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Op-Ed: Will Chefs Be Part of the Climate Solution?

Anthony Myint

August 09, 2017

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We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and everyone in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.

Our latest piece comes from chef, restaurateur, author, and environmental advocate Anthony Myint, an alum of our most recent Chefs Boot Camp. Myint may be best known for his collection of San Francisco eateries which includes Mission Chinese Food, but he’s also one of the founders of Zero Foodprint, a non-profit devoted to reducing and offsetting greenhouse gas emissions in the restaurant industry. Below, Myint shares the inspiration and aims of Zero Foodprint, as well as how restaurants and consumers can start to help make “carbon-neutral dining” mainstream.

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The concept of global warming can feel paralyzing. It’s so vast and distant that it’s hard to prioritize, and this is especially true for chefs who are already worried about whether their dishwasher is showing up for work, if their orders are coming, or how to make payroll this month. But chefs care about climate change: our livelihoods depend on nature and taking care of people, and chefs have a can-do attitude. Action is now more important than ever before, as we face President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and the detachment of a trillion-ton iceberg from the Antarctic.

The food system accounts for about half of all greenhouse gases, and we know that buying local and organic is not going to work for every kind of operation. Besides, a commitment to good sourcing only accounts for some of the decisions that a restaurant faces. After all, what is the actual impact of using organic onions for stock, and is it worth the price? What do I do if I can’t afford solar panels? What if my customers won’t pay double the price for grassfed beef?

What if I told you that fried chicken can be an environmental act? Or that French wine can be a more sustainable choice than a bottle from a local vineyard?

Figuring out a restaurant’s carbon footprint offers a concrete, measurable way to contextualize climate change and convert environmental ideals into climate-smart decisions. For example, if the carbon footprint of the feedlot burger is four times that of fried chicken, then choosing between the two becomes less abstract. Likewise, we know that the sashimi shipped from Japan is a bad choice for the environment, but wine imported by boat, cellared below ground, and produced from a vineyard that has been biodynamic for decades, has a much lower carbon footprint than the local wine that’s been air-conditioned and chemically fertilized.

Chefs can educate themselves, make changes, and can implement energy-saving measures like turning down their water heater to 140°F, but there will still always be some environmental impact: there are still ingredients and they are still cooked.

The last thing diners want to talk about is how a restaurant is saving energy by cleaning the compressors more often, or how switching the steak dish to a pork chop reduces the carbon footprint: it’s too incremental of a conversation. But diners can grasp the big idea that a restaurant is carbon neutral in the same way that they are happy to pay a premium for free-trade coffee or an electric car.

We started Zero Foodprint with the goal of inviting chefs and restaurants to be carbon neutral and then to get enough places on board to make that a search category through Yelp, OpenTable, Resy, and more. In the same way that infrastructural changes, like building the electric charging stations necessary to power electric cars, help to take alternative fuel mainstream, achieving a critical mass of tweaks in choice for diners would shift the restaurant industry.

We already have 30 restaurants that have pledged to be carbon neutral every day, and to celebrate Earth Day, we got 100 restaurants to be carbon neutral for one day. We’re starting a movement to align sustainability and dining in a way that can include any restaurant, whether you’re fast food or craft barbecue. At Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, we contribute about 10 cents per diner to greenhouse gas reduction projects in the food system to offset our entire carbon footprint. At Corey Lee’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Benu, the contribution is about 35 cents per diner, which makes the entire luxurious 25-course meal of a lifetime also environmentally responsible. I can’t imagine a single person choosing not to go to Benu over an additional 35 cents, and neither can Corey. He’s committed all of his restaurants to being carbon neutral.

This is the other commonality among chefs that I’ve come to appreciate: pride. We earn the right to charge appropriately for something with integrity: food that is truly good. This is more or less the highlight of our work—making food as good as we can make it. Food can be part of the climate solution, and I’m calling for more leaders to join the movement to make our food system better. Let’s establish sustainability as a culinary virtue.

Learn more at ZeroFoodprint.org or by emailing zerofoodprint@gmail.com.

Anthony Myint is the co-founder of the Perennial, Mission Chinese Food, and Commonwealth Restaurants, and the non-profit Zero Foodprint.

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The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.