Mettā is a neighborhood restaurant in the historic Fort Green neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mettā means loving-kindness, an ethos which comes through when you talk with Chef Negro Pitattoni and GM Soha Parekh. Read more their vision, and what ZeroFoodprint’s first New York restaurant is doing to reduce emissions here.
ZeroFoodprint believes that restaurants and diners can lead the fight against climate change. This week, Chef Ryan Ratino and his team at Bresca accepted the challenge to go carbon neutral by becoming our first member in Washington DC.
“I am very excited to be part of this initiative,” says Ryan Ratino, Chef and owner of Bresca. “I truly believe that the restaurant community can be a great advocate to reducing the climate impact of many of the products, equipment, and methods we use on a daily basis. I am thrilled to work with my team in significantly lowering our carbon food print, reducing our food waste, and hopefully ignite conversations with industry colleagues that encourages them to take actions that can reduce our carbon impact.”
This year, ZeroFoodprint has been growing its community of chefs and restaurants, with new restaurants recently committing to analyzing their operations and going carbon neutral all year long: Atelier Crenn, Cala, Flour + Water, Lord Stanley, Mission Chinese New York, Metta, Namu Gaji, Petit Crenn, SHED, State Bird Provisions, The Progress, and now Bresca. These restaurants are prime examples of the ways that environmental stewardship can go hand in hand with high-quality cooking, warm hospitality, and strong business practices.
Check out what people are saying about Bresca, and their leadership on reducing carbon emissions!
ZeroFoodprint member Amass, a 4-year-old Copenhagen restaurant shows how a commitment to sustainability can be profitable and delicious, while fueling culinary innovation. Amass chef-owner Matt Orlando used the restaurant’s 2017 ZeroFoodprint report to identify immediate and longer-term opportunities to build on existing sustainability efforts. Click here to read about AMASS's innovations.
The Perennial is an unusual restaurant for ZeroFoodprint (ZFP), both in the sense that its founding team overlaps with ZFP’s own, but also insofar as it was founded with climate change in mind. Having gone through the ZFP process with their first restaurant, Mission Chinese Food, Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz got to thinking: how could all of this information, from energy efficiency to sustainable sourcing, be applied to a new restaurant? What if carbon neutrality were “baked in” from the very beginning? The Perennial opened in 2016, in a new LEED-certified building in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood, with the goal of leading the way toward “reversing climate change through food.” It has now acquired enough data to begin its Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Click here to read about The Perennial's findings.
Join ZeroFoodprint this Earth Day
- APRIL 22, 2017 -
After last year's resounding success, we're asking restaurants to join us again in the fight against climate change by pledging $1 for every cover they serve on Earth Day to offset their carbon emissions and support ZeroFoodprint's work.
We will be promoting all of our participants in a "Where to Eat on Earth Day" guide. Pledge now and join the celebration!
2017 Pledges SO FAR:
San Francisco Bay Area:
Sabio on Main
flour + water *
central kitchen *
Cafe du Nord
Old Kan Beer & Co
Hillside Supper Club
The Restaurant at Meadowood
El Molino Central
Monsieur Benjamin *
in situ *
Mission Chinese Food *
The Perennial *
Brown Sugar Kitchen
Sessions at the Presidio
Bar Casa Vale
New York City:
Mission Chinese Food
WarPigs Brewpub, Copenhagen
Pistolas Y Corazon, Lisbon*
Mirazur, Menton, France
Vetro, Bologna, Italy
Silo, Brighton, UK
Restaurant Taller, Copenhagen
Cellar Door Provisions
McCrady's Tavern, Charleston
The Ponte, Los Angeles
The Whale Wins, Seattle
Righteous Foods, Fort Worth
Local Provisions, Asheville
Ludivine, Oklahoma City
The Grey Plume, Omaha
Restaurant Blackwood, Adelaide
Botanic Gardens, Adelaide
*ZeroFoodprint restaurant- Carbon Neutral Every Day
Add Your Pledge of Support
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ZeroFoodprint was founded on the premise that chefs are uniquely positioned to fight climate change—a belief based on the fact that 30 percent of global emissions come from our food-production systems. But what we sometimes forget to talk about is the effect that climate change has on our food. It’s a tangible reality that chefs like Corey Lee notice every day in the ingredients that pass through their kitchens.
