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New SoMa Restaurant Thinks Farm-to-Table Isn't Nearly Ethical Enough

How to build a restaurant that wants to change the world.

 

Perennial collaborators Anthony Myint, Paul Discoe, Chris Kiyuna, and Karen Leibowitz.

 

Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint are restaurateurs, but you could also describe them as breeders of culinary Trojan horses. There’s Mission Chinese Food, their innovative, heavily trafficked Chinese restaurant that operates within the dingy, non-innovative confines of a Chinese takeout joint. There’s Commonwealth, a fine-dining establishment where dishes like celery sorbet and clams with yuzu bubbles cleverly distract from the charitable agenda at the restaurant’s core: $10 of every $75 tasting menu purchase is donated to local nonprofits.

And very soon—maybe even this month, permits and construction willing—there will be the Perennial: an upscale restaurant that’s simultaneously a laboratory for experimenting with progressive, even radical, environmental innovations. “We see it as a vehicle for talking about food and the environment, and not just food fads,” says Leibowitz. “We’re focused on the idea of perennial agriculture as a way of addressing and even reversing climate change. I haven’t seen that in other restaurants.” 

While plenty of restaurants are taking eco-conscious steps like using local-sustainable-organic ingredients and curbing waste, the Perennial, which will serve what its owners call progressive agrarian cuisine, will go several steps further. For starters, it’s not another farm-to-table establishment: Instead, you could call it the first table-to-farm restaurant built around the idea of using restaurant waste to make restaurant food.

Located on the street level of SoMa’s giant Ava high-rise apartment building, the Perennial was named for plants that return year after year, capturing and sequestering carbon, mitigating drought, and combating soil erosion. It will employ conservation practices that are still more or less unheard of in the restaurant industry: For one, about 20 percent of its produce will come from an aquaponic greenhouse in West Oakland, where kitchen scraps will be fed to worms and soldier fly larvae, which in turn will be dehydrated into food for sturgeons and catfish, whose poop-enhanced water will then be treated and circulated to vegetation destined for tables at the restaurant.

The Perennial’s beef will come from Stemple Creek Ranch, a Tomales cattle farm that reserves part of its land for carbon farming (an approach that focuses on increasing the capture of atmospheric carbon and storing it within plants and the soil). And eventually, the restaurant will serve bread made with flour milled from Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass (“Michael Pollan made some good pancakes with it,” Leibowitz reports).

“We’re not trying to make the claim that every restaurant has to produce its own food or be zero waste,” says Leibowitz. Instead, she and husband Myint hope that by prioritizing the environment, they’ll send a clearer message to their customers about where their food comes from, and the impact of their choices.

If this desire to raise public consciousness was pivotal in creating the Perennial’s concept, then a priority in the restaurant’s design was not cramming that consciousness down the public’s throat. Customers won’t realize that old menus are shredded and used for worm food, or that the restaurant dishwasher’s intake runs next to its ventilation system, allowing the escaping water to heat the incoming water. They won’t notice that the kitchen hood’s infrared temperature sensor turns the hood fans on and off based on whether smoke is rising from the cooking area—reducing energy use by up to 33 percent. They probably won’t be able to tell that the restaurant’s silverware was bought secondhand, or that the wood of its tables, chairs, and wall and ceiling panels came from salvaged urban trees.

What they will see is a mezzanine-level living pantry lined with planters from which chefs will harvest lettuces, herbs, and microgreens. If they peek behind the bar, they won’t see energy-sucking mini-fridges; instead, the bar shares a central walk-in with the kitchen (and, to save ice, sometimes pre-mixes and pre-batches its cocktails). And in the dining room, they’ll see a hundred-gallon aquarium whose fish, like those at the aquaponic greenhouse, are fed worms nourished with kitchen scraps.

