With organic and sustainability labels, its caveat foodie

In an elevator heading up to the 30th floor of a Financial District law office last month, riders wondered aloud what kind of finger foods would be served at a panel discussion about the sustainable food industry. Surely the spread would be more impressive than the standard jack and cheddar cheese cubes.

Attendees were not disappointed. The hosts served platters from San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, which included not only portobello mushroom skewers with Romesco sauce, but a cheese platter with nary a cube in sight. Instead there was dried fruit, Manchego and Humboldt Fog.

“The Thriving Sustainable Foods Industry” was the topic of the panel discussion, sponsored by the Business Leadership Council of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and it featured four panelists and a moderator — all male and all Jewish — involved in different aspects of the sustainable food industry.

The presentation included a viewing of the “Portlandia” sketch in which the stars ask their server not only about the diet of the chicken they are about to consume, but exactly how much land it lives on, and its name (“Colin”), and ultimately end up leaving the table to visit the farm to see for themselves how it’s raised. The program also included a lengthy discussion about what the fair trade, organic and other such labels actually mean.

“You’ll go blind at Whole Foods, trying to figure out what all these stamps actually are,” said Danny Ronen, senior educator and director of sustainable programs at Liquid Kitchen and the founder of DC Spirits.

Joey Altman, chef spokesperson at Diageo Chateau & Estates wines, said that as a business person it was “frustrating to try to accommodate all the different sustainable demands that customers or even your own ethics want to implement.”

Some certification agencies, he said, are completely disingenuous and misleading, and it is incumbent upon consumers to do their own research.

“There is a real hunger among people for wanting to understand our food system better,” said Altman. “It’s very complex.  I watch documentaries about it and read about it all the time and I still find it confusing. I can’t imagine for someone who just sort of perks up their ear a bit or reads an article in USA Today, how they’re going to understand it.”

Food educator Danny Ronen (left) and celebrity chef Joey Altman on the panel

Adrian Hoffman, vice president and culinary director of Lark Creek Restaurant Group, which includes 14 restaurants, spoke mainly about his efforts to transition to using only fish approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

While the company always had these issues in mind, Hoffman said, it was not quite as strict some years ago.

“There are a finite number of fish that we love to eat, and with 14 restaurants, we have a large responsibility,” he said. “It was expensive to switch from any kind of salmon to using only wild. At Yankee Pier, we sell a lot of fish and chips, and for a while the cod was caught by trawling, which catches a lot of bycatch that doesn’t get used. We wanted to keep using the same kind of rock cod, but only hook-and-line caught was on the OK list. It took some investment to do it, and it costs more, but now, seven years later, it’s what the fishermen are doing, and it’s come back down in price. The demand for it has changed the way people are fishing for it.”

Moderator Mike Dovbish, executive director of the Nutrition Capital Network, opined that unlike fair trade and organic labels, seafood was perhaps the easiest for the layperson to understand. “Everyone understands overfishing,” he said.

The Israeli dish shakshouka photo/creative commons-nesson-marshall

Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, had a formative experience that shaped his business practices while working in corporate finance at the Gap. For a two-week period, the Gap’s corporate headquarters was the target of protestors concerned about logging practices in Mendocino County that were linked to the family that founded the Gap. “They were easy scapegoats, but that experience made me decide that if I started something, I wanted to be able to sleep at night and not have to step over protestors on my way to work,” he said. Gottlieb started Three Twins as a way to combine his “inner do-gooder with his dirty capitalist.” He’s found that while “customers don’t necessarily want to pay more for a sustainable product, they will pay for something with added value.”

All panelists were in agreement that ultimately it’s up to the consumer not to fall for the sustainability buzzword and to be as informed as possible as to whether their own ethics are in line with those of the products they purchase.

As an example, Hoffman shared a conversation he had recently with a larger factory purveyor of meat. The chef asked the producer whether his meat was sustainable. “He said yes, in that they’re not going anywhere,” which is one definition of sustainable, said Hoffman. “So yes, they’re sustainable, but not responsible.”

THE FINAL BITE: In May, j. profiled Epic Bites, an Oakland-based catering company run by two guys who wanted to bring the taste of bacon to the kosher world. They were growing larger and larger. Then, Isaac Bernstein, the chef behind the operation, got an offer he couldn’t refuse. While his wife finishes school in the Bay Area, Bernstein has been commuting back and forth between here and New York. He’s the new culinary director for Pomegranate, a specialty kosher market in Brooklyn. In August, Epic Bites will do its last event.

IN SEASON: People await summer for all kinds of reasons, and a big one, of course, for foodies, is that it’s tomato season. There is nothing like a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato. Of course, sales of mozzarella and burrata (What’s burrata? A fresh mozzarella with a creamy interior. If you haven’t tried it, get yourself to your nearest gourmet cheese shop, stat!) rise greatly during tomato season. But tomatoes and another summer vegetable, peppers, are the foundation for the popular Israeli dish shakshouka.

While the dish is eaten throughout North Africa, it was introduced in Israel by Turkish Jews and almost rivals falafel in popularity. It’s also considered Israeli comfort food. Recipes abound on the Web, but for a simple version, sauté some chopped onion in olive oil. Add some red bell pepper and chopped tomato. Add some spices like cumin or paprika, salt and pepper. Simmer until the tomatoes break down. Break eggs on top and cook until they’re set, though it’s best when the yolks are still somewhat runny. Eat, and mop up sauce with some crusty bread.


Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."