Ted and Honey: A Home-Made Haven in BK Heights

home-made granola and farm-fresh yogurt at Ted and Honey; photographed by Anthony Johnson

Michelle Mannix, co-owner of Brooklyn Heights based restaurant Ted and Honey, doesn’t like to eat meat of unknown origin. But she does eat meat. She likes to know where her food is coming from. So she and her brother, Ted Jackson, created a restaurant and menu that allows them–and all their customers–to know where there food comes from. Everything at Ted and Honey is locally sourced, organic, or made in-house.

“We don’t buy anything in a jar unless we have to,” said Mannix, who pursued a culinary education at the New School, and worked in marketing before switching over to food service.  From the looks of the restaurant’s shelves lined with Ball jars filled with smoked tomato pepper jam, pickled jalapeno, cranberry grape chutney, home-made BBQ sauce and even home-made ketchup, it seems that they really do make everything from scratch. They brine their meats in the cellar, cure their own smoked salmon, make mozzarella from curd, and even blend their own peanut butter.

Of course, this commitment to home-made goods comes with a cost. While it might seem counter-intuitive that home-made goods would be more expensive, Mannix said that a lot of extra money goes into labor. Making food from scratch takes time, as we are all aware. Sigh. Sometimes it just seems easier to (perhaps regretfully) order take-out–again. But it weighs on the mind, at least it weighs on my mind. I feel healthier, more connected and just more human, when I cook for myself.

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A Meaty Perspective on Vegetarianism

It was a warm Saturday in early March, and I lingered beside the Grazin’ Angus grass-fed beef stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, mulling over my grocery list. Amidst the shifting foot-traffic, but one man was still, relaxed-seeming, as if he could hang by the beef guys all day. We said hello’s and before I knew it, he was giving me recipe advice for making juicy, healthy hamburgers.

This man seemed to know a few things about cooking, but his language was more scientific than gourmet, more health-focused than gut-centric. Soon enough Michael Pollan came up, and as I mentioned the journalist’s advice to eat mostly plants (ironically we were still stationed beside the beef stand), my new friend broke out vehemently against vegetarianism. Vegan vegetarianism, he told me, is “unnatural, anti-human, nonexistent in nature, an invention of organized religion and detrimental to the environment.” But he used to be a vegetarian–for 15 years. Continue reading

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Drinking the Earth Back to Health

Alcohol bottles warn us to “drink responsibly”. Bar Manager Kyle Bullen of Candle 79 advises us to “drink environmentally responsibly”. If that sounds too, well, responsible for a leisure activity, do not fret. At Candle 79, Bullen, self-proclaimed Eco-Bartender does the legwork in designing eco-cocktails, so all you have to do is take a seat, relax, and enjoy–Reforestation Cocktail, anyone?

Candle 79, located on Lexington and 79th Street, is one of New York City’s premier Vegan restaurants. It is dimly lit, cozy, a neighborhood spot as well as a destination. The restaurant has a three star Green Restaurant Association certification, and its menu features local produce and mainly organic ingredients. Before Bullen transplanted himself from Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco, Candle 79’s Bar menu consisted of sake, wine and beer–mostly organic and biodynamic, (to read more about these terms and what they mean for wine, click here). Only recently did Bullen introduce a full bar, and a sustainable one at that.

While the sustainable bar does not guarantee that every liquor on the menu is labeled organic, Bullen chooses every spirit with precision and intention. He opts for locally produced Liv vodka (a potato vodka produced entirely in Long Island, from field to distiller to bottle) rather than an organic, quinoa-based, French vodka, because the local vodka makes more environmental sense. It travels less distance, (burning less fuel), and supports the long island potato farmers who employ sustainable methods, said the Eco-Bartender, even though they don’t have an organic certification. (Some small farms decide not to get a USDA organic certification because of the fee and administrative headache required, but still practice organic methods). The trade-offs between a French organic vodka and a locally produced Vodka take time and research to fully understand, and no one has calculated the difference in environmental impact from buying one or the other. Ultimately the purchase is a personal judgment call.

Scientific proof, however, has its place on the menu of Candle 79. TRU vodka from Greenbar Collective (and served at Candle 79), is so exciting because they show the calculations of their impact on the website. Because of their sustainable production methods and commitment to plant  a tree for each bottle sold, their vodkas are scientifically found to be 760 times carbon negative! Other spirits offered are either local, organic, or the product of what Bullen knows to be sustainable practices.

