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The Perennial, while self-sufficient in many ways, relies on a patch of industrial land in West Oakland, run by Zen Buddhist priest and architect Paul Discoe, for much of its operational muscle. A lumber yard in West Oakland might seem like an unlikely place to start reversing climate change, but Discoe's 2.5-acre compound off of Magnolia Avenue is fertile soil for the Perennial's blossoming ecosystem. Discoe's brand of Zen-soaked, sylvan minimalism can be found in restaurants around the Bay Area, like Berkeley's Ippuku (where Discoe is also part-owner) and Greens at Fort Mason in San Francisco (where the titular produce comes from the San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm in Marin).
Discoe's workshop looks like anything but Zen, at least from an outsider's perspective. The industrial plot, previously an oxygen plant, is now home to mountains of reclaimed wood, a woodworking shop, a metal fabrication shop, a plant nursery, a chicken coop, a small courtyard with Discoe's collection of Bonsai trees, and an aquaponic greenhouse. Each of these pieces (aside from maybe the Bonsai) will come together to contribute to the form, function or product of the Perennial in one way or another.
Tying everything together, Discoe says that the "most essential" idea at the Perennial is mottainai — the Japanese word for "waste not," and the sense of regret that follows wastefulness. "So whatever comes to you through whatever circumstance," Discoe explains of the mottainai concept, "you need to take care of it and see that it fulfills whatever mission it has in life. Whether it's a dirty Kleenex on the street, or a hundred dollar bill, or your best friend — you need to take care of it and make it function as best as it can." And that means much more than simply creating beautiful furniture with reclaimed wood from street trees felled in Oakland and Piedmont.
In this case, it also means truly fulfilling the mission of a "farm-to-table" restaurant by flipping it to create a "table-to-farm" restaurant — one where the restaurant and the farm are actually operating in service of each other.
Nathan Kaufman, the restaurant's Director of Living Systems and the resident aquaponics expert at Urban Adamah in Berkeley, is building a 2,000 square-foot aquaponic greenhouse on Discoe's land that will eventually be used to stock the restaurant's living pantry, as well as provide sturgeon, catfish and clams for the menu.
According to The Perennial's fish gurus, fish farming has two major problems: what to do with the dirty waste water, and what to feed the fish. The first problem is solved by filtering the wastewater through pebbles treated to convert ammonia into nitrates that will fertilize the garden. The second piece in the system: converting the restaurant's compostable waste into fish food to completely close the loop.
"They either die of starvation, or you have to trick them by mixing it with what they're familiar with, in order to get them to eat something new," says Discoe, referring to the fish that will inhabit the aquaponic farm on his land. To feed the finicky fish, Kaufman incorporates those rarefied table scraps of San Francisco diners into the fish's diet, transforming them through a homegrown composting operation, wherein the restaurant's waste will be composted by worms and black soldier fly larvae. The worms and larvae are then dehydrated and processed into fishmouth-sized nuggets, not unlike what you might find at a pet supply store.
The fish food becomes fish waste, which becomes plant fertilizer, which becomes the plant matter growing in the greenhouse and lining the walls of the restaurant's living pantry, before it finally lands on your plate. While Kiyuna undoubtedly hopes you eliminate waste by cleaning your plate, any scraps left behind will return to West Oakland to start the cycle all over again. Even the the recycled paper menus and worn-out cotton napkins will eventually become fodder for the restaurant's hardworking worms.
For the ingredients that need a little more room to roam than the West Oakland compound allows, Myint, Leibowitz and Kiyuna have identified local farms that not only raise their livestock in a clean and humane way, but are also on the cutting edge of carbon farming practices that leave the land in better shape than they found it.
The Marin Carbon Project estimates as much as a third of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from poor land management practices on working farms (like overworking the soil), and is attempting to reduce this figure through a process called soil carbon sequestration. In answer to this, The Perennial has sourced much of their protein from the 700-acre Stemple Creek Ranch in West Marin, and, along with the Carbon Cycle Institute, are working to create a "carbon cycle protocol." The protocol refers to grazing patterns and composting cycles to encourage perennial grass growth.
