Sustainable restaurant raises the bar in climate change battle

The improbable story of restaurateurs Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint — the married couple who rented a taco cart that became the pop-up Mission Street Food that eventually grew into the acclaimed restaurant Mission Chinese Food — is a familiar one in the Bay Area and beyond. Their newest venture, The Perennial, declared “the most sustainable restaurant in the world,” also has been profiled in many publications and landed on prestigious best-of lists.

What’s less mentioned, though, is Leibowitz’s Jewish background. She grew up in a fairly nonobservant Jewish family in Los Angeles and showed initiative at an early age, seeking answers about Judaism. “When I was about 10, I had a lot of questions,” she said. “I asked if we could join a synagogue and we did. I had a bat mitzvah, which my older sister had not done.” She also attended Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, another activity she said was “self-directed.”

When it came to food, Leibowitz said her parents were more likely to serve tofu than any of the Jewish classics. She had the impression that her maternal grandmother was an excellent cook, though she doesn’t remember being the beneficiary of the food herself. “She had these famous potatoes, which somehow I never had.”

When Leibowitz met her chef husband, she asked him to try to re-create the recipe, based on her mother’s nostalgic memory. “It was like a pot roast, that was cooked on a rack above the potatoes, so the drippings fell onto them, a real ’50s meat and potatoes kind of dish,” she said.

Now that she is a wife and a mother herself, Leibowitz likes to observe Shabbat on Friday nights with her family, a ritual her husband enjoys as well. “It doesn’t feel like a mixed marriage,” she said of Myint. “He’s very enthusiastically embraced Shabbat, and the other day [4-year-old] Aviva asked if he was Jewish.”

Karen Leibowitz photo/alanna hale

Myint’s parents emigrated from Burma, but they are ethnically Chinese, and Leibowitz said her father-in-law has compared the situation of the Chinese minority in Burma to that of being a Jew in Poland.

It was Aviva who served as inspiration for The Perennial — becoming parents made the couple think much more about the world their daughter would someday inherit.

“In 2012, when we had an invitation to make another restaurant, we only wanted to do it if it was spotlighting food and the environment,” Leibowitz said. Figuring out how to make all the pieces work together “pushes us,” she said. “One restaurant cannot combat climate change on its own, but it’s building up a reputation, and we’re situated to spread this message and say that the food world can be leaders in this really important job.”

Doing good while doing well is a familiar practice for the couple, who weave charitable components into their restaurant ventures. When they opened Mission Chinese Food in 2010, they donated 75 cents for every entrée ordered to the San Francisco–Marin Food Bank.

There isn’t enough space here to describe all the things they’re doing differently at The Perennial to save the planet — like creating cocktails in batches to limit the amount of wasted ice; receiving wine in casks to minimize the restaurant’s bottle count; having one central walk-in refrigerator to reduce the number of compressors; and growing their own produce in West Oakland, to name just a few.

They also are forming a nonprofit to help educate farmers and chefs in how they can take the lead in fighting climate change. They will help run it with their colleague Nathan Kaufman, who oversees the restaurant’s aquaponics system — a method that uses waste from farmed fish to grow vegetables. Kaufman also leads the aquaponics program at Berkeley’s Urban Adamah.

Leibowitz, who is also an author and has produced several cookbooks, is working on the proposal for another about the couple’s efforts at The Perennial, which fits in with their mission to share information, whether with other farmers, chefs or diners.

“The restaurant is making food a part of the solution to climate change and making the public aware of that as a possibility,” she said, “while the nonprofit is about helping farmers make those changes —  supporting them in transitioning to progressive agriculture practices, like growing perennial greens; carbon farming, meaning using animals in managed grazing patterns that take in more carbon than gets released; and creating aquaponic systems that are more efficient with water and land.”

Leibowitz traveled to Copenhagen recently to attend the MAD Symposium (put on by some of the highest-profile chefs in the world) but she said she and her husband will talk “to anyone who will take us” about their efforts. “We’re trying to spread the word wherever we can. We think it’s really exciting, but only if we can be part of a larger movement.”


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."