Build it (Sustainably) and They Will Come

An Interview with Karen Leibowitz of San Francisco’s The Perennial

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Build it (Sustainably) and They Will Come

An estimated one-third of the world’s greenhouse gases come from our food system, but San Francisco’s most radical new restaurant, The Perennial, wants to reverse that trend. The Perennial is reducing its carbon footprint and raising diner awareness through a partnership with Zero Foodprint , an organization that helps restaurants lower and offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

The ambitious new restaurant has a radical bottom line — that a restaurant can not only slow the environmental crisis, but also reverse it. In that spirit, The Perennial is invested in innovative agriculture, including aquaponic produce, perennial grain bread and carbon-farmed meats.

Carbon farming converts carbon dioxide into soil and plant matter, which reduces emissions, while aquaponic farming creates a closed-loop plant-fish-waste system that reduces food waste. Perennial grains, like the Kernza that The Perennial plans on serving, draw carbon out of the air and improve delicate soil ecosystems with their deep roots.

This joint venture between Karen Leibowitz and her partner Anthony Myint radically reconsiders every element through the lens of sustainable design, from the recycled wood and carpets to the kitchen equipment and cocktails.

Paste visited the laboratory for environmentally-reimagined dining to chat with Leibowitz about its challenges and future.

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Paste: It feels so comfortable and relaxed in here. How do you do a restaurant that fights climate change without coming off preachy or overbearing?

Karen Leibowitz: The challenge we set for ourselves was to create a restaurant where people would want to come and enjoy themselves. The diner’s experience is primary, but we also wanted to create a place that could change the way people think, which isn’t always what we seek out as diners. I think the restaurant is only as successful as it is appealing.

Paste: How did you find that balance between making a great restaurant and revolutionizing the food system?

KL: We worked on this restaurant for about two years before it opened, and my focus was how to manage the relationship between activism and just running a good restaurant. We talked a lot with our servers, in particular, about how to meet people at their level of interest. Our menu introduces that philosophy. It says that we’re happy to tell you about how food is part of the climate change conversation, and how restaurants can lead the way, or you can just hang out and enjoy the food. “Feel free to ask” is the unspoken principle of our service. Hopefully, people will feel like they can come again and again and just say “that looks good.” They can trust that we’re being responsible to the environment and eat without getting a spiel.

Paste: Do you get a lot of questions from diners?

KL: Yes, and there’s a whole range. Just last week a server was telling me that sometimes people will inquire, halfway through a meal: “Oh, is there a theme to this restaurant?” And he’s like, “yes, actually,” and he’ll tell them a bit about our mission. Sometimes people come simply because they’re checking out the new place in the neighborhood, while others are completely prepared and bring specific questions.

Paste: Are there areas where it has been less clear how to proceed?

KL: Definitely in the bar. Drinking has been ensconced in tradition, and no one wants to know how wasteful bars are and all the unsexy stuff behind the scenes, like all the energy and water that go into ice production. The liquor industry is a bit crazy when it comes to the environment. For example, hard alcohol can’t be sold in containers larger than a handle; you can’t sell a keg of gin to a bar. It has to be 1.75 liters. And then all those heavy glass bottles can’t be reused because of the way the taxes are connected to the bottles.

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Paste: So how is it possible to create an environmentally-responsible bar?

KL: We’ve done a few things we’re really excited about. We have one big refrigerator, which cuts down energy use, and we do wine on tap, which reduces packaging. Ice is pre-frozen into our glasses. Living in a historic drought here in California, we’ve given a lot of thought to reducing our water waste.

Paste: Are there other restaurants you’re looking to as models?

KL: There are a few restaurants we draw inspiration from and with them, we share a sense of a burgeoning movement. One is Silo in Brighton, England. They’re focused on zero waste. All food is delivered to them in reusable or compostable packaging. The small amount of plastic they do end up receiving is melted into plates. I’ve never been, but I admire them from afar. Then, across the country in New York, there’s Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill, which are innovating how agriculture is integrated into restaurants. Barber’s approach is so forward-looking and can change the way people make food choices.

Paste: How is The Perennial different?

KL: We are different in the sense that we’re using climate change as our organizing principle. So what we’re thinking about is not only waste, but also our carbon footprint. That’s been the most important metric for us. I think that as time passes, climate change will become an organizing principle for all of us, and restaurants have great potential to lead the conversation in a positive way.

One of the things that keeps me up at night is thinking about what the world might look like for our daughter, and whether it’ll be the post-apocalyptic vision from movies where there are struggles over resources. I find that vision not very productive toward action; it’s just scary. Our current project is about preventing that reality in way that is more empowering and productive.

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Paste: It sounds like you have a positive outlook. Many of us are simply overwhelmed when confronted with the direness and enormity of our environmental crisis.

KL: When we first got started, we were thinking, how can we make a restaurant that is conservationist, how can we use the least amount of energy and water? Then we realized that there are ways to use not just less, but to use differently. We can have a much bigger impact than just slowing the problem; we can actually reverse it, and I’m hopeful to the extent that we can get this message out. If only one restaurant does it, of course, it won’t be enough. So it’s really important for us to work with other restaurants and with diners and farmers.

Paste: Have other restaurants reached out to you?

KL: We have gotten a lot of interest in the Kernza especially. We’ve been working with the Land Institute in Kansas, which has been breeding a perennial wheatgrass they call Kernza. It can be ground into a flour, and we’ve been using it to bake bread. Other restaurants and bakeries have been very interested. I think we’re the first restaurant to serve it.

And Paramo, the café we work with here, was inspired – by what we were doing with our carbon-ranched meats – to work with a dairy that raises cattle for milk in the same way. So they’ve come up with a deal with Straus creamery to provide carbon-ranched milk.

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Paste: What’s it like working with your partner and co-parent on such an ambitious business project?

KL: It has been wonderful, and I think that’s a testament to Anthony. He is so hard-working that it inspires me to work harder. He sets the pace, and I try to fulfill my responsibilities. The other reason it works well is that we have faith that we want the best for each other. Because we are partners in business and in life, we trust that we have the same objectives.

The biggest problem we face being partners in everything is that there’s not always the chance to be the authority in your sphere. You can’t come home and tell your own story and simply be the opinion of record. So we’ve figured out how to carve out our own jurisdictions within the restaurant. For the most part, Anthony is managing the living things, while my role revolves around our message. Assuming the best in your partner is, I think, the best way to do this.

Paste: What do you eat at home?

KL: We eat a lot of vegetables, and Anthony does a good job managing food waste. He’ll roast a chicken, and then the bones become stock. We mostly eat at home, because we have a three-year-old—but sometimes we eat out at lunch as professional research that can double as a date. We try to be careful about our sources, but of course we’re not perfect. Sometimes you need to get something from a convenience store because you have a screaming toddler. I don’t want to set us up as some kind of ideal. We’re doing the best that we can, and it feels like we’re on the right course.

Paste: Where do you hope The Perennial will be in a year?

KL: Our first-year goal is to demonstrate that a restaurant on this model can be successful. We just want to build it as a business. The longer-term goal is to be a touchstone for a movement. In my wildest fantasies, we’ll become the Chez Panisse of our generation, where people train and then go off and start their own restaurants, each innovating in its own ways. If you look at the cooks who have passed through Chez Panisse and started their own places, it’s pretty powerful. Our ambition is to be a place for cooks who care about the environment. They’d spend some time here, and then start their own places, near or far, spreading the restaurant’s philosophy.

Daniela Blei is a book editor, historian, and writer. Her essays have appeared in The New Republic, Smithsonian, Narratively, The Bold Italic, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco and thinks $4 toast is OK.

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