“I have seen how much our products have changed because of the environmental impacts that we have seen in the past couple of decades,” Lee says. “And it’s shocking to think that it’s only been twenty years. I’ve been cooking for a blink, and I have a list of things that are no longer available. Take shad, for example—you couldn’t give shad away and now you can’t even get it.”
Lee’s also seen changes to the products that remain available. “I used to be able to calibrate where we are in the year by looking at the products,” he says. “I have no sense of that now. And it changes every year. It’s all over the place. When I first started cooking it was much more consistent.”
Lee operates three restaurants in San Francisco: the three-Michelin-starred benu; the bistro Monsieur Benjamin in Hayes Valley; and In Situ, a genre-defying restaurant–art installation hybrid in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He’s undeniably one of the brightest and most thoughtful talents in the culinary world, universally respected and admired by his fellow chefs. He’s also one of ZeroFoodprint’s most enthusiastic participants.
Having witnessed firsthand the ravages of climate change, Lee has decided to take initiative in reducing his restaurants’ greenhouse-gas emissions. “You’d have to be pretty disconnected not to care,” he says, but also points out that even if chefs and restaurateurs are invested in taking care of the environment, “they don’t necessarily have the know-how or the readily available options to do something about it and that is why [ZeroFoodprint] is really nice.”
Over the past few months, ZeroFoodprint has worked with Lee and his team to conduct a full carbon-foodprint assessment of benu. Here are the basics of what we learned:
- Benu produces 437 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually (equivalent to ~90 passenger cars)
- Ingredients constitute 63 percent of those emissions. Energy contributes 26 percent, and waste is responsible for 9 percent
- The ten largest sources of emissions were (in descending order of impact):
- Natural gas
- Oil (cooking)
- Waste decomposition
Lee praised the specificity of the study’s results: “It was much more focused, which is a greater motivation to be active rather than just to be like, ‘We live in this world where we have this problem.’ You become more accountable, you have a greater sense of ownership for doing something about it.”
Over the course of the study, benu’s entire staff was not only exceptionally cooperative but also eager to learn and discuss our findings. They’ve already been actively engaged with sustainability issues for years, including the reduction of food waste. “We eat vegan four nights a week. Staff meal for lunch is normally what would end up in the compost bin…The best situation is when all of your motivations are aligned: your concerns about the environment; it’s economically efficient; it’s good for you; and you feel better.”
Following the study, ZeroFoodprint connected the staff of benu with the Food Service Technology Center—a Pacific Gas & Electric–funded laboratory dedicated to improving commercial kitchen efficiency. FSTC and benu performed an energy audit on the restaurant and were able to identify several low-cost investment opportunities, including replacing a standard pre-rinse sprayer with an efficient model, and changing out incandescent exhaust hood and bathroom lamps with LEDs. These upgrades will reduce benu’s annual energy use by 4,700 kWh, and save 11,000 gallons of water annually. Energy use is one of the key factors in determining a restaurant’s climate impact, and some other relatively low-impact activities can also help lower electricity consumption. Switching off the espresso machine when not in use will save 2,600 kWh each year, and cleaning refrigerator condenser coils can double their efficiency.
Overall, Lee wants each of his restaurants to move toward net-zero carbon emissions without sacrificing quality. The goal is to demonstrate that sustainability is consistent with the standards the restaurants have already set. “Change has to come through staying delicious,” Lee says. “People are always going to gravitate toward things that taste really good. If you can lead people in that direction through taste, rather than just saying this is the right choice to make, you are always going to get better results.”
In terms of feedback for ZeroFoodprint, the benu team requested an economic metric for greenhouse-gas emissions. Lee wanted to know the cost of offsetting the restaurant’s emissions. “Ultimately you are trying to get to zero—that is the goal. It helps to quantify things, put things on a metric level, so you can really make those decisions.”
“What I found helpful and informative was that [ZeroFoodprint] was a way to connect the dots from this idea of wanting to be more responsible to actually finding a practical and systematic way of applying it to your business,” Lee says, while correctly pointing out that “we need more comparative data to see how we are doing as an industry.”
