Thursday, May 27, 2010
A buoy of hope bobs on the dark expanse of oil suffocating the Gulf of Mexico. Or so said Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard to start last week’s Sustainability Institute, the heady seminar side of the Aquarium’s succulent Cooking For Solutions weekend.
“If there is any good news,” she said, “oceans are actually in the paper every day. They drive world climate, represent the biggest habitat on earth, and provide protein for a billion people. There are so many reasons they should be in the news, but they’re not.”
Her words served as an appropriate opening for an event with a mission as tricky as finding the silver lining in a sea of toxic black: namely, to peer more deeply into the often harrowing effects our food habits have on our habitats and health and emerge inspired and emboldened rather than deflated and depressed.
Though it was only 8:30am, I had already found hope over a money Maine lobster-poached egg item by Aquarium chef David Anderson. Rachel Weidinger, more of a social-media geek than sustainable-foodie freak given her work with TechSoup Global, shared my table. Soon we were talking wonderful tools – including FarmsReach, an online farm goods marketplace that efficiently connects farmers and buyers in one central place. But it was the next idea I had long dreamed of, but figured would long remain in a land called Fantasy.
Here’s why: Completing the Copernican calculations necessary to understand the net enviro-effect of an ingredient you eat or use – including everything from fertilizer inputs to water amounts to packaging lifecycles – is often arcane, and insanely so given an item with a few ingredients, let alone, say, a complex supermarket shampoo.
No longer. Meet GoodGuide, already on smart phones. You pull up the app, punch in the product, and it scores its sustainability on health, environment and society scales. There’s even a bar code scanning function now. And its 70,000-plus product database is also accessible via SMS (regular text). In short: Go Google GoodGuide.
“It’s goosebumpy,” Weidinger says.
There were other morsels of good to pluck from the panels and speeches that swept across oceans, species and history. But the bad and ugly came with it.
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More than 1 billion humans are undernourished. There are 3 million cases of severe pesticide poisonings annually. The crowded crust we share with 6.7 billion will hold 9.2 billion by 2050; 24,000 die from malnutrition every day.
Ace New York Times food writer Kim Severson spoke for many as she introduced a panel: “I’m kinda bummed out with where things are.”
Remembering some of the simplest, if well-circulated, remedies still represent some of the best ways to dent that downer. Farmers markets are good. Mindless eating is bad. Food price and food cost are two different things: Cheap food comes with a buffet of externalized labor, health care, water and other sacrifices, but we can do something about it – like cough up some coin for quality food.
“When I go into a supermarket I become a miser,” Severson observed. “I pay a huge cable bill, crazy amounts for cappuccinos, but there it changes. It’s like coupon culture or something: ‘I’m not paying $3 for tomatoes.’ The $1 menu is not our friend there.”
Food systems continue to create 33 percent of greenhouse emissions, so the way we eat remains major grounds for change, and since, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Jonathan Kaplan pointed out, we throw away a third of our food, chances to make small-but-effective adjustments abound.
Educator of the Year Rick Bayless reminded us that “being a good chef means being a great procurer of ingredients,” something 2009 Chef of the Year Thomas Keller told me a year ago.
Another reminder: Do not be fooled by illusions of abundance. “Go anywhere in the ocean and you see problems exist,” Hopkins Marine Station’s Dr. Stephen Palumbi said. “But it’s difficult to see problems exist in a fish market.” As of this year, farmed fish outnumbers wild; China and its slippery labeling, meanwhile, increasingly dominate fish farms.
But there’s good news on other large scale fronts. “Target, Safeway and Trader Joe’s are working on commitments to Seafood Watch [sustainable guidelines],” Packard reported. “That’s big news for consumers and oceans.”
Santa Monica Seafood agreed to partner its 1,500 client chefs and restaurants with the program; Seafood Watch’s iPhone app netted 200,000 downloads in its first year, and drew love by everyone from Emeril and Oprah to Martha Stewart and Alton Brown.
Dr. Thierry Chopin, scientific director of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, introduced what’s called Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture Network as part of a panel. (Hint: The idea’s more inspiring than the name.)
His people have 96 IMTA sites – he sang the acronym to the “YMCA” tune with French Canadian verve – where they combine finfish or shrimp with seaweed and shellfish in one tank to create a complete ecosystem. He has an economist on his team analyzing profit scenarios (promising), social scientists looking at acceptance among eaters (portentous) and chefs at two restaurants deploying the results (damn appetizing).
Hawken even sees evidence that corporations’ grip on food is weakening.