“All items must be an active participant in environmental sustainability,” he said of his alcohol-purchasing criteria. For the Eco-Bartender, it’s not enough to buy products that don’t destroy the environment. We must somehow amend the already depleted and damaged earth.

Eco-Bartender Bullen’s contribution is the Reforestation cocktail.  The consumer’s contribution is drinking it. No, it does not contain bark or leaves or any indigestible organic matter. It literally contributes to reforestation, because every drink sold guarantees that one tree will be planted somewhere in the world that needs it. (Click here to see what other restaurants are participating in the TREETini initiative–one drink, one tree–sponsored by Live It Green LLC and VeeV) Talk about an incentive to have a drink! Or two, or three.

The cocktail consists of VeeV acai spirit, wheatgrass vodka, muddled mint, ginger agave, lime, soda and rocks. The Eco-Bartender infuses the vodka with wheatgrass himself. VeeV acai spirit is derived from the berries of the acai palm tree, found in the Amazon in Brazil. Acai berries are prized for the antioxidants within, that are said to slow the aging process and the onslaught of degenerative diseases. It seems ironic to mix the antioxidants found in acai berries and wheatgrass with alcohol, which is technically a drug. Does the alcohol cancel out the antioxidant benefits of the other ingredients and make it a zero-sum beverage? More science is welcome to help me explain this.

Or you can look at it another way, perhaps unscientific but equally valid: alcohol can be pleasurable, relaxing,  and stress-relieving (haven’t you ever been put to ease by sipping a cocktail with a close friend or lover?). Mixing a shot of relaxation and pleasure with a bevy of antioxidant-laden berries might just be a recipe for excellent health.

Wheatgrass, tree-planting, it all seems to be in-line with health and the eco-conscious vegan philosophy. But the bar at Candle 79 is not only about health and the environment. Taste and pleasure are equally important.

“What is your idea of what vegan means? That you can’t enjoy simple pleasures like having a drink after work?” said the Eco-Bartender. Bullen, who believes more in the mantra of moderation than prohibition,  tastes spirits and cocktails for a living.  It seems wise to trust him to choose what tastes best. And it makes sense that organic spirits taste more pure and are less likely to cause a nasty hangover (but that still depends on how much you consume–no, organic does not mean you’re off the hook!).

Suddenly, when your drink tastes better and contributes to reforestation, drinking environmentally responsibly doesn’t seem like such a chore.

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L’Artusi, dell’anima, Anfora: Quietly Quite Sustainable

Do you ever toss a plastic bottle in the trash—it’s gotta go somewhere and where is that recycling bin?– and feel guilty about it? Don’t feel too bad. It’s as much an infrastructure issue a lack of consumer effort. We need more recycling bins. And Amelia Ekus of Epicurean Management Company noticed that restaurants do, too.

What those of us who want to be green, and eat green might not realize is that even something as small as recycling can take a lot of work, especially when it involves changing the flow of service that makes a restaurant run smoothly and successfully. In the end, environmental sustainability is important only as long as the restaurant is economically sustainable. If the restaurant fails, all efforts are for naught. Ekus, who studies activism in the food industry at the Gallatin School of New York University, realized that much could be done to make the restaurants greener. However, as a waitress without a budget to make sustainable changes, she had to start small and reasonably. No recycling bin behind the bar? Ekus put recyclable materials into a plastic quart container that was already back there, and dumped the contents into the larger recycling bin at the end of each shift. No money required. No extra space necessary.

These little changes and her passion eventually got Ekus her role as Director of Community Development for Epicurean Management Company (EMCo.), which manages L’Artusi, Dell’Anima, and Anfora restaurants (the latter is a wine bar with nibbles), all located in the West Village of New York City. One part of her job is to make sure the restaurants are as sustainable as possible.

If a food business wants to get serious about going green, the process to get certification can be arduous, but the result is a guarantee to the restaurant and its customers that the business is truly sustainable. The Green Restaurant Association (GRA) is a non-profit organization that requires a minimum degree of sustainability within seven different categories, and upon the achievement, the restaurant is granted a GRA certification of one to three stars. (Categories are water efficiency; waste reduction and recycling; sustainable furnishings and building materials; sustainable food; energy; disposables; and chemical and pollution reduction). As composting is an automatic requirement for certification, it was one of the first tasks Ekus set out to accomplish. It proved especially difficult in dell’anima because of space limitations in their small kitchen. Where were they going to put a separate trash bin for compost when space was already cramped during the hectic service hours?