To that end, we are working on expanding our analysis to include Lee’s other restaurants, In Situ and Monsieur Benjamin, as well as many others. We’re looking forward to the results, and building on Lee’s leadership to offer more detailed, real-world tools to reduce restaurant emissions while building a community committed to protecting our ingredients (along with the rest of the planet).
Beef accounts for more greenhouse gases than anything else we eat. Raising beef is generally very resource intensive, and cattle flatulence and manure release methane into the atmosphere. Plus, people love burgers and steak. Our vast and increasing demand for beef amplifies the issues surrounding beef.
The question of whether or not we should eat beef touches on complicated and politically charged topics: class, pollution, animal welfare, public health, and more recently, regenerative agriculture. There is no simple answer about whether eating beef is good or bad. Everyone at Zero Foodprint eats beef, for instance. But there’s a lot to be gained from understanding the ins and outs of the issue. Read on and decide for yourself.
Feedlot Beef vs. Pastured Beef
There are about 319 million people in the U.S. and an estimated 92 million head of cattle. That’s a lot of cattle, and unfortunately for our health, our soil, and the welfare of the cows, about half of them reside in concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs). Some argue that well-managed feedlots raise beef more efficiently, resulting in faster growth to market size and less time for cows to produce emissions. But the efficiency is the result of extreme animal density, and expensive shortcuts: those calves are fattened with unnatural diets consisting of grain and corn, commodity crops artificially subsidized with $3.86 billion per year in taxpayer dollars. Most troubling from a climate perspective, according to the Government Accountability Office, a single CAFO can produce as much as 1.6 million tons of manure each year—more than the sewage waste from a city the size of Philadelphia.
Cows digestive systems are designed to process grass. In nature, cattle move across the range, eating and fertilizing as they go. Cows produce 50–70 pounds of manure a day, which can play a vital role in healthy pastures when distributed naturally. An emerging practice called “carbon ranching” involves rotating cattle across grassland to optimize root growth and soil biology in a way that mimics the natural interaction between ruminants and the land. The result is more soil organic matter—living and dead plants, organisms, and microorganisms—which can in turn hold more carbon.
Depending on the study and the geographic area, the emissions for “pastured beef” (100 percent grass fed) can vary considerably. Some studies have shown pastured beef under less rigorous grazing management to have emissions comparable to feedlot beef. Other studies have shown that well-managed grazing can actually sequester as much as 3 metric tons C02e per acre per year (the equivalent of the emissions from over 300 gallons of gasoline).  That would mean the cows are helping to store more carbon in the soil than they are emitting through digestion.
This is an emerging area in environmental and agricultural research and we hope to incorporate new data as findings are made public. But in a nutshell, there are crucial differences between feedlot beef and pastured beef. The former is a significant contributor to climate change and the latter could be part of the climate change solution.
How Zero Foodprint Looks at Beef
Given the environmental impact of feedlot beef and its widespread consumption, we think it’s important to be as specific as possible in calculating its carbon footprint. Zero Foodprint chooses to assign values based on the prices of individual cuts of beef. Certain cuts of beef are more valuable than others. Think ribeye versus ground beef. The dollar amount paid to a rancher is based on the total value of all the various parts of the cow. But we think that treating the cow as one single commodity ignores how people cook and eat beef.
As opposed to other methods that account for carbon footprint as a factor of total mass, volume, or calories, this methodology utilizes an economic allocation based on market pricing of cuts of beef, assigning different carbon footprints to different cuts of beef. We feel that this approach is the most relevant to the restaurant industry and consumers. It incentivizes cooks to use the whole animal, not just prime cuts, and rewards those who work with less popular parts of the animal.
Using standardized pricing data from the USDA, and in conjunction with Origin Climate, we’ve created the following guide showing both the absolute values and the proportional carbon footprint of various cuts of beef.
Viewed through an environmental lens, conventionally raised beef is not climate friendly. Moreover, based on the way Zero Foodprint calculates the carbon emissions of beef, prime cuts—ribeye, filet mignon, strip steak, etc.—have significantly higher carbon footprints. Sorry!