“They have the inertia and momentum of being expected to produce sales and earnings,” he said, “but at the same time they are run by real people who aren’t stupid at all. They have kids who are well educated. I’ve seen it: Corporate CEOs are being changed by daughters coming home from college. They’re competitive with their sons, but fathers curdle if daughters don’t respect them.”
China has already changed, pointed out Matthew Lewis of the ClimateWorks Foundation, providing an antidote to the it-doesn’t-matter-what-we’re-doing-as-other-developing-countries-can’t-be-controlled argument.
“Billions are dependent on water from Tibetan plateau – glaciers are melting,” he said. “The central government is very serious about cracking down. India has national plan. They’re not talking about science. They’re talking about solutions.”
By design, though, the honored chefs provided the most tangible tastes of hope. At the Friday gala, recent James Beard winner Jason Wilson of Crush teamed with Ventana’s Esteban Jimenez to simmer a sablefish with sautéed stinging nettles, ramps, Ventana garden leeks and foraged mushrooms that fast-tracked eaters to Eden. Our own McIntyre Vineyards’ organic bubbly made love to Hog Island oysters right on attendee tongues. Top Chef Kevin Gillespie and Slanted Door chef Charles Phan did meats as exactingly braised as they were exactingly raised.
“Tastebuds are a teacher, a kindness, a guide,” Hawken said. “They guided us here today. They can heal us, heal the earth, heal how we farm.”
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Time flies when the food is this fun.
Somehow it seems like just the other day that a salivating Central Coast community could hardly wait to see what the newest sibling in the Rio Grill-Tarpy’s Roadhouse family would cook up, and despite understandably elevated expectations, Montrio Bistro (648-8880) transcended them.
It happened by way of ambiance, people and style. There was the same crayons-and-butcher paper casual atmosphere and superb service as Rio and Tarpy’s, but its own charismatic firehouse-brick backdrop (and now-famous potato clouds) and its own spin on the restaurant family’s fresh and inventive Californian fusion fare, with a Euro bent applied where Rio skewed Southwestly and Tarpy’s tilted American rustic.
As Montrio turns 15 this week, restaurant co-founder/owner Tony Tollner and Chef Tony Baker are only evolving that excellence with a redoubled dedication to local sources, a new menu and a free 15th anniversary party to touch off the new era this Thursday, May 27, from 5:30-8:30pm. (Space is limited – RSVP at email@example.com. Like… now.) Attendees can sip up on new signature cocktails from celebrated bartending vet Anthony Vitacca, enjoy samples from the new lineup and meet the local farmers and fishermen who deliver Montrio’s sensational seasonal ingredients – and who are now featured on the wall. With apologies to 50 Cent, “it’s time to party like it’s your birthday.”
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Sure the $100 gift certificate to Bubba Gump on Cannery Row (373-1884) was motivation for local foodie photogs to submit their best pics. (The only rules: That the food be harvested and/or prepped in Monterey County… and shot by an amateur.) But the shrimp idea seemed an inspiration itself.
Second runner up A. Melina Meltzer captured a crab-and-shrimp salad from Tarpy’s (647-1444). First runner up Douglas Mueller snapped a shot of Creole cutie Malinda DeRouen prepping her shrimp-friendly “Gumbo Rue,” at Lou Lou’s Griddle in the Middle. And grand champ Colleen Manni – yes, the manager-wine maven at can’t-be-beat Bistro Moulin (333-1200) – took first for a look at a crusty pizza of creme fraiche, lardons, fresh spinach leaves, heirloom cherry tomatoes, yellow pear and purple tomatoes and, yes, shrimp.
“I made it at the home of Gerard Bechler [of delicious Patisserie Bechler in Pacific Grove, 375-0846],” she writes. “He has an awesome outdoor pizza oven in his backyard… and he throws the best pizza parties!”
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Seafood Watch-savvy Cafe Fina (372-5200) and Domenico’s on the Wharf (372-3655) have a new exec chef in Jeff Linscomb, late of The Sequoia Bee-Bennett House in Placerville and River Ranch in Tahoe. Check out upcoming specials like pan-seared Arctic char and petrale sole involtini… Dory Ford’s lobster and truffle mashed taters earned a lengthy line at Cooking for Solutions. He’s got a new website for the new do-everything catering endeavor, Aqua Terra (917-6502): www.aquaterraculinary.com… Big Sur Wine Expedition’s immersion – two days, 24 wine tasting sites, five gourmet wine-paired meals al fresco by David Dildine, stunning sites – is slated to happen June 9-10 if they score enough wine country-loving souls. www.pelicannetwork.net/wineexpeditions.htm… “Taste isn’t a sense, it’s common sense,” Paul Hawken said Thursday, “it’s how we evolved, an expression of our genetic needs.”