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San Francisco chefs serve up message about climate change

  • COURTESY THE PERENNIAL

    Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint opened the Perennial in San Francisco last year with a clear mission in mind: Run an environmentally friendly restaurant with a minimal carbon footprint, and inspire other restaurateurs to do the same.

Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint opened the Perennial in San Francisco last year with a clear mission in mind: Run an environmentally friendly restaurant with a minimal carbon footprint, and inspire other restaurateurs to do the same.

As President Donald Trump has questioned the existence of climate change, Leibowitz and Myint have emerged as activists, at the forefront of a growing movement of chefs who not only recognize and measure the impact of their industry on the planet, but also look for new ways to undo the damage.

Myint and Leibowitz, who are married, have been immersed for the past few years in the research that directs every decision at the restaurant, like choosing the kitchen’s energy-efficient equipment and its raw ingredients, many of which are grown in ways that can regenerate the soil.

Myint has filled in when needed as a line cook, but he will take over the kitchen at the end of September when the chef, Chris Kiyuna, leaves. Kiyuna said he plans to take a short break from the industry.

Beginning Oct. 1, Myint will share the role of chef with Michael Andreatta, who cooked at Commonwealth, a restaurant co-owned by Myint that donates a portion of its monthly revenue to local nonprofits. The Perennial will continue to promote sustainability through composting and using perennial grains and grass-fed beef. But the menu will change.

Leibowitz and Myint first made their names as restaurateurs in San Francisco with Mission Street Food, a pop-up they started in 2008 in a Guatemalan food cart. With the chef Danny Bowien, they turned that pop-up into the influential Mission Chinese Food. The couple wrote the cookbook “Mission Street Food” in 2011.

In addition to the Perennial, Leibowitz and Myint founded the Perennial Farming Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to share their research in creative ways, and use food to fight climate change.

The Apocalypse Burger is one of Myint’s many memorable, darkly funny creations, and a look at how a chef’s politics might shape the food on his plate in unexpected ways. The burger, which Myint developed for the menu at In Situ, a restaurant inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, looks unfamiliar at first, and out of proportion.

The bite-size patty, covered in American cheese, is concealed in a black shell that resembles a charcoal briquette.

Myint says he will reconfigure the Apocalypse Burger for the Perennial’s new menu, making it bigger and serving it on a squid-ink bun. And he will use other visual puns to make new food that’s playful, communicating his ideas deliciously, without scolding anyone.

There will be more of an emphasis on offal, too, Leibowitz said, because they want to encourage nose-to-tail eating, and lead diners toward a wider range of cuts, served in smaller portions.

“What’s exciting about the reboot of the menu is to think about the potential for food and restaurants to be communicative in the way art is communicative,” Leibowitz said, “so that people are eating the message more.”

At the Drawdown Getdown, an event focused on climate education in San Francisco on Sept. 24, Leibowitz and Myint plan to join the author Paul Hawken to discuss how food choices can make a positive impact on the environment. They will install interactive exhibits, like a large scale with weighted cubes that represent ingredients and their relative carbon footprints, and a compost exhibit squirming with worms.

Beginning next month, the Perennial will take more inspiration from its owners’ pop-up days, when frequent collaborations with other chefs fueled a series of experimental one-off dinners.

Leibowitz and Myint anticipate that the new dinners will occur monthly, and they plan to work with some of the same chefs who cooked alongside them in the past, including Bowien, who is scheduled to cook at the Perennial in October. Nick Balla, of Duna, will be in the kitchen in November.

“You’re not going to open a restaurant based on selling only beef tongue, but you could do it for a night,” Myint said. He hopes that by sharing ideas, and cooking together briefly in a low-pressure, low-cost environment, chefs will energize and accelerate the work that lies ahead.

“It’s not about competition,” Leibowitz said. “It’s about building a movement.”

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