But let’s withhold judgment. Eating beef is a part of our diets that most of us aren’t willing or able to give up. Here are some more moderate actions you can take, if you’re concerned with how your beef eating affects the climate: 1) choose pastured beef instead of feedlot beef; 2) replace prime cuts with cheaper cuts; and 3) resolve to make beef as delicious as possible when you cook it or eat it.
As for the longer view, there is the aforementioned movement toward carbon ranching, wherein cows play a vital role in the sequestration of carbon by converting unproductive rangeland to perennial prairie. Click here to keep up to date with carbon ranching and The Marin Carbon Project.
Knowing is half the battle,
 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
 CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprints. It standardizes the global-warming impact of different greenhouse gases.
 Teague, WR. “The Role of Ruminants in Reducing Agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America,” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. March-April 2016.
 This economic allocation methodology is outlined in The International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) guideline 14044 and is related to the approach developed by The British Standards Institute regarding Life Cycle Analysis of products with multiple co-products, as outlined in the Publicly Available Specification (PAS 2050).
Photograph by Alanna Hale
As the first step in the Zero Foodprint certification process, Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco recently participated in a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) conducted by Origin Climate. The LCA analyzed the greenhouse-gas emissions of Mission Chinese Food’s operations, including ingredient sourcing, food waste, energy use, and deliveries.
The key findings of the LCA are summarized in this document, along with a summary of some recent measures taken to reduce the restaurant’s carbon footprint, including an energy efficiency consultation with the Food Service Technology Center via Zero Foodprint. The full LCA report is available for reference, including an explanation of the methods and the guidelines followed and the factors excluded from the analysis.
- The restaurant’s annual carbon dioxide–equivalent emissions (its Foodprint) was estimated to be 600 metric tons CO2e, which is equivalent to 105 cars on the road.
- The restaurant’s total annual emissions are comparable to that of other restaurants studied by Zero Foodprint; on a per meal basis, the Foodprint of eating at Mission Chinese Food is similar to the foodprint of a home-cooked steak dinner.
- Ingredients constituted the most substantial emissions factor. Ingredients accounted for 468 MT CO2e (78 percent), followed by energy use (84 MT CO2e, 14 percent), waste (24 MT CO2e, 4 percent), and deliveries 24 MT CO2e, 4 percent).
- Among the ingredients, beef and lamb were the most significant source of carbon emissions, accounting for 37 percent of the restaurant’s total emissions (224 MT CO2e). Beverages accounted for 16 percent of total emissions (94 MT CO2e). Pork, poultry, and seafood accounted for 10 percent of total emissions (61 MT CO2e). Fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices accounted for 5 percent of total emissions (28 MT CO2e). And grains, oils, and other ingredients accounted for 10 percent of total emissions (62 MT CO2e).
- The restaurant estimates that its operations provide food for about 73,000 customers per year (not including subsequent meals resulting from leftovers—a non-negligible factor given the cultural practice of over-ordering Chinese food).
Mission Chinese Food took a direct and immediate approach to offsetting the emissions created by beef and lamb by raising the prices of those dishes by 50 cents. The proceeds will be used to purchase carbon offsets through Zero Foodprint for the entire restaurant (an approximate annual cost of $3,500). Additional funds from the surcharge will be applied toward further actions, including those listed in the Potential Actions section.
Mission Chinese Food worked with the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC), a division of The Pacific Gas & Energy Company, to review the equipment and operations of the restaurant which resulted in the following improvements to energy use:
- The FSTC recommended a pilot program that provided Mission Chinese Food with a complimentary refrigerated prep table (Beverage Air SPE 48-12, approximate retail value of $2500) to replace/retire an inefficient one, using 18kw/hr. The newer model is expected to use 7kw/hr, and save the restaurant approximately $400/year in energy costs.
- An FSTC consultant replaced a worn washer in a dishwasher pre-rinse sprayer that eliminated a slow drip from the nozzle. If left unattended, the leak would have had an annual impact of 6,000 gallons of wasted water.
- An FSTC consultant inspected all of the refrigeration condenser units and identified one unit that had been missed in the restaurant’s maintenance rotation and cleaned it, drastically improving performance.
