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By Laura A. Shepard
Unlike many other trappings of consumer society, food is necessary for survival. Food is also cultural and every year cooks and chefs come up with new ways to make food tastier, healthier or more exciting in some way.
Perennial. Karen Leibowitz
Innovators are always finding ways to solve problems and beat challenges, from using secret ingredients to keeping costs down. Restaurants based on all sorts of wacky concepts come and go to keep up with changing tastes.
In this day and age, climate change is a big problem. Food production and waste are major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Growing, raising, harvesting, transporting, storing, cooking, serving and disposing are all energy and labor-intensive.
Despite the inherent challenges, some chefs argue that restaurants can also be part of the solution. A few innovative chefs and restaurant owners are giving it a go and showing that it can be done.
Let's start with Perennial. Owners Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint started from scratch with the concept of a carbon negative restaurant and ran from there.
The couple already owned the successful Mission Chinese in San Francisco.
"In 2012 we had a child and that really focused our minds on the future," Liebowitz said. "We had a person we were pledged to take care of and we worried about her future."
She and Myint assessed Mission Chinese's carbon footprint and implemented some changes.
"We were clearly just retrofitting an existing structure," Liebowitz said. "We were wondering about starting something new."
Agriculture became top priority because plants are crucial for storing carbon.
Perennial serves "California cuisine" and while some dishes include unusual ingredients, Leibowitz says they have to be delicious to make it onto the menu.
Their approach is designed to reduce food waste by using parts of the ingredients that others might discard. This is called "root to stem" vegetable cooking.
"This leads to a lot of creativity," she said.
Cauliflower Toast.Karen Leibowitz
Meat comes from places that employ "carbon ranching" or raising the animals in such a way that it benefits the climate. When they buy an animal, they use the whole animal by strategically placing certain cuts throughout the menu. There's very little waste and very little compromise in terms of taste.
Perennial's menu features Kernza, a perennial grain developed in Kansas. Kernza can be baked into traditionally popular San Francisco sourdough breads.
"People go bonkers for it," Liebowitz said.
They serve the bread with butter and make toasts with seasonal vegetables.
Liebowitz says that environmental groups will often opt to host events at Perennial, but most diners come for the beautiful space and delicious food. Despite climate change serving as the inspiration, the dining experience is similar to any high-end restaurant. While there is little literature on the menu, patrons can ask servers about the climate-focused movements.
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