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Serving up sustainability

Restaurants are looking beyond today’s special, by growing gardens on site, dealing with eco-conscious farms, installing water filtration systems, recycling grease and more.

March 11, 2010|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times
  (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

When Neal and Amy Knoll Fraser move their restaurant Grace downtown to the rectory of St. Vibiana's later this year, diners will be hard-pressed to miss the earth-to-table connection.

Fraser intends to plant a garden — and not just a few containers of herbs, but 450 to 500 square feet, right outside, cater-corner from Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. It will be tended by the kitchen staff, and Fraser says it could yield as much as a quarter of the produce for his kitchen. He's eyeing a parking lot for more garden space.

As they renovate the rectory — more than a century old, with hand-painted ceilings and arched walkways — to build a 100-seat restaurant with patio dining, an upstairs bar and four private dining rooms, they plan to use paints with low or no volatile organic compounds, to install cisterns so water from designated prep sinks can irrigate the garden. And they'll make compost. Fraser has an idea for taking diners into the garden to pick, say, five ingredients for a tasting menu.

The couple were early converts to making their restaurants, Grace and BLD, both now on Beverly Boulevard, green. At Grace, they filter the water and offer it without charge. Grace's used oil is recycled to run a family car. They persuaded a fish supplier to switch to reusable bins.

Fraser says he was inspired by the birth of their daughter five years ago: "I looked outside, and saw, how is she going to live?"

"We really do have to take this seriously and do as much as we can. It's so difficult. Everyone is busy, and operating a restaurant is not a piece of cake," Knoll Fraser says.

Whether for the bottom line or for the highest of ideals, more restaurateurs are working toward "sustainability." There's no legal definition for a sustainable restaurant, but sustainability — in restaurants, economies or relationships — generally means serving the needs of the present while preserving the ability to meet the needs of the future.

Chefs often take that to mean using locally grown produce, buying supplies from companies that respect the environment and encouraging frugal practices in their kitchens. By turning off lights, installing water filtration systems, recycling cooking oil for biodiesel and using hybrid vehicles for delivery, owners have branched out from just buying chickens that toddle free around a farm.

"There are thousands of restaurants who have owners who believe they need to do their part," says Joel Makower, executive editor of the online publishing company

Matt Lyman takes his restaurants' carbon footprint very seriously, all the way to the latex gloves.

The staff at Tender Greens, a small, salad-centric chain of restaurants that Lyman owns with two partners, mixes salads by hand in front of diners, wearing disposable gloves — lots of them — that end up in landfills. He'd like to find some that could be recycled or composted.

"I have everyone I know trying to source them. If enough people ask, someone will come up with them," says Lyman, who has worked hard to make as many environmentally friendly choices as possible in the restaurants in San Diego, Culver City, West Hollywood and Hollywood.

Until then, it's latex. Lyman says that despite any amount of hand-washing, customers are reassured by the gloves, and tongs are a nonstarter.

"Tongs break up the lettuce and kind of destroy the essence of what makes our food so good," he says.

Lyman and his partners have, however, solved many problems. They plan soon to dispense with soda bottles by making their own beverages using fruits in season — pear or apple soda in the fall, blood orange in the winter. All year, they'll serve ginger and lemon-lime.

They bought some old bleachers in Ukiah and turned them into a counter in the West Hollywood restaurant. The staff uniforms are organic cotton T-shirts. They serve high-quality fast food, and buy produce from local growers such as Scarborough Farms in Oxnard.

Both Grace and Tender Greens have plenty of company. In the last few years, there's been a blossoming attitude that it's not enough to serve food that tastes good, at a good price, in a comfortable dining room.

Ryan Ballinger opened the York, a 99-seat gastropub in Highland Park, reusing as much of what he found in the building as possible. He also put in tables made from pressed recycled paper, and a long window counter made of recycled wood. He estimates he recycles about 70% of his kitchen oil, glass and paper and food waste. He doesn't print menus; they're written on chalkboards around the bar.

"Some of that is just ingrained in you, you don't want to be wasteful," Ballinger says. "Waste is loss, essentially. That's just a business perspective."

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