- An FSTC consultant recommended incorporating cookware with heat sink technology to improve efficiency on the hot line. The restaurant obtained a complimentary beta-version 26” Turbo Wok from the manufacturer, as well as purchasing a 27 quart stock pot and a 39 quart stock pot (commercially available for $160 and $230, respectively). In efficiency tests, those items require ~40% less gas to achieve comparable results to normal cookware. The restaurant experienced notably faster cooking times as well as utilities savings (Note: It was not economically feasible to alter the plumbing/gas lines to specifically monitor these results).
- Replacing an existing fryer with an energy efficiency of approximately 35 percent heat transfer for a newer model with an energy efficiency of approximately 50 percent.
- Replacing a refrigerator that uses 6kw/hr for a more efficient model rated for 2.5 kw/hr (an exchange that would currently cost $1,200 after PG&E rebates, and would save ~$135/year in energy costs).
- Future menu changes de-emphasizing red meat.
- Portion-size control to reduce food waste.
- Directed clustering of deliveries using a “dedicated delivery food expediter/geography-based dispatcher” model as opposed to the current model of cooking food first and sending drivers out in “mini-clusters.”
Photograph by Christopher Boffoli
I've never seen a forlorn polar bear drifting on a dwindling ice floe, but I have no doubts about the reality of global warming. I think it’s safe to assume that these days not many of us need an in-person ursine encounter to confirm the threat greenhouse gases pose to life on planet Earth.
What’s a bit more difficult is scaling the problem—and the solutions—down to a comprehensible size. It’s hard to grapple with complex, global causes, especially when their consequences, though apocalyptic, only reveal themselves over the course of decades.
But if there’s one place where global warming should feel clearly relevant, it’s the kitchen. Eating, it turns out, is the most significant interaction most of us have with the environment. Even if we remain cloistered in air-conditioned rooms in front of keyboards and monitors for most of the day, at some point we must eat—and whether it’s a carrot stick or a Big Mac, with our first bite we implicate ourselves in the food system. The food system is responsible for 30 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. That is to say, almost a third of greenhouse gases are a result of growing, shipping, cooking, and disposing of food.
So kitchens connect us to the natural world, and it follows that cooks have a particular vulnerability to the effects of global warming. Seasonal cooking goes out the window when seasons lengthen and contract abruptly and disastrously. There’s also acidification of the ocean, loss of arable land, drought, flood, hurricanes—all concerns for people whose job it is to serve food.
But what role do restaurants play in creating the current environmental dilemmas? What role can they play in a solution? The chefs I’ve spoken to about this have suggested that dining out is terrible for the environment—all those resources being put into procuring and cooking and serving food in such high volume. But so far as I could tell, nobody (outside of certain large restaurant chains) really knows much about the environmental impact of their restaurants. It reminded me of the way I refuse to look at a scale when I know I’m particularly overweight—better to accept the problem and move on. That doesn’t seem quite good enough, though, when we’re talking about the future existence of the natural world.
Overall environmental impact is difficult to distill into a number or grade; there are too many moving parts to declare something absolutely good or bad. For example, efficiency is a key to conserving resources and, in many cases, reducing carbon emissions, but efficiency might be achieved in any number of otherwise questionable ways: pesticides, antibiotics, brutal animal treatment, genetically modified crops. The endlessly intertwined nature of nature is part of what makes environmental change so unwieldy and seemingly unapproachable.
A friend of mine named Peter Freed works for Terrapass, a respected San Francisco company that deals in emissions reductions and renewable energy projects.1 I asked Peter if he could help me measure the total environmental impact of a restaurant meal, and his answer was no, he couldn’t—there are just too many moving parts. What he could do was assess the greenhouse gas emissions of a meal and, by proxy, the culpability of restaurants in global warming.
Our starting point was the assumption that restaurant dining is fundamentally bad for the environment—or, more specifically, that restaurant dining is worse than cooking and eating at home. So we’d have to compare the carbon emissions of a restaurant meal to a similar meal prepared at home. Prime Meats in Brooklyn struck me immediately as an apt choice for the former. Much of their menu is doable—if not exactly replicable-—for a home cook: chilled iceberg salad, Caesar salad, roasted beets and carrots, ricotta dumplings, grilled pork chops, pork schnitzel, steak frites, burger. In other words, dinner at Prime Meats is something that you might weigh against staying in and cooking for yourself.
