LOS ANGELES -- When chef Christopher Blobaum was opening Wilshire restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., he wanted to do the right thing, both culinarily and environmentally.
He buys much of the restaurant's produce at local farmers' markets and sources meat and fish carefully. He uses solar-heated water for dishwashing and low-output fluorescent lighting. The deck out back is made from recycled lumber. Tables are set with woven vinyl Chilewich place mats that can be rinsed and reused instead of white linen tablecloths that need to be washed and bleached.
Blobaum even bought a backyard compost tumbler that he keeps behind the restaurant to dispose of much of the food waste.
Remember when restaurants used to brag about organics? These days, in food as in everything else, the buzzword is "sustainable." Every time you turn around, someone is claiming to be "green" or "eco-friendly."
But, as Blobaum learned, moving beyond the slogan stage is hard work and complicated. And despite the many claims, few restaurants are up to tackling going green in a serious way.
In large part, that's because eco-friendly and "sustainable" are still so loosely defined that they can include a dizzying maze of factors: how the restaurant was built, how and where the ingredients were grown, the nature of the materials used to serve them and how the leftovers are disposed of.
There are a few notable exceptions, but for the most part, chefs and restaurateurs are still trying to sort out just what "sustainable" means, and beyond that, how it fits into running a viable business.
Even with all of that, he'll still have a ways to go before he catches up with Maury Rubin, the bicoastal owner of City Bakery in Manhattan and Brentwood, Calif., and Birdbath.
The City Bakery operations are definitely eco-friendly; the Birdbaths are downright eco-rapturous. Not only does much of the produce come from the farmers' market, but the flour and sugar are organic, the walls are made of wheat, and the cups are made of corn. The countertop is made from recycled paper and the paper bags have no petroleum-based wax coating. All of the electricity comes from wind power. The delivery boys pedal rickshaws (soon to be switched to bio-diesel trucks).
Last summer, the National Restaurant Association launched a "roadmap to sustainable restaurant operations" project to guide the group's 375,000 members toward more environmentally friendly operations.
There's also a Green Restaurant Association that steers its clients toward sustainability by advocating steps such as eliminating Styrofoam containers, conserving water and power, using recycled and chlorine-free products and searching out sustainable food sources.
But sometimes it's not even clear what the right direction is. Is it better to buy organic vegetables that have been shipped across country or ones that have been conventionally grown close by?
Los Angeles chef Michael Cimarusti is well aware of the problems involving seafood. He runs a restaurant based on it and is an avid fisherman himself. Although he makes no special claims for sustainability, he does follow the Seafood Choices Alliance program and serves only fish that is rated a "smart choice."
Sometimes making the sustainable choice saves money, but sometimes it costs, and not just for fancy equipment. When Chez Panisse's Alice Waters decided to stop selling bottled water at her restaurant because of the amount of energy it took to ship it from Europe, Wilshire's Blobaum was among those who wanted to follow suit -- until he ran the numbers.
"It's really crazy," he says. "I put in a reverse osmosis program for the restaurant so we have perfectly clean water going to all the stations, probably cleaner than most bottled water, but we still need to sell bottled water. That's partly because the customers demand it, but also because there's a lot of money involved in it. To give up bottled water, I would have to give up a fair amount of extra revenue."
Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.