Perennial grasses: KERNZA
Even the bread that arrives at your table is meant to foster conversation about the current food system. The Perennial's pastry chef, Nicola Carey, has spent the past few months perfecting bread recipes made from Kernza, a lab-bred perennial wheatgrass created by the Land Institute in Kansas, and is one of the first restaurants to use the grain on a meaningful scale. Unlike ubiquitous dwarf wheat, Kernza grows year-round and does not need yearly replantings. That means it grows deeper, more resilient roots that return carbon to the soil and could help prevent another dust bowl by reducing erosion and harmful runoff.
Inside the restaurant itself, "recycled, reclaimed and efficient" are still the order of day, but the philosophy plays out subtly through the various elements. The two long slabs of Douglas Fir that make up the L-shaped bar came from Discoe's wife's family property in Northern California. The woven ceiling tiles form a canopy of California Redwood, made from thin strips shaved off of support beams that once braced the ceiling of a tunnel in Marin County. San Francisco's long-gone Transbay Terminal lives on in wood reclaimed during that building's demolition.
The tiles in the space come from San Francisco's own Fireclay Tile and are crafted from waste like excess glass trimmings, curbside recycling, and recycled computer monitors— which feels especially poetic in a restaurant industry flush with tech excess. The glass in the entryway was recycled from municipal recycling bins and crafted by Bendheim Glass in New Jersey. The rug that softens the concrete room is made from 100 percent recycled fibers by Interface, a company Myint and Leibowitz admire for their experiments recycling used fishing nets that might have otherwise ended up floating in the Great Pacific garbage patch.
In the back of the house, the "waste less" philosophy takes on yet another form that might not be immediately obvious in Kiyuna's menu. As the flagship restaurant for Zero Foodprint, Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying's non-profit venture that provides guidelines for fighting climate change in the food service industry, Myint and Kiyuna analyzed (and in some cases over-analyzed) every aspect of kitchen efficiency. "What was crazy was that we spent hours Googling restaurant equipment efficiency," said Myint, a frustrating process that ended when one of the restaurant's partners happened upon PG&E's Food Service Technology Center, essentially "hidden in plain view." In addition to providing ratings for Energy Star, the FSTC provides detailed kitchen equipment performance reports, design consultations and on-site audits that allow restaurants of all sizes — from "mom and pop" operations, to Safeway — to optimize for efficiency.
A combination test lab and showroom, the FSTC led the Perennial team to high-tech kitchen gadgets like a laser-activated smart vent hood that detects particulate matter and kicks in when the air needs clearing, rather than blowing exhaust for an entire kitchen shift. Or the Turbo Pot — a product of Silicon Valley tech veterans that can boil a liter and a half of water in half the time of a standard stock pot. (Eneron, the company behind the Turbo Pot, also created a wok version based on the same design for Mission Chinese Food's blanching woks.)
Boosting efficiency is not always as simple as picking the latest model on the showroom floor, however, and what works at the Perennial may not make the most sense for everyone. For example, Myint's plan to stock the kitchen with highly efficient electric-powered induction cooking equipment was scrapped because renewable energy sources only make up 19 percent of PG&E's energy mix.
Imagine driving a new Tesla home from the lot, only to find out you have to charge it with a diesel generator.
It's these sorts of trade-offs and compromises that Myint and Leibowitz hope will get others thinking more deeply about how they run their restaurants. "The choices that we make won't necessarily be right for every single restaurant," Myint explained, "but by working them through and being transparent about, it hopefully saves people some time trying to think through them."
On the table, however, "progressive agrarian cuisine" is less about compromise and more about using culinary technique to deliver satisfying food from "ingredients that we feel proud of," as Leibowitz frames it. The intention is to build upon the recent farm-to-table movement, to continue that careful consideration of each ingredient's source and to use the absolute freshest ingredients possible, while also shedding some burdensome and nostalgic idea of what a farm does. "Where we're really thinking about where the food is coming from — not in a kind of nostalgic idea of like 'the farm' but like a sense of how farms can become part of the climate change solution," explains Leibowitz.
