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San Francisco’s Eco-Evolution

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Photo: Amanda Marsalis

Of course, the most satisfying thing a values tourist—or anyone, for that matter—can do in San Francisco is eat. Zuni Café is a perennial favorite, and at Range, a recent arrival in the Mission District, I dine with friends at the bar. And then there are places that have a defined purpose, such as Farmer Brown, a soul food restaurant in the Tenderloin dedicated to supporting African-American organic farmers, or Yield, a small wine bar—in a rapidly evolving neighborhood called Dogpatch, on the back side of Potrero Hill—which was established to promote organic and biodynamic wines. Here, I get an impromptu lecture on biodynamics. (It has to do with cosmic rhythms.) Later, I have an unaccountably delicious meal at Café Gratitude, a small chain of restaurants specializing in raw vegan cuisine.

What’s fascinating, though, is how this way of eating—virtue commingled with pleasure—has been incorporated into the Bay Area’s version of the mainstream. For example, I keep hearing about a Palo Alto–based management company called Bon Appetit. Its motto: Food services for a sustainable future. The firm runs restaurants and employee cafeterias for tech firms like Intel, Oracle, and Yahoo. All the Bon Appetit chefs, at 450 kitchens nationwide, are obliged to buy 30 percent of their produce from local farms.

I get a tour of the Yahoo cafeteria from Robert Hart, the Bon Appetit executive chef at the Sunnyvale complex. Chef Bob, as he’s known, walks me through what must be the most highly evolved assemblage of steam tables and salad bars on the planet. Sure, there are some suspicious-looking health-food products like Gardein, a form of soy protein made to look like shredded chicken or pork. But the dominant theme at Yahoo is spectacular produce, much of it picked when Chef Bob calls in his daily order. There are portobello-and–red-pepper pizzas topped with microgreens. And there are state-of-the-art hamburgers. “My hamburgers are grass-fed beef from the Painted Hills ranches in Oregon,” he says. “My chicken breasts are antibiotic-free. I buy all my herbs organic.” The take-out containers, made from corn, are biodegradable, and the disposable cutlery is “spudware,” made from potato starch. The oil in the deep-fat fryers is extracted from rice bran, and, Chef Bob notes, “a gentleman picks it up and turns it into biodiesel.” Before I leave, he hands me a juicy heirloom apricot, a Blenheim, that is on a list of “endangered foods.” It comes from a farm that is “trying to bring back lost items…and one of them is this apricot.”

As I wander out of the Yahoo complex, my hands sticky with apricot juice, I can see that Silicon Valley is changing the world in ways I hadn’t quite realized. Of course, this is the capital of the technological revolution, but all the bright young things who work in the tech sector are also transforming the way the rest of us eat every time they have lunch. They are helping to establish a whole new food- distribution economy based on ideas that can be traced directly to the front door of Chez Panisse.

Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, after trying to figure out how to re-create the dining experiences she had had in France: “I was looking for flavor,” Waters explains, sitting in her office in a little building next to the restaurant. “I wasn’t setting out to find organic produce. I wanted flavor. So I was looking for things in season. Something about the way they were selling food in Chinatown reminded me of France, so I was drawn to that. Seeing fish swimming around in the tanks made me believe that this could be more tasty.”

What started with one woman’s passion for flavor has spread. Exponentially. All around Chez Panisse is the Berkeley neighborhood known as the Gourmet Ghetto. A couple of doors down is something called the Epicurious Garden, a kind of rarefied food court. Across the street is the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective, where each day employees make one kind of pizza and sell it until it runs out. The grassy but narrow median strip in the middle of Shattuck Avenue is dotted with pizza eaters.

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