The Meaning of Sustainability 

It's a hot buzzword, but there are no guidelines or regulations for its usage. What should it really mean?

Sustainable.

It pops up everywhere, this adjective implying that the food so labeled is superior and so are you for eating it. Sustainable suggests a certain everlastingness in which nothing gets hurt or dies.

"Sustainable" is the new "natural." It's a big buzzword. But what does it mean?

Nothing. And everything.

Neither the FDA nor any other government agency maintains official sustainability guidelines, although the Saratoga-based Sustainable Business Institute confers annual Seals of Sustainability.

"Sustainability is not regulated, so it can mean anything that anyone wants it to mean — and a lot of people are lying," said Aaron French, who wrote the "Eco-Chef" column for ten Bay Area News Group papers and helms the kitchen at Albany's Sunny Side Café. "Sustainability is a values-based word, like 'freedom' and 'justice,' so it's ultimately undefinable. And now everyone from the biggest corporation to the smallest restaurant wants to jump on this bandwagon."

How's that local/seasonal/sustainable stuff workin' out for us? French says it's biting us in the well-meaning butt.

"We now have more farmers' markets than are good for us," he said. "This creates so much competition between small organic farmers that they can't always sell enough product" to merit the jaunt. "And if a farmer drives hours and hours back and forth to three markets a week in his old pickup truck from the Eighties, is this a good thing? In terms of crop diversity and supporting independent farmers, yes. In terms of carbon footprints, no."

Carbon is one slice of a sustainability pie that's bigger than most of us realize. Other slices include fertilizer inputs, farm size and location, soil type, population shifts, and more. Despite his degrees in ecology and biology, French finds these variables daunting.

"It's very complicated. As a consumer, how do you integrate all that?"

Chefs in the progressive Bay Area are, not surprisingly, keen on the concept of sustainability. But even they have differing opinions on what exactly it means and how to best employ it in their restaurants.

For Gather's Sean Baker, it's about "cooking with respect and care" and using "ingredients that were raised with respect and care." In his kitchen, "we throw almost nothing away."

Baker one-ups other chefs who boast of using the whole animal by using the whole fruit and vegetable. "People normally throw away peels, seeds, and tops," he said. "We don't."

Take watermelon: Baker pickles its rind, feeds its peel through a Champion juicer to mix with green tea and create gels, and sears its flesh to use in dishes.

Carrot peelings are transformed into ash, destined for carrot-ash vinaigrette. Cornhusks, cobs, and tomato ends are toasted, grilled, charred, and pressure-cooked for stock. Deep-fried cornsilk is a lacy garnish.

"I can't save every single beet top, though I wish I could," said Baker. "It takes more work to cook sustainably than not to cook sustainably."

Gather's popular kale salad "blows through a hundred pounds of kale a week and produces enough kale stems to fill huge compost bins," Baker explained. "So I sat down with a notepad trying to think of how to use kale stems."

Solution: Pressure-cook them, braise them in puttanesca broth, then serve them with melted burrata on toast.

When dining at restaurants not his own, Baker has a keen eye for pseudo-sustainability. "I can tell when they're using non-organic broccoli rabe. I can look at a menu and know for sure whether they're really using the whole animal or not. I don't make a scene, but I know.

"I have a huge problem with people who don't walk the walk."

Minimizing waste is also top priority at eVe, where husband-and-wife chef-owners Christopher and Veronica Laramie train their staff to sort all kitchen trash into the appropriate City of Berkeley recycling bins.

"All of our glass, cans, and plastics get separated and recycled, and it works out so efficiently that we create only one small bin of garbage every week: no more than a typical family of four," Christopher Laramie said.

The Laramies say they embrace sustainability through two practices: using animals that are low on the food chain, and using whole animals: "We nearly always have an odd cut on the menu." Recent examples include Kobe beef tongue, sweetbreads, and the cheeks of veal, monkfish, and Kurobuta pork. 