“I’m face to face talking with the managers and unfortunately they’re worried about 800 different things and the last thing on their mind is, ‘where are we gonna put a trashcan for compost?'” said Ekus in an interview at L’Artusi. For that reason, it is Amelia’s full-time job (on a part-time schedule) to think about these small but important changes toward greater sustainability. The solution in dell’anima was to convert the trash bin into a compost bin, along with the elimination of almost all potential trash from the dining experience—even the straws are biodegradable. The staff was trained on the specifics, and suddenly all uneaten food from dell’anima (and L’Artusi) is recycled back into the soil to grow more food.

Dell’anima and L’Artusi are both three star restaurants, from the GRA that is (check out the list of other GRA restaurants here). They changed their lightbulbs, purchased energy credits, replaced bathroom hand dryers with more efficient ones, and are working on their sustainable food purchases. While most people, most locavores anyway, think of food as the key component of sustainability within a restaurant, it is actually the most challenging aspect, according to Ekus. People go to a restaurant for the food, and it has to be of high quality and taste good. At the same time, the food is what brings in the money, so to survive they have to maintain a margin of profit. Local food can be more costly in both money and time, and it doesn’t necessarily taste better than food with higher mileage attached.

Take local chicken, for example. If chef /owners Gabriel and Katherine Thompson were to use local chickens, one of their options would be BoBo chickens, from upstate New York, which arrive with the head and feet still attached and intact. At this point, the economic cons of the extra time and labor it takes to prep the chickens outweigh the pros of local purchasing. Budget is the bottom line. If the restaurant is sustainable economically, it isn’t sustainable in any respect.

Ekus’s approach is to go ingredient by ingredient. If she comes across something delicious, she brings it in and hopes the chefs will salivate enough to replace their non-local ingredient with its more sustainable counterpart. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“At the end of the day, cash rules,” said Ekus, “and what’s cheaper is going to win out. There are things that we do spend more money on because they’re better quality.”

Most people automatically assume that local will be tastier. It may often be true, because on smaller farms, certain varieties of plants are chosen for flavor qualities rather than their ability to be shipped, or their aesthetic characteristics (think shiny, bright-colored yet tasteless apples). Also, local produce is picked ripe and consumed more quickly than foods that have to be shipped much further. But Ekus points out that proximity and better taste do not always go hand in hand.

“You can get a Pennsylvania peach or you can get a Georgia peach, at the end of the day the Georgia peach, no matter what, is gonna be better,” said Ekus, quoting self-titled “bestovore” and NY Times writer Mimi Sheraton. People come in to eat good food, so that is what the chefs want to deliver. Sustainability comes second. Whereas other restaurants may win over customers because they serve local or organic food, EMCo restaurants do not advertise if their products are local or organic. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try to incorporate local foods.

“I have big, lofty goals of having almost everything sourced from the best and the closest,” said Ekus. But she knows it’s not easy, and it might not be possible just yet. “It’s really hard from a restaurant perspective because it depends on farmers and it depends on distribution companies…it’s a really difficult situation but the most I think that we can do is go ingredient by ingredient, try to work it out and do as much as we can, and that’s an ongoing process. That’s why I’ll never have a slow day at work!”

Ekus is extremely aware of the infrastructural shortcomings that make local food inaccessible and expensive for restaurants to use. The seasons also come into play. We are not in sunny California, after all, and local purchasing is much easier in the summer than in the sparse winter season. But even seasons don’t have to limit local eating. The answer? “We need more four season farming.” Amelia is both hopeful and practical, realist and idealist. She knows what it’s like to work in a restaurant, and that is key to her ability to make change from the inside.

“I can go in and say, look, I know that you’re gonna need a trashcan that can fit in this area, and this is the size that I have for you, and it eliminates this sort of back and forth of having someone coming in who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and wants to put a 64 gallon tub in the middle of the restaurant because it’s right for the environment.”

When you go into one of the restaurants to order, you might not realize your food will be composted (along with your straw), or that certain ingredients are local. They work behind the scenes, and do not flaunt their achievements. Why not, I asked Ekus, if it can attract the growing corps of hungry locavores? Ms. Ekus doesn’t believe that the greenwash gaurantees sustainability. The farm name does not reveal the farming practices employed there, and is the consumer really going to sit there and look up the farm on their smart phone before ordering to see if it is organic, biodynamic or local? When it comes to sustainable purchasing, Ekus believes that the research is up to the restaurant, not the diner. “I think it’s something that just should be done and should be an industry standard.”

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