Closed-Loop Dining

A new San Francisco restaurant will turn table scraps back into food in an aquaponic “living pantry”

Last week, I showed a friend around the concrete shell of a room where my husband and I are building a restaurant.

I paced off the L-shape of the future bar, stood behind an invisible host’s stand, and pantomimed getting comfortable in a potential banquette — all standard components of restaurant design. But then I moved on to the “living pantry.” Herbs, lettuces, and micro-greens will grow in long planters mounted along the walls of the mezzanine. Tendrils of malabar spinach will drape across the top of the front window in lieu of curtains. Bright-green sprouts will be visible through the glass-topped communal table in the corner. All of the greenery in the space will be hydrated and nourished by an irrigation system drawing on a hundred-gallon aquarium off to the side of the chef’s counter. The fish will be fed by dehydrated worms raised on scraps from the kitchen, and both plants and fish will be harvested by our cooks and served at the restaurant.

As I heard myself explaining the plan to raise fish and plants in a symbiotic system called aquaponics, I realized how rare it is to talk about worms, shit, and restaurant design in a single sentence. But it shouldn’t be. We need to start thinking more seriously about food in terms of systems design, and imagine better feedback mechanisms (pardon the pun) between farming and eating.

For the past six years, my husband and I have been in the habit of starting unusual restaurants, including a pop-up with a different menu each night, which evolved into an award-winning restaurant called Mission Chinese Food, which has donated more than $300,000 to the local food bank over the years. (All of the projects we’ve worked on have involved a charitable component, even though it can be challenging financially.) About a year ago, we were asked to open a restaurant on the street level of a new high-rise apartment building — definitely not our typical style. Initially, we weren’t interested, but then we realized it would be worthwhile if we could create a laboratory of sorts for environmentalism in the restaurant industry. To our surprise, the developer agreed and investors miraculously appeared. So, after years of budget restauranteering, we were faced with the brand-new challenge of designing the restaurant of our dreams (or perhaps of our consciences).

We’re now a few months away from opening The Perennial, named in homage to perennial plants’ capacity to mitigate drought, prevent soil erosion, and even combat climate change. As part of our effort to connect culinary and ecological values, we will serve bread made from perennial grains developed by The Land Institute, Wes Jackson’s agricultural advocacy group based in Kansas (using recipes developed by Chad Robertson, the renowned bread-maker from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco). We’re further investing in perennialism through a partnership with an innovative group of scientists and ranchers called the Carbon Cycle Institute, which has developed managed grazing practices that encourage the return of perennial native grasses whose massive root systems sequester carbon from the atmosphere, yielding “climate beneficial” meat.

While working on the design of The Perennial, we’ve explored a few options that haven’t panned out — at least not yet. We visited the MycoWorks studio, where artist/designer Phil Ross showed us samples of sound-absorbing ceiling tiles and furniture made from mycelium, but it’s not yet on the Health Department’s list of approved materials for restaurant fixtures. We met a couple of times with a design/engineering firm called Hyphae about creating a glass-enclosed terrarium in the bathroom to filter greywater from our sinks, purify it with UV light, and send it back to flush the toilets, but we’re tabling the idea for now, subject to budget constraints. These are hard decisions to make and we’d love to work with these innovative designers, but we can’t do everything we’d like in The Perennial’s 4,000 square feet. Maybe someday, but as we approach our opening, the primary goal is to nudge the restaurant industry beyond farm-to-table clichés and instigate a deeper environmental conversation.

“Farm-to-table is now a much abused descriptor,” warns Chef Dan Barber in his recent book, The Third Plate. The problem, he argues, is not just that the label has become a cover for complacency, but also that “the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around.” Barber proposes a new “pattern of eating” to replace farm-to-table, dubbed “whole farm cooking,” which celebrates soil-building crops like broccoli, which is a nitrogen fixer.

I love broccoli more than anyone I’ve ever known, so Barber’s plan appeals to me, but I wonder if it’s realistic to expect a widespread cultural shift in the near future, given how personal and intractable our palates can be. Some people simply will not enjoy broccoli, no matter how much you explain its beneficial relationship to soil ecology. (I’m reminded of George H. W. Bush’s petulant confirmation that there really is no accounting for taste: “I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”) The restaurant industry can do a lot to influence our consumption patterns, as evidenced by the current trendiness of kale, which is another nitrogen fixer. And yet I do not believe that we’ve all gone crazy for kale for agricultural reasons; kale is popular among chefs because of its culinary merits, rather than its soil ecology. But why not consider both?

At the risk of generating yet another disposable catchphrase, I’d like to suggest a new movement to complement farm-to-table, which we might as well call “table-to-farm.”