The Laramies favor sardines, squid, spot prawns, and shellfish: "Eating small fish that are easily replenished — because they have a shorter maturation time — greatly reduces the chances of overfishing certain species," Christopher explained. It also reduces the risk of ingesting mercury, which commonly infuses the flesh of large predator fish.

"Being connected to the food we serve is a passion for us. Our goal is to provide the best dinners we can, based on the most educated decisions about where this food comes from. We look for local and sustainable ingredients first — but if the quality and price aren't right, we're not going to use it.

"The grandiose theory of local sustainable food that Alice Waters has famously popularized is just that: an ideal. There are very few ways to achieve that ideal," Christopher said, "especially considering most people's budgets. And what if you lived in Cleveland?"

Berkeley's city-run recycling program makes Trace Leighton and Daniel Clayton glad to be opening their new restaurant, Origen, here in October after years spent working in Contra Costa County. Leighton long brought eggshells, rinds, and other detritus home from her Pleasant Hill restaurant "because in Pleasant Hill, your only choice is to throw things away.

"We've both known for most of our lives that the resources on this planet are very limited. So for a very long time we've both been walking in the world saying we wanted to use as few resources as possible. I've spent the last ten years trying to make up for the way the soil on this planet has been treated for the last fifty."

How to go about this? By being super-scrupulous about suppliers and foodsheds while raising the alarm about genetically modified produce.

"The ugly truth is that there's nothing less sustainable than an out-of-season tomato," Leighton said. "It has been grown under conditions that are not naturally hospitable to these crops, where chemicals are used to alter the soil and kill bugs. It's the least sustainable produce you can get your hands on, yet these things are in virtually every salad and hamburger in America."

Clayton finds inspiration in fish-farming operations "that don't pollute the environment or introduce new species into the ocean but end up leaving it cleaner and giving you clean fish that you can trust." His favorite examples include Tomales Bay-based Hog Island oysters and Sea of Cortez-based bycatch-free, deepwater-pod-raised Fisherman's Daughter shrimp.

Origen's wine list is sourced just as painstakingly as the rest of its menu — because sustainability extends to wine, Clayton said. "Most people don't realize that conventional wine is filtered with eggwhites. Conventional wineries use millions of eggs from enormous battery farms where pollution and chemicals are rampant and chickens live a horrendous lifestyle."

"The biggest problem these days overall is how disconnected most people are from their food," Leighton lamented. "The new popularity of this word 'sustainability' is a wonderful first step, if it gets someone thinking they're a good person and makes them curious about what's in their food and where it's sourced from."

For most chefs, it comes down to sourcing. Jason Kwon, who reopened Berkeley sushi standby Joshu-Ya this summer as Joshu-Ya Brasserie, offers curious patrons food-source lists citing pasture-raised poultry from Marin Sun Farms; humanely raised beef from Kansas' Creekstone Farm; organic produce from Yolo County's Fully Belly Farm; low-carbon, fair-trade, organic milk from Petaluma's Clover Stornetta Farms; and wild seasonal seafood from around the world.

Such divulgences are becoming ubiquitous. But eco-chef Aaron French remains skeptical.

"What's unfortunately being hidden by all of today's greenwashing is the fact that the vast majority of 'sustainability' initiatives do not originate in companies' research departments but in their marketing departments," he said. "The 'sustainability person' is almost always the marketing person."

Meanwhile, true sustainability turns up in surprising places. "Wal-Mart has forced all its food suppliers to use smaller and smaller amounts of packaging," French said. "No other store in the universe had the muscle to do this. Because Wal-Mart's so big, it's selling more organic stuff than anyone else in the world. So, in effect, Wal-Mart is reducing pesticide use by millions of pounds per year."

On his Sunny Side menus, French identifies low-carbon choices and calculates the "food miles" that certain dishes incur. But he fantasizes about another sustainability strategy: bugs — namely, the soft grubs he ate while studying science in Africa.

"They're super-low on the food chain, so you can grow them on nothing. And they're totally tasty. Fried in hot chili oil, they're crunchy and crispy on the outside and rich and delicious on the inside.

"I would love to have a grub taco truck."

Well — maybe some kinds of sustainability will never catch on.

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