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The Importance of Culinary Sustainability: Boston Restaurants on the Frontier of Ethical Cooking

Clover Food Lab is a mission-based vegetarian restaurant chain in the Boston area.
Clover Food Lab is a mission-based vegetarian restaurant chain in the Boston area. By Courtesy of Clover Food Lab
By Kate E. Ravenscroft, Contributing Writer

As global concerns over climate change and environmental sustainability have intensified over the past decade, many have become progressively more aware of the impact of industrial food production on carbon emissions and waste management. From discourse surrounding microplastics intruding into food systems to reports of the massively destructive nature of the meat industry, sustainability within the culinary world is quickly becoming a “trending topic.”

Although renowned chefs have been preaching about the importance of farm fresh cooking for decades in order to improve food quality and support local purveyors, the farm to table movement has grown exponentially in recent years due to increasing ethical and environmental concerns.

Many establishments in the Boston food scene have incorporated these considerations into their approach to food — indeed, the city boasts some of the earliest proponents of this more sustainable philosophy.

For example, take “Clover Food Lab,” a mission-based restaurant chain which focuses on combating climate change by prioritizing convenient vegetarian food for all.

In an interview with The Crimson, “Clover” founder and CEO Ayr Muir demonstrated his knowledge of and passion for food sustainability “We can hit all of our targets on reducing the use of fossil fuels, on changing transportation networks, on moving new construction to green building, and we’re still going to fall short of [environmental] goals if we don’t change the way we eat,” said Muir. “The changes to the way we eat are really massive.”

As restaurants strive towards culinary sustainability as a means of combating climate destruction, a key question arises: What changes need to be made?

To Muir, the first step towards more conscious food practices is simple: “If you look at the numbers, we really should be in a place where people are eating meat maybe a couple of times a month. So that’s a big difference: The average American right now is eating 3.4 servings of meat every day.”

Aside from changing dietary habits — a historically challenging sell to communities heavily entrenched in culinary tradition — many chefs have opted to prioritize local farms with ethical sourcing practices.

“Henrietta’s Table” of the Charles Hotel has been championing farm-to-table sourcing since its inception. Peter Davis — the chef who created the Harvard Square staple in 1995 — has promoted buying locally for decades and was a revolutionary part of the beginnings of the farm-to-table movement in the late ’90s.

Current Executive Chef at “Henrietta’s Table” and Davis’s predecessor Sean Lizotte spoke about maintaining this legacy of sustainability in a recent interview with The Crimson. “We do our best to use local farmers that are within the vicinity of New England and try to limit our impact on the environment that way,” said Lizotte. “We cut out the middleman of produce companies [...] we pay directly to local farms.”

“Henrietta’s Table” evokes the ethos of old-school culinary business practices that predated industrialized farming; while small-batch “family farming” may not be as efficient as the modern-day economy demands, it undoubtedly produces a higher quality product, in addition to being a more environmentally-friendly practice.

Similarly, Concord Restaurant Group and its award winning “Woods Hill Table” and “Woods Hill Pier 4,” created by owner Kristin Canty and Executive Chef Charlie Foster, was founded on the basis of celebrating sustainable cuisine and has been widely recognized for its innovation in the industry.

The restaurant group actually boasts its own farm, The Farm at Woods Hill, which Chef Foster reported was a part of the unique vision from day one in an interview with The Crimson. “There’s locality, there’s your carbon footprint [...] there’s seasonality and there’s obviously just if farmers are doing things right when they’re raising animals and/or crops, [that] the land is benefiting from that action, not suffering.”

“It's more than just food,” said Foster, in regard to restaurant sustainability. “Sustainability needs to follow through in the way you treat your staff … and the way you obviously treat the experience that you bring your guests.”

Sustainability in the restaurant industry is by no means an easy feat — it is not second nature for any business predicated on profit to adopt more expensive industry standards. Chef Foster spoke to the complexities and challenges of the Concord Restaurant Group’s mission: “I think that there’s a lack of communication in the industry, from people that are solving problems that other people want to be solving,” Foster said. “We need education for business owners, and we need to continue to educate clientele to understand the value of what we’re serving.”

While establishing sustainability in the food industry does present some initial challenges, these obstacles are essential to overcome if Americans are going to move towards a more climate-conscious future.

Ultimately, each interviewee stressed the power of the consumer’s dollar in terms of supporting sustainable food practices. Muir hopes that average Americans can find ways to shift their spending habits in support of sustainable purveyors, and Chef Lizotte urges readers to shop locally at farmers’ markets.

“Through education and through advocacy, the value of it will continue to increase in the eyes of the consumer and the market will drive it,” said Foster, in regard to his hope for future prioritization of food sustainability. The rejection of current unethical market offerings by American consumers has immense potential to raise standards of sustainability within our food industry.

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