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The Sacramento Bee reported news last week that caught my attention (and raised my ire): for up to seven years, many large-scale organic farming operations used an approved fertilizer on their organic crop land that was effective and inexpensive. A state investigation caught the product’s manufacturer spiking it with ammonium sulfate, however, a synthetic fertilizer banned by organic regulations. As a result, some of California's 2006 harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables wasn't really organic, and that may just be the tip of the iceberg. Synthetic fertilizers are disallowed by regulators because they decrease natural soil fertility and can significantly pollute waterways. They are produced using an enormous amount of fossil-fuel energy – not a ‘natural’ source like fish by-products. No farms lost their organic certification since they didn’t know they were using the chemical. Consumers, however, were duped. […]

In my role here at Bon Appetit, I focus on communications to the customers who eat in our cafés. It’s always interesting to me when we hear back from these customers about the issues that motivate and inspire them. This year, students at American University and Wesleyan University were loud and clear as they rallied for their cafés to be awarded the Most Vegetarian-Friendly College for 2008. For the third year in a row, Peta2, the youth division of the animal rights organization PETA, has awarded the title of Most Vegetarian-Friendly College to the winner of an online election. Students at both American and Wesleyan were active in their support for their cafés – they displayed banners and posters and got the word out to get their fellow students to vote. In the end, American University won this year’s title, […]

A month ago, we challenged all of our chefs to prepare a meal consisting entirely of ingredients from within 150 miles of their café (read Maisie’s post for details of the event). As I collect the great stories about our fourth annual Eat Local Challenge (ELC), I continue to be inspired by the creativity and passion of our chefs and managers. They really do go all out. What also struck me about these stories was the depth of sustainability efforts that are taking place at our accounts nationwide. Many of our chefs and managers particularly at college campuses have developed unique programs with student groups and academic departments to teach real-world/hands-on strategies for putting sustainability into practice. Bon Appétit’s Eat Local Challenge is an occasion for education and discussion – as covered here by the Christian Science Monitor — bringing […]

A few days before Election Day, I had the privilege of eating dinner with Marvin Krislov, President of Oberlin College, and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, who was the College’s convocation speaker that evening. Over a low-carbon diet meal prepared by Bon Appétit's team at Oberlin, Michael discussed some of the nuances of his "Farmer in Chief" article (NYTimes, 10/12/08). In that piece – a compelling read even at 8000 words – he argued that the next president would have to remake food policy organized around a re-regionalized 'solar food' system if he were to achieve stated goals of energy independence, reduction in health care costs, and mitigating climate change. Other writers – most recently in the November issue of Wired Magazine – are still churning out the tired points that our food system can only be "saved" […]

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A reporter I worked with once complained that, whenever he did a story about food, there was always something “new” he wasn’t supposed to eat. With the launch of sustainable sushi pocket guides this month, sushi is now coming under serious scrutiny. Suddenly, there are “new” items on the conscientious eater’s list to avoid. The problem with sushi is that most, by volume, is limited to shrimp, tuna, salmon and eel. You might think twice about eating salmon sushi if you know there’s no such thing as sustainably-raised farmed salmon (most salmon, sake, and its roe, ikura, is farmed salmon). And rare is a sushi meal without tuna of some kind. Half of the sushi vendors we surveyed recently were using a sustainable form of tuna; the other fifty percent were not. If you use the sushi guides, they can […]

With so much going on in the financial world these days, I couldn’t help but to think about how it all related to my role here as the newest member of the Bon Appétit Management Company team. As an analyst, my goal will be to measure the successes for all of our sustainable initiatives such as our Low Carbon Diet and Farm to Fork programs. I’ve quickly learned that within the sustainable movement, there is a thin line between greenwashing and true success, and to have credible data requires transparency. The models and systems you design to collect and analyze the data are in some cases even more important than the assumptions you can make with the results. This practice of manipulating data to create favorable headlines had been running rampant on Wall Street, which in some ways is very […]

I have to admit when I saw the headline University serves carbon-neutral lettuce" in the National Restaurant Association Smartbrief, I was dubious. After hearing many claims of carbon-neutrality that are achieved through offsets or even, the latest trend, products being pitched as carbon-negative, my antennae went up. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when I read the details. According the story in the local paper, Colorado State University really is serving carbon-neutral lettuce. The lettuce is grown in unheated greenhouses using organic compost and then transported to the cafe by bicycle. There are no fossil fuels used in the process. Later this month, they anticipate having to heat the greenhouse, no longer making the lettuce carbon neutral, so they will shut down the program, source lettuce elsewhere and restart when the weather warms up again. Right now they are only producing […]

I was invited to give a series of lectures at Duke and Berkeley last week on the connection between food and climate change. Audiences were a mix of faculty, students and community members. Each time, the questions were wide-ranging but I’ve been thinking most about one. I challenged the notion of describing some food or diets as ‘vegetarian’ and an undergraduate called me on it. Along with eating appropriate portions and reducing foodwaste, eating less meat and cheese are the most important steps a climate-conscious eater can take. Why not call out ‘vegetarian’ options then? Here’s my logic – what do you think? With some ethnic exceptions, vegetarian options often mean “absence of meat.” Roasted vegetables are rarely at the center of a ‘veggie burrito.’ In East Asian eateries, “vegetarian” could be translated as “with tofu” – bowing to the […]

Last night Governor Schwarzenegger passed a bill (SB 1420) that will require chain restaurants in California to post calorie information on their menus and menu boards by 2011. All chains with 20 or more locations must offer information about calories, saturated fat, carbohydrates and sodium content for each menu item. Beginning July 1, 2009, they will be required to have brochures with this nutrient breakdown for customers who request it. So far this type of legislation has been enacted in cities (including New York, Seattle and San Francisco) and counties nationwide, but this is the first statewide mandate of nutrition labeling. Consumer groups and health organizations may be rejoicing that this is a landmark step towards the fight against obesity. However, many health professionals will agree that this is by no means the magic bullet. We all know that obesity […]

Today was our fourth annual Eat Local Challenge – an event when all Bon Appetit cafes across the country make a meal completely of local ingredients. When we unveiled the Eat Local Challenge program in 2005, it was with some trepidation. Bon Appétit’s philosophy has always been to empower our chefs and managers to do what’s best for their guests and clients. We never send out menus from “corporate” or tell our people what to celebrate. The Eat Local Challenge marked a change in that every Bon Appétit café was asked to hold a similar event on the same day. At headquarters, much discussion took place around the question of whether this would be perceived as contrary to our core philosophy. It quickly became clear that our worries were unwarranted as chefs and managers around the country took the loose […]