Aquaponic greens at Perennial preview event. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

Never at a food-centric event have I talked about waste as much as I did at a special preview for the Perennial, a new venture from the husband and wife duo behind Mission Chinese and Commonwealth, Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint. Their new restaurant, set to open in February 2015 in Mid Market, will offer modern California cuisine produced as part of a food chain that makes use of waste at every step. If all goes according to plan, it will be a kind of perpetual-motion-machine of farm-to-table dining

“We’re initially shooting to take in 100 percent of food waste, if a year from now if it turns out 40 or 50 percent is all we can do, it’s better than nothing,” said Nathan Kaufman, of Viridis Aquapoinic Growers, a sustainable agricultural company that’s working with the Perennial crew to build a 2,000-square-foot aquaponic greenhouse in Oakland.

Said greenhouse will be a symbiotic system in which fish offer fertilizer for the plants growing in water. Much of the restaurant’s food will be sourced from here.

What does all this have to do with reducing waste? Jump a couple of steps back. Perennial won’t just be growing ingredients for its menu. By using its food waste to compost with (and simultaneously feed) worms and black soldier fly larvae it will also be making its food’s food.

As Kaufman explains, “it starts with two bins.”

When the Perennial’s wait staff scrape off food leftovers into the compost, one bin will be for vegetables—a favorite food of worms—another will be for meat and diary. The latter is harder for worms to process, but soldier fly larvae love the stuff. Viridis Aquapoinics, which has been doing this at their headquarters in Watsonville since 2013, will then take the compost and harvest the crawly critters..

“We then dehydrate them and run them through a pellet mill to make well-balanced fish feed,” said Kauffman. To make the pellets, the high in protein insects are also mixed with corn and soy so that the 8,000 to 12,000 young catfish and sturgeon in the Perennial’s greenhouse get all their essential nutrients.

The fish will eat the pellets made from worms made from the food scrapes and grow bigger. But more importantly, the fish will excrete ammonium rich waste into the water. What’s also ammonium rich? Fertilizer. It’s the perfect storm for growing organic produce.

The plants not only grow from the nutrient-rich water, their root system also acts like a natural filter so that the same water can be used by the fish. Aquaponic agricultural uses about 90 percent less water than traditional agricultural. Another benefit of this greenhouse system, is that seasonal vegetables can be grown year round.

“We’ll be producing produce about a month into operation,” said Kaufman of the Perennial’s greenhouse. “The catfish will take about 16 months before they can be harvested, the sturgeon a little longer.”

Graphic of aquaponic agriculture. Courtesy of Viridis Aquaponic Growers.

“It’s an experiment to see how much we can do to reduce the environmental impact of running a restaurant,” said Anthony Myint. Part of the Perennial’s funds will go towards a new non-profit Zero Foodprint, of which Myint is on the board, that will be dedicated to helping other restaurants find ways to reduce their own impact.

The Perennial’s culinary team, headed by current Mission Chinese chef du cuisine Chris Kiyuna, will then use the produce, and eventually the fish, for cooking. Diners will enjoy their meal but any leftovers head into the compost, and process repeats ad infinitum, or perennially.

“Most of all we want to make this a place that people enjoy coming to and has delicious food,” said Kiyuna. “It’s not like we’re not going to be handing out pamphlets at door.”

The consensus of the small crowd of friends and restauranteurs gathered at the preview, hosted at headquarters of the Mission-based device startup Nomiku, seemed to be that the Perennial’s impact-conscious ethos reaped rewards. The food tasted delicious.

Perennial’s menu hasn’t been settled on, and not all of it will be grown at their greenhouse. For the preview Kiyuna had prepared tastes of sous-vide (cooked at a low temperature for a long time) pouched trout, tender lamb salad, avocado lettuce cups, and a hummus made from sunflower seeds and sunchoke. The table was also strewn with big leafy greens grown in Viridis’ greenhouse in Watsonville.

The trout, sliced thin like a piece of smoked salmon, which sat on a crostini with leek and jalapeño confit and a sprig of watercress offered a full-flavored and crisp bite-sized morsel. The sous-vide avocado in the lettuce cups surpassed the buttery goodness I’d expect from one of my favorite fatty vegetables and the aquaponically-grown lettuce was especially crunchy. The lamb, which had been braised in rice wine and topped with flavor blasts of pomegranate seeds, sorrel, and pickled walnuts, was a wallop of richness that even this eco-conscious, mostly vegetarian reporter couldn’t resist.

“This is my favorite thing,” said one woman as she munched on a big leaf of lettuce, grown in the fertilizer made from the fish which nibbled on the grub which feasted on the compost made from the leftovers of someone else munching on a lettuce leaf somewhere down the line.

The Perennial is currently a few days away from the final day of its Kickstarter aiming to raise $24,000 for the creation of its greenhouse. You can find out more here.

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Daniel Hirsch

Daniel Hirsch is a freelance writer who has been living in the Mission since 2009. When he's not contributing to Mission Local, he's writing plays, working as an extra for HBO, and/or walking to the top...

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