Humanity is Sustainable
I’ve had a rather intimate relationship with food for my entire life. My parents were good cooks, and intrepid; there was rarely a better meal to be found. We had dinner together nearly every night, and my brother and I were helping from a young age.
This fluency with food later led me to professional kitchens when I was searching for inspiration during my college years. I became a chef and rose through the ranks, but was always executing the visions of others. In 2005, I finally had an opportunity to try out my own ideas in my first solo position as executive chef at Cafe Saint-Ex in the bustling 14th Street corridor of Washington, DC.
There I became deeply involved in the world of sustainable seafood from a relatively unique position. Although I’d always been a proponent of preserving the wildness of nature, especially marine environments, I was in the business of selling dead fish. So while friends in the scientific community were campaigning to save fish in order to protect them, my motives were more consumption-driven: I was trying to save fish so that my customers (and I) could continue to eat them.
In 2005, sustainable seafood was fairly difficult to find. Few consumers cared, so naturally very few restaurants bothered to stock sustainably. And, like many entrepreneurs, I found that doing things the “right” way would eat up more of my bottom line than opting for products that were less responsibly sourced. I had to find opportunities to convey the real value of what I was selling. In doing so, my understanding of sustainability began to expand.
Sustainability, I learned, should encompass much more than the ability to sustain the long-term use of a resource. The narrower definition might be acceptable for some environmental managers and economists, but it didn’t go far enough for me.
I wanted engagement. Humanity is at the core of sustainability. What about the ability to nourish and even enhance communities, relationships, traditions, health, and quality of life?
This broader definition not only guided how I procured and used ingredients, but also how I structured menus, hired staff, and related to customers. At my restaurants, sustainability was not an abstract notion with vague references to environmental friendliness. It was specific and real. I became very intentional about exactly what I sought to sustain.
Defining a New Value
To ensure that I was getting the highest-quality and most sustainable ingredients available, I bought directly from local farmers and befriended fishermen who were harvesting from healthy fisheries and using gear that didn’t damage ocean ecosystems. And when I made agreements with those fishermen to deliver product, I told them to give me whatever they caught. If the fishermen were putting a line down hoping to catch a blackfin tuna and caught wahoo, I’d take it. If up came a barracuda, mackerel, or bluefish, great. If up came a trevally fish, super.
By taking advantage of the immense diversity of ocean fauna and not focusing on the ubiquitous menu standards, I was making the most of the resources at hand. I was happily providing a market to species that were often considered “trash” and summarily discarded. Waste was reduced and value was reclaimed.
I enjoyed the challenge of learning to prepare delicious dishes from fish that were entirely new to me. Over the course of a year, we served more than 70 species of seafood.
This level of openness led me to look up from the plate and embrace the community that participated in the meal. I passed this novelty and excitement along to my customers. At any given time, it was unlikely that customers had heard of all the offerings on my menu. But they relished the food and the stories behind each dish. The delight of trying something new became an important part of what we delivered. Eventually, my restaurants became known for that.
Less Is More
The restaurants’ focus on efficiency and waste reduction was exemplified by my emphasis on small portions. At first this was a tough sell. I was running a seafood restaurant, so people inevitably expected bibs and towering piles of buttery fish and huge fillets. However, through presentation and storytelling, I was able to gently guide my guests to enjoy their meals in a new way. The focus was on quality, not quantity, celebrating small amounts of superb protein amid delicious farm-fresh vegetables.
This decision had several positive business effects. First, I sold more appetizers and salads because patrons knew that they would not fill up on the entree alone. That meant I sold more food and made more profit. Second, diversified dishes meant guests took longer to eat, to converse, and to savor meals together.
My approach encouraged them to look through a different lens at the plates in front of them. It wasn’t all about the perceived value of the sight of a slab of fish. It was about the realized value of a fulfilling meal, full of variation, flavors, aromas, colors, and textures that made for inspired eating. It was about taking pleasure in the experience.
Perhaps surprisingly, many people actually thanked me for the small portions, which they felt good about eating because they knew the dishes were respectful of scarce resources. Environmental consideration was on every plate, but it was also served with concern for human interests. Contrast this with monstrous restaurant portions that are resource-intensive and lead to overeating, excessive waste, and feelings of guilt—none of which represent true value or true sustainability.
Through this experience, I discovered that chefs play an important role in the dialogue around how we relate to natural and human resources. The success we seek won’t simply come from a slight change in practice. Instead, we need to change the sociological patterns that have long governed our untenable relationship with the world around us.
Often “sustainability” is about safely maintaining the status quo. That meaning was unsatisfactory to me. As much as the restaurant’s procurement practices supported fishing communities and maximized available resources, we also wanted to make a commitment to investing in the local community. We partnered with DC Central Kitchen, a food recycling and meal distribution program, and frequently hired their workers, who were taking steps to free themselves from welfare, get proper job training, and become contributing members of society.
The restaurant also held campaigns that gave customers the chance to designate a portion of their bill to this local charity working to reduce the cycle of need. As a chef, it was my responsibility to convey that message, to educate our guests about the value that comes from providing a new perspective on how we interact with food, ecosystems, and communities. We didn’t just expertly cook seafood, we offered a portal for customers to engage in something special that went well beyond the plate.
In my experience, most environmentalism has been a reaction to human-wrought havoc on the natural world. It is a story of how, in our self-interest and short-sightedness, we went astray. It’s the tragedy of the commons.
But what of the communion of the commons? We need to pay closer attention to our connectedness with each other and with the world around us, and to the ramifications of our choices and activities. For me, dinner is a daily reminder that our personal health and the health of our communities and our planet are interdependent.
Dinner is a celebration, an opportunity to create joy, health, jobs, relationships with each other and with our common resources. And whether we are chefs, CEOs, bloggers, advertisers, educators, or parents, we can all engage in this satisfying new environmentalism.
Barton Seaver is a celebrated chef, National Geographic Fellow, and author of For Cod and Country. He is a native of Washington, DC.
Photo courtesy of For Cod and Country – Sterling Epicure