For help designing their kitchen, Myint and Leibowitz turned to the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, a PG&E-owned resource of the Energy Star program that offers energy-efficiency consulting to the food industry. The couple quickly learned that their vision of a sustainable paradise didn’t always jibe with city and state regulations, much less with the realities of working within a corporate-owned high-rise. Early on, for example, someone proposed running the plumbing above the stoves to capture heat for the hot water, but that, Myint says, “wasn’t up to code.” Ditto a plan to recycle gray water from the bathroom’s sinks. “The long and the short of restaurant operational decisions,” Myint adds wryly, “is that they’re all really complicated.”

The restaurant’s true reality check will come after it has opened: For all of the boundaries its owners are pushing, the Perennial is not an art installation or a trip to the Exploratorium. Ingredients like local carbon-negative beef come at a premium, and Myint acknowledges a “big uncertainty” in predicting how the costs of running an aquaponic greenhouse will compare with those of buying produce from a supplier. “We’ve made projections,” Leibowitz says of the restaurant’s economics, “but they are necessarily hypothetical and subject to change.” Both she and Myint point out that such fiscal fog isn’t uncommon in the restaurant business, thanks to the ever-shifting costs of ingredients, oil, and labor. But the couple, who cite Blue Hill at Stone Barns—Dan Barber’s pioneering farm-restaurant in upstate New York—as an inspiration, have found some early ways to avoid passing costs on to their customers: To keep their entrées between $18 and $28, for example, they’ll move meat away from the center of the plate, rather than make it the main event—you won’t find any $45 steaks here.

Any restaurant owner, environmentally conscious or otherwise, can speak to the discrepancy that exists between ideals and reality. Annie Somerville, the longtime executive chef of Greens, has worked at the vegetarian restaurant since 1981, and she still remembers how difficult it was back then to find organic produce. “When there was nothing local,” she recalls, “we’d buy nonorganic, commercially grown produce because that’s all that was available. At that point in time, there weren’t a lot of options for purchasing organic.”

One ideal that Myint and Leibowitz embraced from the beginning was that the Perennial’s physical identity should avoid the usual tropes of pious farmhouse dining. “We were like, ‘What if we did Edison bulbs and a living wall?’” Leibowitz recalls. “But then in five years it would look dated.” So they turned to Paul Discoe, a designer, master woodworker, and ordained Zen Buddhist priest. That last descriptor informs all of his work, which can be seen at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, private estates such as Larry Ellison’s, and the restaurants Greens and Ippuku, the latter of which Discoe co-owns. “They wanted to be honest and sincere, that was what I got out of it,” Discoe says of his initial meeting with Myint and Leibowitz.

“They wanted the restaurant to be a real statement about dealing with the social situation we find ourselves in, where everything is based on ‘use it and throw it away.’”

Their wishes struck a chord with Discoe, who began working with salvaged wood long before “reclaimed” became a mandatory adjective. For the Perennial, he’s using redwood, poplar, acacia, and Douglas fir; the tables, chairs, bar, and paneling he has designed are being built by the woodworker Lucas Ford.

The West Oakland warehouse complex that houses Discoe’s company, Joinery Structures, is the site of the Perennial’s 3,400-square-foot aquaponic facility. It also happens to be where Paramo Coffee roasts its beans. Paramo will be opening a café next to the Perennial, and its delivery truck will transport the restaurant’s food scraps to the aquaponic facility during its daily route—thus answering the potentially problematic question of how to avoid emitting carbon while trying to reduce carbon.

Discoe’s experience as a designer at the San Francisco Zen Center came in handy when Leibowitz and Myint gave their staff a say in the Perennial’s design: As he puts it, “I had 22 years in another intense community situation where people felt empowered to express their opinion.” Despite the complexities of synthesizing competing visions, to say nothing of the city’s myriad bureaucratic regulations, Discoe finds that restaurant design offers a certain advantage over its residential counterpart. “I think you can be more daring because people don’t live there all the time,” he says. “It’s like going to see a rock band—you wouldn’t necessarily want the rock band to come home with you.”

It’s an apt analogy: Dining at the Perennial, with its handsome wood accents and carefully tended vegetation, will be a little like going to see the world’s most well-behaved rock band: To hear the message, you’ll need to pay attention.

 

Read more New Rules of Design coverage here.

 

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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