Restaurants in the Prime Meats strata have the most to lose if home cooking does turn out to be an earth-cooling alternative to patronizing neighborhood restaurants.2 But the two chef-proprietors, Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, consented to the study without hesitation.
Not all restaurant menus, however, lend themselves as easily to a showdown with home cooking. I don’t think anyone has ever puzzled over whether to stay in or have dinner at Noma. One might question the value of comparing the carbon emissions of a twenty-three-course tasting menu that counts lichens and insects among its ingredients to that of a weeknight lasagna. But what makes Noma an interesting case study is its reputation. Much of Noma’s allure is tied to the restaurant’s commitment to local Scandinavian ingredients, specifically plants and animals foraged from nearby forests and beaches. Foraging is a buzzword that comes fully loaded with positive connotations. If a chef forages, he is engaged with nature, and therefore he cares about nature and does his best to be environmentally responsible on the whole. This is the type of extrapolation the mind makes when we hear terms like organic, sustainable, free range, cage free, hormone free, non-GMO, seasonal, local, green, natural, wild, raw, fair trade, homemade. Each implies the others and is a convenient signifier for “environmentally sound” the same way that light, fresh, low fat, and whole grain connote “healthy” whether or not what they’re describing is, in fact, good for you.
Many people—myself included—take it on blind faith that a small, localized food system is definitively better than a large-scale one. I’m not saying it isn’t, but testing this assumption against detailed data on a restaurant that specializes in small scale seemed like a worthy pursuit. Again, I was impressed and encouraged when René Redzepi and the board of directors at Noma agreed to be part of the study.
So Peter and I settled on a life-cycle analysis of three distinct meals. What we were after was a single number for each: the kilograms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions (CO2e) produced by each meal—the meal’s carbon footprint.A full life-cycle analysis examines the total environmental impact of a product, from raw material to used item. For instance, if we were to analyze an egg, we’d look at everything that went into the care and raising of the chicken that laid the egg (what it ate, how the feed was grown, how the feed got to the farm); the transportation of the egg from the farm, to the distributor, to the store, to the consumer; and whether the shell was composted or simply discarded. Such a lifecycle analysis can run hundreds of pages, the product of thousands of hours of research.
Ours was more like a life-cycle analysis lite. Peter described it to me as not looking at this egg, but looking at an egg. In other words, we’d be specific where possible—looking at actual power and gas bills, and real delivery schedules—and generalizing where necessary. Rather than looking at the actual berries used at Noma, we’d use publicly available information on fresh berries from Nordic countries.
The six areas we examined were:3
The menus for the three meals examined were:
Ribeye with roasted potatoes
Radish and parsley salad
Peach and almond crumble with whipped cream
Fermented gooseberries as olives
Nordic coconut and bouquet
Crispy reindeer moss, ceps spice, crème fraîche
Flatbread and grilled roses
Peas in a pod
Tender pea tendril with wild strawberries
Black currant and roses
Pickled quail egg
Cod liver and crispy sweet milk
Leek and cod roe
Grilled vegetables, berries, and buttermilk
Raw shrimp and ramsons
Onion and pear stew
Caramelized cauliflower and whipped cream
Potato and caviar
Turbot and greens
Blueberry and ants
Potato and plum
Yeast and skyr
Pork skin and dried berries
I should admit that I was hoping for a particular result. I was fairly certain that Noma’s emissions factor would be far higher than that of the other two meals—there were just too many ingredients in the Noma meal for it to be comparable. The way I looked at it, there were three possible outcomes for the home-cooked and Prime Meats meals: Prime Meats could be vastly worse, slightly worse, or slightly better than the home-cooked meal. Any of the three results would provide useful information; knowing where we stand is the only way to take a step forward. But if the two were close, that’d be a real coup. It’d be much easier to spur chefs to action if I could tell them that they were within reach of saying, “Eating at my restaurant is the best thing you can do for the environment.”