At The Perennial, we’re thinking about table-to-farm not only as a way to connect with agriculture, but also to address the pressing — and deeply unsexy — issue of food waste. According to the United Nations, one-third of the global food supply goes to waste every year and “food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China.” In the United States, efficient transportation and reliable refrigeration prevent the kind of spoilage endemic to the developing world, but we are shockingly wasteful at the consumer end of the supply chain. A typical American family of four throws out 1,160 pounds of food per year. If we are honest with ourselves, our current system is really farm-to-table-to-trash.

We tend to think of greenhouse gases in terms of transportation rather than food, but the food system currently accounts for 30% of emissions, and there is a lot of room for improvement, particularly through managing waste. Here in San Francisco, homes and businesses set out three separate bins on trash day: blue for recycling, green for compost, and black for “landfill.” If the entire country followed suit, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking 7.8 million cars off the road. Yet even while composting is a huge and important part of the solution, it can still have some pitfalls; if it’s not carefully managed, the anaerobic conditions can result in the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas over 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Ultimately, re-use is still better than recycling.

As a restaurateur whose environmental anxiety has been rising in tandem with the sea level, it’s exciting to imagine the restaurant as a forum designed to get people talking about where our food comes from — and where it goes — but it can be hard to translate into restaurant design. Few of us really want to think about waste while eating, and yet for city-folk like me, food has become one of the only ways to engage with the environment.

As my husband and I sketched the initial design for The Perennial, we looked for ways to reduce food waste. (The collaboration with MycoWorks was exciting in part because mycelium grows on agricultural waste byproducts like rice hulls, corn cobs, and fibrous stalks; as Phil Ross told us, “mycelium furniture could be made from the two-thirds of the plant that don’t make it to the restaurant table, contributing to a zero waste design environment.” Maybe someday we can circle back to the idea.) Our current obsession is building a 2,000-square-foot aquaponic greenhouse off-site, where kitchen scraps will be consumed by worms and black soldier fly larvae, which will be dehydrated and made into fish food for sturgeon and catfish, who will swim in water that will be filtered and re-circulated into planting beds where their waste will nourish plants that will be transferred to the living pantry and eventually served at the restaurant. Instead of becoming trash or compost, our food scraps will be converted to edible food using one-tenth of the water and one-eighth of the land of traditional agriculture. And, of course, it’s completely organic, though I believe we’ve put too much faith in that term.

We’re raising funds for the aquaponic greenhouse on Kickstarter, with rewards ranging from CSA-style produce boxes to private parties at the restaurant (One day left! We’ll be opening the greenhouse for tours to spread the word about aquaponics.

Fortunately, we have found a kindred spirit in our architect/designer, Paul Discoe. He is not only a master of sustainable design but also a Buddhist priest who designed the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the 1960s. The first time we visited his studio, we discovered that he had been dabbling in aquaponics for years; he was so excited about linking aquaponics with a restaurant that he offered to design the greenhouse for free and build it on his property in Oakland. Paul proposed a system of sleds for transferring living plants from the greenhouse to the restaurant, and when we wondered if it was too much to ask of him, he said in his sage old-man voice, “All is possible.”

As a Buddhist designer, Paul told us that he always aims to “awaken the way-seeking mind,” to put people in a situation where they see things differently — and that’s exactly what we want the living pantry to do. The overarching design goal is to illustrate our table-to-farm concept in an appealingly visual way, so that we can keep our environmentalism appetizing. The cooks will be able to serve the freshest ingredients imaginable, diners who wish to concentrate on their date or their dinner can experience the living pantry as a simple decoration, and anyone interested in the ecosystem that surrounds them can talk with servers who will be ready to explain how all the parts fit together and why it matters.

At its simplest, The Perennial aims to be a successful restaurant with good food and enough profit to offset its greenhouse gas emissions. At its most ambitious, The Perennial strives to re-orient the system design of the restaurant industry (daunting as that may be). In the grand version of our dreams, we’d love to see restaurants advertising their carbon footprints with at least as much pride as labels like organic, local, artisanal, or farm-to table, but of course, we’re venturing into a crowded field. The sustainable food movement is littered with buzzwords that have been trumpeted and either discarded or assimilated in their turn.

Ultimately, I think our struggle to find the right words for food may turn out to be a proxy for our hopes and fears regarding climate change, and it’s my hope that if we can start talking more directly about the relationship between food and the environment, and if we invest in some new ways to grow food that we feel good about, then maybe we can learn to relax and enjoy our meal.

All illustrations by Marina Muun.