna said. "Not everyone can have ribeye—there are only so many on a cow."
"When we made the decision to source animals, we decided to embrace the whole thing, just take what you can get—take what the animal gives you, rather."
Nicola Carey was hired as The Perennial's pastry chef with an interesting mission. She was tasked with making a palatable bread out of a relatively unknown perennial grain: Kernza.
Kernza is a regenerative grain developed by The Land Institute, a Kansas-based organisation working to restore prairie ecosystems.
"We are the first restaurant to be making bread with it," Leibowitz said. "It's in the wheat family, it's an intermediate wheat grass. It's got a good grassy kind of flavour, but it's also a way of talking about the steps we can take to make our agriculture actually a force for good—not just less bad, but actually good."
Kernza is said to be good for a host of reasons.
For starters, Kernza doesn't need to be planted every year like annual grains (i.e., wheat), sparing the nutrient-exhausted Midwestern soil from the endless tilling cycle. The grain's roots run exponentially deeper than those of annual grains, and help heal the ecosystem.
No one has to compromise because of the eco-minded grain selection. Carey's blend of 40 percent Kernza with 60 percent wheat flour is 100 percent delightful. The bread is chewy and rustic, best enjoyed with the house-made butter.
Around the corner from the open kitchen is The Perennial bar. The team tapped bar industry legend Jennifer Colliau, owner of Small Hand Foods, to create a menu that paired well with the progressive concept.
"I was very fortunate. Karen and Anthony just let me run with it," Colliau said of the program.
"They said over and over again that they're not bar people, so they didn't have specific things they wanted me to do," Colliau said. "It was this idea of reducing carbon footprint, reducing waste. It was really up to me to figure out what that means in a bar setting."
Certain things were obvious, like eliminating wasteful ice machines and opting for straws made of straw versus plastic. She approached other challenges with equal parts science and cocktail expertise.
To cut out more water waste, Colliau did thorough testing to find out exactly how much water is needed in each drink for a perfect dilution.
"I got really into what I call empirical dilution which is being able to measure the amount of melted water that goes into a drink when you either stir or shake it and find other ways of adding it in that doesn't have waste," Colliau said. "There's no drinks on our cocktail list that have ice waste.
"I was inspired to do this by an old description I had read of a Ramos Gin Fizz, a beautiful description that describes shaking it with two pieces of ice the size of walnuts until it has disappeared," she said.
"So that's a measured amount of dilution, that's a measured amount of water that you're adding in. I was like, 'We can do that. Why don't we make that the rule for all of the drinks, any drink that would be shaken?'"
The ingenious solutions to waste problems Colliau has created seem endless.
She uses marmalades to flavour drinks because you can get more out of the fruit that way and use pulpy bits as a garnishes. Her cocktails on draught and held in bottles in walk-in freezers cut down on bar tools that need to be washed, save on ice, and expedite service.
Those walnuts chef Kiyuna uses and saves are shared with Colliau as well to make charred walnut honey.
Bartending practices aside, spirits sourcing is also top of mind for Colliau.
"Spirits are agricultural products. You can't look at rum production without looking at how the cane was grown, harvested, where's the waste water from the distillery going—it's all part of it," she said. "Ethical agriculture is different for grapes, is different for grain, is different for cane, agave. You have to look at each company. It's difficult to get through the bullshit of PR."
Despite her substantial gains in the effort to reduce the bar's carbon footprint, Colliau is still humble about the progress.
"I can't say that I'm doing an awesome job," she said. "I'm doing the best I have been able to do with what I know so far and I keep on trying and I keep on learning, but someone who knows a lot about one particular category can come in here and scoff at the choices I've made."
The Perennial isn't alone in the fight against climate change. Leibowitz is behind The Perennial Farming Initiative, a nonprofit launched six months after the restaurant's opening to help farmers make moves toward perennial agriculture.
Myint has started his own side project called Zero Foodprint with environmental consultant Peter Freed and Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying. The nonprofit works with restaurants to do lifecycle analyses that assess and address their carbon footprints.
Sometimes solutions can be as simple as swapping out environmentally baneful kitchen equipment for greener options, as was the case for noma, one of the organisation's first guinea pigs.
"For the things that are not super-easy to change, we basically offer a portfolio of carbon offsets that are food-related," Myint said.
"They can sponsor a project like [sponsoring a farm's methane digester] and sell the carbon offsets. It's in recognition that if you're a restaurant, you're ultimately serving food whether it's vegan food or carbon ranch beef or feedlot beef, there's going to be a carbon footprint," he said. "If you want to take responsibility for that, you can."
Leibowitz and Myint put this into practice at their own restaurants.
"We did raise the prices on beef and lamb at Mission Chinese when we understood the carbon footprint," Leibowitz said, "and that was partly to cover offsets that we are buying to acknowledge that beef and lamb are the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas at Mission Chinese, and also as a signal to the customer that beef and lamb are not without cost.
"There are all of the hidden things like price supports for wheat and corn and soy in this country that we think our food is cheap, but we're paying for it from another direction."
"Obviously we know that one restaurant can't turn back the clock on climate change," Leibowitz said, "but we really firmly believe that there is a potential for a food movement which is maybe building on the farm-to-table style where people are thinking of where their food comes from, really thinking about how agriculture works and all that it can do."
No matter how many Portlandia-worthy efforts The Perennial team makes, Leibowitz acknowledges that you need more than good intentions to survive in the restaurant industry.
"I have to say, it really only matters if it's good," she said. "We want to do something that is positive but not be holier-than-thou. It is important to remember that we are here to have a good time—it's a bar."
She added: "That is a little bit of a balancing act, but I feel like we are finding our way. It has to feel good to be here. I think we're doing that."
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.