Peter and I presented the results of the study onstage at this year’s MAD conference, in front of the Franks and René. None of them were aware of the results ahead of time. When we revealed the numbers, all three chefs spun around and craned their necks to see the monitor behind them, again impressing me with their curiosity and openness. There was no real incentive for them to subject themselves to this sort of scrutiny, let alone stand onstage with no idea what we would reveal about their restaurants. At times, the modern restaurant business can revolve frustratingly around lists of whose restaurant is the best, but here were three chefs who were more concerned with how they could just do good.
A meal at Prime Meats produces 13 percent more greenhouse gases than a similar meal cooked at home. A full tasting menu at Noma accounts for approximately three times more emissions than a home meal.
You’ll notice I’m carefully avoiding saying that Prime Meats is worse than a home-cooked meal or that Noma is worse than Prime Meats. These are raw results, and I’d argue that they are neither the most important nor most interesting results of the study. But they’re a good starting point for narrowing a broad and complex problem down to a simple, understandable figure. Take a look down between your feet and watch the arm on the scale swing and bounce to a stop a few pounds farther than you hoped it would, and take a breath.
Here is a breakdown of the emissions of each meal.
In all three instances, 59–68 percent of the greenhouse gases are a result of the ingredients themselves—a useful consistency. The home-cooked meal contained seventeen ingredients, Prime Meats used sixteen, and Noma four hundred, but as a portion of the total emissions of their respective meals, the ingredients’ contributions were all within the same 9-percent range.
The carbon footprint of different farm practices is critical, but changing the way ingredients—organic or otherwise—are grown or raised is a bit beyond the reasonable control of most restaurants and diners. I’d expect it’s also a deal-breaker to ask chefs to alter their recipes, and even if they were willing to do so, it’s a leaky solution. For the moment, let’s discard with the idea of omitting or changing certain ingredients as a way to reduce carbon emissions. Where we want to look for possible fixes is in the other 32–41 percent: the overhead.
Prime Meats’ and Noma’s energy usage produce almost the exact same emissions in a given week and account for about the same percentage of the restaurants’ overall carbon footprint.5 The per-meal emissions at Noma are much higher because Prime Meats serves 1,350 people per week, while Noma only serves 450.
These insights are essentially just reverse-engineering a large-scale food system. There’s a reason why industrial agriculture came about: we needed to feed a growing population cheaply and efficiently. There are plenty of good reasons to criticize the consolidation of food production to a small group of corporations—but efficiency is not among those reasons. If we limit our concern to global warming, one wonders if it’s really better to have twenty different farmers each deliver broccoli in their own trucks to the farmers market, compared to one veggie-packed truck delivering to multiple grocery stores.6
Again, we’re only looking at one aspect of environmental impact—there are many other factors to consider. This idea is most clearly demonstrated by the data we gathered on Noma’s foraging. Noma’s foragers drive a Volkswagen Caddy Maxi Life camper van 250 kilometers per day in pursuit of elderflowers, Spanish chervil, roses, pine shoots, chamomile, strawberries, black currant shoots, juniper, wood ants, ramson, rhubarb, apples, dandelions, fiddlehead ferns, rocket, yarrow, swamp cress, etc. The van’s emissions make up around 7 percent of the restaurant’s total carbon footprint, or 777 kg CO2e per week.
Does that mean foraging is an environmentally detrimental practice? The question is academic. Noma’s not going to cut its foraging program, and that’s almost certainly a good decision. Foraging reduces dependence on commercial agriculture, and there are immeasurable gains to be had by improving our familiarity with the ecosystems around us. No resources go into planting or cultivating a foraged ingredient, and in fact, foraging actually helps lower the average emissions per ingredient at Noma.
The abundant positive effects of foraging make the question of whether or not to forage an easy choice, but it’s useful to know the emissions it generates. After our presentation, René’s wife Nadine came up to Peter to say she’d been insisting for some time that the restaurant buy a more fuel-efficient foraging car, and to thank him for making the case for her. If they were to make that switch, the emissions factor of foraging would drop to zero.
