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Eco-frenzy or brave new steps?

A few L.A. restaurants are devoted to sustainability. But what exactly does green mean?

July 18, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

WHEN chef Christopher Blobaum was opening Wilshire restaurant in Santa Monica, he wanted to do the right thing, both culinarily and environmentally.

He buys much of the restaurant's produce at local farmers markets and sources meat and fish carefully. He uses solar-heated water for dishwashing and low-output fluorescent lighting. The deck out back is made from recycled lumber (and is built in a way that preserves the property's existing mature trees). Tables are set with woven vinyl Chilewich placemats that can be rinsed and reused instead of white linen tablecloths that need to be washed and bleached.

Blobaum even bought a backyard compost tumbler he keeps behind the restaurant to dispose of much of the food waste.

Remember when restaurants used to brag about organics? These days, in food as in everything else, the buzzword is "sustainable." Every time you turn around, someone is claiming to be "green" or "eco-friendly."

But as Blobaum learned, moving beyond the slogan stage is hard work and complicated. And despite the many claims, few restaurants are up to tackling going green in a serious way.

In large part, that's because eco-friendly and "sustainable" are still so loosely defined that they can include a dizzying maze of factors: how the restaurant was built, how and where the ingredients were grown, the nature of the materials used to serve them, and how the leftovers are disposed of.

There are a few notable exceptions, but for the most part, chefs and restaurateurs are still trying to sort out just what "sustainable" means, and beyond that, how it fits into running a viable business.

"Learning about sustainability is an ongoing process," says Blobaum, who is still looking at improvements for Wilshire, even after having won a Sustainable Quality Award grand prize from the city of Santa Monica this year.

"You can't do it all in one day. It's an education. You decide this week or this month we're going to try to tackle this. It might be something simple, like switching a cleaner. Once you've accomplished that, then you move on to the next thing."

In Blobaum's case, the next steps he's exploring are putting solar panels on the roof and getting a bio-diesel car for the restaurant to use.

Even with all of that, he'll still have a ways to go before he catches up with Maury Rubin, the bicoastal owner of City Bakery in Manhattan and Brentwood, and Birdbath, the newest of which he hopes to open in Pacific Palisades before the end of the year.

The City Bakery operations are definitely eco-friendly; the Birdbaths are downright eco-rapturous. Not only does much of the produce come from the farmers market, but the flour and sugar are organic, the walls are made of wheat, and the cups are made of corn. The countertop is made from recycled paper and the paper bags have no petroleum-based wax coating. All of the electricity comes from wind power.

The delivery boys pedal rickshaws (soon to be switched to bio-diesel trucks).

"How far can it go?" Rubin asks. "It only depends on how willing you are to go down that road. I don't think it's the hardest thing in the world. But I do think you have to be willing to take apart the whole model of how your restaurant works and put it back together again thinking green."

And it's not just trendy high-end restaurants that are thinking about sustainability either. The movement has all the earmarks of being the next big thing. How big? Last summer, the National Restaurant Assn. launched a "roadmap to sustainable restaurant operations" project to guide the group's 375,000 members toward more environmentally friendly operations.

There's also a Green Restaurant Assn. that steers its clients toward sustainability by advocating steps such as eliminating Styrofoam containers, conserving water and power, using recycled and chlorine-free products and searching out sustainable food sources. Among its members are the 500-outlet Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain and the Le Pain Quotidien chain, which even has its own director of sustainability.

Staying local

STILL, despite lots of good intentions (and almost as much advertising), the push for sustainability in Southern California restaurants is still taking its baby steps.

Some restaurants are working harder at sourcing ingredients that come from closer to home. At Grace, Neal Fraser has introduced a weekly "Ethical Tasting Menu," using mostly ingredients that come from within 400 miles of the restaurant. One recent menu included caviar from the Sacramento River, prawns from Santa Barbara, sand dabs from Morro Bay and pork chops from Devil's Gulch Ranch in Marin County.

The hardest part, he says, isn't finding the star ingredients but the supporting players. Veal bones for making stock, in particular, were a challenge, since most veal comes from the Midwest. Through diligent digging, though, Fraser was able to track some down from a dairy herd in Central California.

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