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Eating at The Perennial: Climate Change and Capitalism

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Food critics raved about The Perennial when it opened in San Francisco in January. The SF Eater called it a “palace of modern sustainability;” the Chronicle described it as the “restaurant of the future.” Even Wired Magazine sang its praises. They all celebrated its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, which sits at the center of its identity and impacts everything that it does, from food prep, to food acquisition, to interior design. Considering that we are facing an epochal climate crisis, and that the city is sinking into the ocean, it makes an important and timely statement.

What statement does it make exactly? Curious to check this out, I had a meal there with a friend last week and discovered that its message is significantly more complicated than food writers suggested. It is both more laudable and more objectionable than they indicated.

First, though, it is in the avant-garde of sustainability. While it composts food waste, recycles linens, and distributes water sparingly, this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. For instance, it created a closed-loop permaculture system with its “aquaponic” greenhouse in West Oakland: the restaurant composts food scraps, which it feeds to the sturgeon and carp in the warehouse; the fish help to nourish the vegetables and lettuce growing there; and then the fish and plants become restaurant food and scraps once again. They have also integrated kernza grains into their menu. Developed by the Land Institute in Kansas, this unique grain grows year-round (unlike most of the grains we eat) and its deep-reaching roots can reduce soil-erosion and even take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Finally, they buy their meat from Marin’s Stemple Creek Ranch, which embraces what is known as “carbon farming”—an approach to harvesting livestock that mitigates climate change. These are their most novel interventions, which they detail on their website, but there are others as well.

Eating at The Perennial is remarkable because little on the surface reveals how different it is from any other high-end eatery. Sitting in a cavernous hall in San Francisco’s mid-Market area, its low-lights and vaulted ceilings evoke a loungy chic typical of expensive restaurants worldwide. It was already busy when we arrived at 6:00 PM and most of the clientele looked like extras from America’s Top Model. The host delivered us to the long wooden “chef’s table,” which sits in front of their well-lit kitchen. We watched Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, two of the owner-chefs, do their magic while waiting for our food (it was like being on the set of a cooking show). But there was no literature rack by the door, no posters promoting agricultural collectives in Nicaragua; Blondie not Manu Chao played over the speakers. Although the wait staff discreetly handed us a few postcards describing their environmental methods—one with the menu and another with the bill—that was it.

The cuisine is what one could call Bay Area precious—neo-American dishes with lots of French items (bisquetartarconfit, etc) and a heavy focus on vegetables. The menu does not describe the environmental or social impact of the food—just the victuals. We began with bread made from Kernza grain, which had a sourdough-like density but richer flavors. We also ordered the appetizer made with lettuces from their Oakland warehouse—they looked like iceberg lettuce but were tastier (and more nutritious, I assumed). For main courses, we had the celeriac gnocchi and the pastured lamb. The lamb was delicious, as were the accompanying Brussels sprouts. The gnocchi was quite good too, particularly with its apple complement. We finished with two French desserts: the Chocolate Mont Blanc and Buckwheat Financier. Each item encompassed a unique texture and taste spectrum, but nothing seemed overwrought. Although serving sizes were small, this enhanced the experience by underscoring the artistry at work in the kitchen. Including some wine, we spent just over $100 on the meal.

When I left The Perennial, I felt like I had witnessed an argument within the restaurant industry. By incorporating climate-friendly strategies into every aspect of its work, it not only reduces its own carbon emissions but also makes a point about what its peers can and should do. When The Perennial demonstrates that a restaurant can be both profitable and sustainable, it throws shade on its competitors: why aren’t they doing the same thing? What is their problem? The answer does not reflect well upon them.

This puts The Perennial on the Left among restaurants but on the Right of debates about how to confront climate change. While everyone agrees that business practices must transform if we are to avoid climate catastrophe, the question is: how exactly? Some argue that we need to dismantle capitalism itself—that social equality and environmental sustainability must go hand-in-hand—whereas others say that we can make capitalism ecological. The former approach would compel us to undo the class hierarchies at the core of capitalism, whereas the latter implies that we can leave them intact. Obviously The Perennial takes the pro-capitalist side in this debate. This is implicit in its identity as a climate-friendly business and in its focus on feeding and coddling elites generally. Indeed, the high-fashion elegance of its design; the prompt and attentive servers who explained the ingredients in each dish to us, the preciousness of the food: these things seemed to say that it is okay to be upper class and, if that is the case, so are class divisions.

However, The Perennial does more than just put forward assertions about the economy and the environment: it is also helping to construct the new food infrastructure that will feed the wealthy as climate change wreaks havoc on the global food system. When temperatures cause massive crop failures and food prices to skyrocket, this system will increasingly operate on two tiers. The rich will eat flavorful, nutrient-dense foods grown in protected settings (like their aquaponics warehouse) and the poor will get low quality, toxic fare (think: Flint, Michigan’s water supply). This infrastructure will take decades to put in place, and it will mostly emerge organically as businesses grapple with changing socio-economic and environmental circumstances (not primarily as a result of government plans). The Perennial is playing a role in this.

Restaurants have to respond as climate change impacts what and how we eat as well as how we think about food. Some will implement creative new procedures and some will comment on the nature of our problems. The Perennial does both. This makes dining there a particularly compelling though fraught experience. It was appropriate when food writers noted its innovations in sustainability, but we should not overlook its implicit and contentious claims about capitalism and the environment as well as its contributions to the construction of a life raft for the rich.

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