|The Simplicity of Sustainability: Green Restaurant Design Made Easy
There have been pockets of environmental activism in the culinary industry, but only recently has sustainability become such a central focus. Seattle is one exemplary city in its sustainability practices, and Napa and Sonoma aren’t far behind. Even the White House is talking up the virtues of local food— they’ve started a vegetable garden that will supply the kitchen! With Earth Day fast approaching, we should all be thinking about ways that we can be kinder to our planet.
What culinary professionals are learning is that becoming more sustainable is easier than they thought. Even in cities, chefs are proving that you don’t need a farm in your backyard to make more environmentally conscious decisions. Whether you’re building a restaurant from the ground up or trying to bring a greener ethos to your establishment, there are a number of things you can do on any scale.
If you’re starting from scratch, it’s easy to build an eco-friendly establishment. When Chef Colin Patterson and his partners built Sutra in Seattle they used non-toxic paint and salvaged materials, and installed green toilets. Chef Maria Hines, winner of our 2009 Sustainability Rising Star Award in Seattle, hand-sanded the chairs, put bamboo plywood on the tables, and made her own curtains when she was opening Tilth. “From a sustainability standpoint,” explains Hines, “you save a lot of energy and reduce your carbon footprint by doing it yourself.”
If your restaurant is already up-and-running, there are still plenty of steps you can take to become more sustainable. Chef Ana Sortun of Oleana (Boston) opened in 2001, but the restaurant has taken several steps to green up their operation: “Over the past three years we have implemented more and more sustainable practices. We have our own farm where we grow all of our vegetables and herbs. We compost, recycle, conserve water, and even recycle our frying oil for cars to run on. When we underwent a recent renovation we installed LED lighting."
Filtering and carbonating your own water is a great way to reduce waste and save money. Chef Philip Tessier of Bouchon, in Yountville, CA, says, “We have implemented a new water system, Nordaq FRESH. This is a Swedish-based system that removes the taste of dirt, minerals, etc. from tap water. In utilizing this, we can purify our own water and present it in reusable glass bottles, which eliminates extra waste.”
Restaurants can also take the initiative to rethink their to-go containers and paper products. Chef/owner Duncan Gott of Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, which has three locations in California, has the goal of zero waste. In order to achieve this, Gott has taken an innovative approach: “All of our containers are 100% compostable (except for purchased beverages). Even plastic utensils and salad bowls and fountain drinks and sauce containers. This means that if you leave it out in the sun for a few hours it’ll start to melt.” You can also use recycled products, print menus on recycled paper, and stock recycled toilet paper and paper towels.
Composting food waste is another way to become more sustainable. If you have the space to do it, this compost will turn into valuable soil for your plants. Even without the luxury of extra acres, composting is still feasible. Chef Mark Fuller of Spring Hill in Seattle works with a company that picks up and composts his food waste.
We’ve also seen culinary gardens popping up all over. For chef/owners Duskie Estes and John Stewart of Bovolo and Zazu in California, their farm not only supplies their produce, but it’s a source of inspiration for their menu, which changes daily. “Much of our produce has never been refrigerated,” explains Estes. “It’s picked the same day and brought to the table. We’re fortunate that we can do that. It is different, the food tastes alive.”
Chef Bobby Hellen of Resto in New York doesn’t have a farm, but he does have a small herb garden on the roof of his urban restaurant. For his other ingredient needs, Hellen relies on the green market and nearby farms to supply local, seasonal products to his city restaurant.
And you don’t have to stop at the food when it comes to serving local and organic products. At Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar in Sonoma, CA, chef Janine Falvo tells us that the wines she serves hail solely from Sonoma County. With the popularity of microbrewing, it has become easier to forge partnerships with local breweries as well. Alternately, if you can’t go local, go organic: Maria Hines offers mostly organic and biodynamic wines at Tilth.
While there's ample enthusiasm over going green, the process is not without its hurdles. Roger Young, General Manager of Bardessono, says that the biggest challenge he's experiencing is changing habits—of his customers and employees. “Making sure the people who work here are separating bottles from our waste, utilizing our food scraps and putting them in the [composter]. Do we use two sides of paper? Do we save a piece of paper and use it again? It’s a really tough process," he says, "but we’re working on all kinds of initiatives.”
At Café Juanita in Seattle, chef Stuart Lane points out that it can be difficult to shop locally “when you have any kind of volume…Many [farmers/local producers] have a finite amount, so you can only put so much on your menu or you’ll exhaust your stock.”
Chef Joel Hough of Cookshop in New York argues that the average person will choose the less expensive, less sustainable option if they're not educated on the subject. “Until things are subsidized in the right direction,” he explains, “it’s difficult.” As demand increases, though, the prices are going down. And once you start on the path to sustainability, some of your costs decrease. Growing your own herbs and vegetables is only as expensive as the seeds and dirt. Buying local produce will save you shipping costs, and energy efficient appliances can help reduce your utility bills.
Going green may sound daunting, especially for established restaurants set in their ways. But we’ve been blown away by the efforts of chefs, restaurants, and hotels we’ve visited to be more environmentally friendly. Becoming more sustainable is simple—don’t be afraid to try.