The Perennial In SF Wants Restaurants To Help The Environment

A new restaurant in San Francisco wants to start an environmental revolution

It was around the time that Anthony Myint was launching ZeroFoodprint—an organization that advises restaurants on how to reduce their carbon footprint—that he and wife Karen Leibowitz started to think: "If you started a [restaurant] from scratch and wanted to have the least [negative] environmental impact as possible, how would you do that?" recalls Leibowitz.

A couple of years and countless hours of research about food systems and ecosystems later, Leibowitz and Myint opened The Perennial this Wednesday. The San Francisco restaurant, which is about a mile from their iconic Mission Chinese Food, is one of the most ambitious environmentally focused restaurants to open in the U.S. since Dan Barber debuted Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley.

Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz. Photo: Alanna Hale

Everything in the restaurant, from the tables to the food on them, was sourced with a holistic approach to the food system in mind. "We started with a focus on least impact" on the environment, explains Leibowitz. But, as she and Myint learned more about progressive agriculture, they started to think about the positive impact a restaurant could have on the environment. They've constructed an aquaponic greenhouse in West Oakland in a complex owned by architect and Zen priest Paul Discoe. Here, the team is raising fish and plants in the same space, using food scraps from the restaurant to feed the fish and filtered water from the fish as nutrients to grow the plants.

They also adopted the word perennial as a name and a guiding principle for the restaurant. These plants, which grow over several years, build root structures that return carbon to the earth. Their meat purveyor, Stemple Creek, supports grazing and the growth of these plants, making it one of very few cattle ranches on the planet that's good for the environment. And the kitchen's flour, which Tartine's Chad Robertson helped transform into the house's signature loaf, comes from another perennial, a cousin of wheat called kernza.

Roasted squash. Photo: Alanna Hale

Looking at a plate of chef Chris Kiyuna's elegant food—like cauliflower toast with puntarelle, cilantro and a glaze or celeriac gnocchi with cheese, apples and nettles—you wouldn't know any of this. "Our goal has been to meet the diner at whatever level of interest they have," Leibowitz says.

Fittingly, the menu includes this note:

"We believe that food must be part of the climate change conversation, and that restaurants can lead the way. We're trying to rethink everything about the food world, and we're happy to tell you about it. (Or you can just enjoy the food.)"

Photo: Julie Ann Fineman

It stops short, however, of annotating the source of the restaurant's ingredients (as so many restaurants have started to do). It's "sort of an invitation to ask questions," Leibowitz says. And if diners do, she has three postcards with information about their efforts.

The real test to their mission, though, is whether the team's efforts will be replicated by other restaurateurs. "We want to not be unique, we want to be part of a movement," says Leibowitz. "We tried to do things that could be replicated."