One unassuming showpiece on Kiyuna's opening menu, a potato confit with clam bagna cauda, draws on every aspect of the restaurant's high-minded philosophy to create something deeply satisfying. Carola and larette potatoes are steamed and pan fried, then combined with gently poached clams, fresh radishes and radish greens all raised together in the aquaponic farm. Finally, the adductor muscles and other generally unused clam bits are cooked in oil and butter with more fresh herbs to create the savory bagna cauda that pulls the dish together.
Elsewhere on the menu, diners can expect dishes like beef with blistered broccoli leaves or pork with smoky sweet potato to strike a balance between the protein and the vegetables on the plate. For Myint and Leibowitz, shifting the focus away from the meat — a current trend they admire in their peers AL's Place or Blue Hill at Stone Barns — is yet another technique in service of their goal of reducing waste and carbon emissions.
Cocktails with a Conscience
Behind that Doug Fir bar, resident "ice nerd" and beverage director Jennifer Colliau (The Interval at Long Now, Small Hand Foods) has created a four-part cocktail menu of Highballs, Lowballs, "Fun," and "Complicated," drinks that should read as familiar to the casual boozehound while offering an additional layer of complexity to those who look more deeply into their glasses. While Colliau says she doesn't want patrons to be "bonked over the head with a moral," when they walk in the door, she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to get the most out of each ingredient. Stirring, shaking, straining or otherwise tossing ice into the bar sink, for example, is avoided whenever possible. Highballs are batched and served chilled on-tap, while lowballs are poured into glasses pre-frozen with block ice.
Like the kitchen, Colliau's creative use of technique allows the bar to rescue other ingredients that would normally have been discarded. Colliau's re-invented vodka soda, to use the old standby as an example, eschews the standard formula of vodka, soda and a squeeze of citrus and gets its acidity from a hydrosol distilled from the bar's leftover citrus zest. (For the uninitiated, a hydrosol is a water-based product of distillation that removes the essential oil of a plant, herb, or in this case, lemon zest, and leaves behind a concentrated, flavored water, like rose water.)
The bar's take on the classic Pisco Punch takes a similar approach with biodynamic, California Pisco served cold over a scoop of sherbet made from leftover citrus juices, pineapple gum and milk, then topped with Peruvian corn nuts. A tequila grapefruit gimlet combines grapefruit juice, zest, sugar and high-proof tequila that is aged three days and clarified before it ends up in your coupe glass. While there's no shortage of ambitious ideas in the Perennial, Colliau jokes that the gimlet, a balance of flavor and technique that improves on both the gimlet and the paloma, is "possibly the best drink I've ever made."
As part of the restaurant's interwoven support system, Paramo Coffee will operate its newest cafe out of a corner of the space during morning and afternoon hours. As Paramo's Robert Myers explained to Eater, following Myint and Leibowitz's inspiration led to some unexpected efficiency decisions. For instance, using a smaller, more energy efficient espresso machine than one might expect from a coffee shop of this size, but still, "putting out more coffee than we ever would have thought." At night, when the restaurant is in full swing, Paramo's space will transform into the Perennial's private dining room. And in the morning when Paramo's delivery truck returns to West Oakland to pick up the latest roastings, it will also be dropping off compost at Discoe's compound.
While it's too early to proclaim one restaurant in San Francisco to be the world's lifeline, it's more than just a start.The Perennial, which has a significant amount of meticulously designed and carefully considered elements, hopes to be even bigger than the sum of its parts: a blueprint for the way restaurants will operate in the future. Despite these lofty aspirations, however, the project's ultimate goal is one that is shared by every restaurant on the planet: to serve a good, satisfying meal. And though satisfying needs on a macro level that changes the world doesn't hurt, no restaurant can sustain itself on sustainability alone. "Our biggest goal is to make it fun and delicious," says Myint. "And not be like a museum exhibit at the table."
Andrew Dalton is a freelance writer and Eater SF contributor living in San Francisco.