“You’d Have to Be Pretty Disconnected Not to Care”

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
    • Beef
    • Eggs
    • Oil (cooking)
    • Electricity
    • Waste decomposition
    •  Shellfish
    • Dairy
    •  Poultry

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).