Three things I’ve learned that are worth sharing:
- Meat is by far the worst, emissions-wise. Earlier I said that it was moot to expect cooks to avoid certain ingredients for the sake of global warming, but I admit we played a bit of a reverse gambit in choosing our menus. Knowing that twenty-three courses at Noma were always going to leave a larger footprint than a three-course home meal, Peter and I evened the playing ground slightly by choosing steak for the home-cooked and Prime Meats meals. Raising beef cattle is a resource-intensive endeavor and methane emissions from cow flatulence and manure is actually a major contributor of GHG emissions. The ribeye in the home-cooked meal accounted for 84 -percent of the ingredient-related emissions. At Prime Meats, the wagyu beef accounted for 74 percent.
2. In 2012, 40 percent of the electricity supplied by Dong Energy in Denmark was produced by coal. That’s why the power grid in Copenhagen is so much dirtier than that of, say, California (7.5% coal). The staff at Noma discovered this while putting their energy bills together for TerraPass. It took them by surprise, and as we were assembling the study, they emailed to say that they’d elected to switch to a 100 percent renewable energy supply (at an increased cost). If that change goes through, their yearly emissions drop instantly by 29 percent. In the words of GI Joe, knowing is half the battle.
3. Whip-its are bad for the environment, too. In an act of undeniable laziness, when I was making whipped cream for the home-cooked dessert, I elected to use a nitrous-oxide siphon rather than whipping the cream by hand or with a machine. Later, Peter called to tell me that the global warming potential of nitrous oxide is somewhere in the range of 300 times worse than carbon dioxide, and that the two nitrous cartridges I used had a larger carbon footprint (8.7 kg CO2e) than the entire meal (7.5 kg CO2e). We didn’t factor this into the study, to avoid skewing the final results, but I feel compelled to admit it. Efficiency takes elbow grease.
So, let’s dispense with the idea that eating at a restaurant is inherently bad for the climate. Prime Meats is within striking distance of matching the carbon footprint of a home-cooked meal. Just for kicks, I asked Peter what TerraPass would charge to fully offset the annual carbon footprint at Prime Meats (about $.11 per diner) and Noma (about $3 per diner). There are, of course, plenty of ways to improve the efficiency of a restaurant without forking over money for offsets—installing LED lightbulbs in spaces which require task lighting; consolidating deliveries (Prime Meats only takes eight deliveries per week); using more energy-efficient refrigerators, coolers, ovens, and fan hoods.7
And what about Noma and restaurants of its ilk? To look at the raw numbers and say that dinner at Noma is an inefficient meal would be like saying a visit to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa is an inefficient way to see a beautiful woman. Noma serves a different purpose. In any creative field, there will be individuals that push us to reconsider the status quo. The study itself was a response to an opportunity presented by René Redzepi and Noma via the MAD symposium. And just like Prime Meats, Noma was eager and thorough8 in volunteering every bit of information requested of them.
The pie-in-the-sky end game for all this introspection is a consortium of concerned restaurants that are willing to face the problem and take active steps toward solutions. Imagine a group of restaurants that agreed to: 1) open themselves up to a full examination of their respective carbon footprints, and 2) commit the necessary money, time, and on-site improvements to reduce their carbon footprints to zero. The money would be pooled together to further study of restaurant emissions, develop a list of best practices, and pursue food-related emissions-reduction projects.9 If a few influential restaurants sign on, their participation makes participation desirable, and before you know it you’ve got a branded strain of do-gooding. Carbon-neutrality becomes something that benefits your own restaurant as much as the planet. Simple.
I’m being naïve, but maybe not as naïve as you think. Diners are increasingly considering their personal ethics when deciding what and where to eat. Why not capitalize on it? More importantly, why not make the same sort of choices as chefs? What kind of restaurant do you want to be? What sort of work do you want to do? A few brave chefs could spark a movement that transforms dining out into an act of purposeful good.
Restaurants are among the most agile, innovative small businesses on Earth. They are a place where creative thinking about efficiency happens every day—whether it’s making the most delicious things with the cheapest cuts or fitting all your mise en place into the low boy. There’s no reason why they couldn’t or shouldn’t be leaders in environmental stewardship.