Sustainability is at the forefront of Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz’s newest restaurant, The Perennial, which opened in San Francisco in January 2016. The Perennial’s sustainability initiatives include a 2,000 square foot off-site aquaponic greenhouse, substantially smaller-than-usual meat portions, and wine served from the tap to reduce emissions from transportation from bottles. The Perennial is part of growing trend of bringing transparency back into the food system by de-commodifying food and converting the experience of eating out, from a subconscious experience into a conscious one. Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Leibowitz recently.
Food Tank (FT): How do you see the role of The Perennial in changing the culture surrounding food in the United States?
Karen Leibowitz (KL): Over the past few years, chefs and restaurants have gained a lot of influence in our culture, and we believe that presents a tremendous opportunity to spread the word that food is our best weapon against climate change. At The Perennial, we’re trying to champion progressive agricultural practices that draw carbon dioxide out of the air and into the soil, while demonstrating that a climate-conscious restaurant can be delicious, fun, and optimistic. Our hope is that we’ll not only start conversations among our diners but also inspire other restaurants to seek out climate-beneficial ingredients and practices so that we can build a movement together.
FT: Who is your ideal customer?
KL: Our goal at The Perennial is to meet diners wherever they are in terms of their personal investment in food and the environment, but we love it when people really engage with the food and the mission, so perhaps our ideal customer is anyone with curiosity and an open mind.
FT: Who inspires you?
KL: In the restaurant world, we’re pretty inspired by Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which has really integrated farming and cooking in innovative and delicious ways; although our location is pretty urban, we’ve tried to find ways to bring agriculture into The Perennial through our roof garden and aquaponic greenhouse, where we feed kitchen scraps to fish that in turn fertilize our plants. In the food activist world, we’re inspired by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, because we share his belief in the environmental power of farming, as well as his commitment to building community around food. Also John Wick (see below)
FT: What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?
KL: Since we opened in January, our chef, Chris Kiyuna, has been offering seasonal variations on a kind of “root to stem” vegetable dish served on the bread that our pastry chef, Nicola Carey, bakes every day. What started as Cauliflower Toast, with florets and puntarelle on a base of pureed cauliflower stems has evolved through Fava Toast to what is currently Eggplant Toast. I love the way the dish highlights the full range of flavors of whatever is in season, and of course, I love our bread, which incorporates Kernza, a perennial grain developed by The Land Institute. (And on the dessert side, we can’t resist the nasturtium ice cream with toasted pecans.)
FT: How will The Perennial help fight climate change?
KL: When we first embarked on building The Perennial, we were focused on sustainable operations and design, but as we delved deeper into the topic, we realized that a restaurant’s biggest impact on the environment is its ingredients. So we’ve focused our energy on championing progressive agriculture, including regenerative grains such as Kernza, meat raised through carbon farming, and using food waste to power our aquaponic systems. On a broader level, though, we hope that The Perennial will encourage more diners and chefs to create real change in our food system.
FT: Can you tell us how you came up with the name?
KL: A couple of years ago, we visited a cattle rancher named John Wick, who told us how he’d been managing his land to encourage perennial grasses, and then testing the soil and finding that the ranch had become a carbon sink. He showed us pictures of perennial root systems in comparison to annuals and explained how much CO2 could be stored in the soil if we converted rangeland to carbon farming. We named our restaurant The Perennial that day.
FT: What was your “ah-ha” moment? How did you first form the concept of this restaurant?
KL: We’ve been working together on various cooking and restaurant projects for almost a decade now, but during our first few months as parents in 2012, we spent a lot of time thinking about how we wanted to integrate our values into our working lives. After that initial bonding period, we committed ourselves to prioritizing the environment in our work, and that’s when the seeds of The Perennial were planted. It started with a small salad concept that would donate a portion of sales to food-related environmental activism, but then we sort of thought: Let’s really do this. Let’s figure out what we can do to push the restaurant world toward a more sustainable future.