Interview: Eco-Chef Aaron French of The Sunny Side Café
Eco-chef Aaron French, chef of The Sunny Side Café in Albany, California, is a former food columnist for ten Bay Area News Group newspapers and a contributing editor at Fungi Magazine. Currently enrolled in the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, where he’s working on an MBA in Sustainable Business, Chef French once roamed the planet as a tropical ecologist. Now he’s back in the Bay Area, authoring The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook (Voyager Press, 2011). Read more about the eco-chef at Eco-Chef.com.
You spent part of your childhood on a farm, where you grew your own produce and raised chickens, so from an early age, you were eating local and organic. Was that incidental, or were those values instilled in you by your family?
My mom was part of the “back-to-the-land” movement. It was kind of an urban homestead situation. At first we were in a residential neighborhood, and we started out with a little backyard; we had rabbits and chickens, no roosters, but we still got complaints from neighbors. So we moved to a larger parcel where the people next to us had horses. At the time, this kind of thing definitely wasn’t cool.
Back then, it was something I was ashamed of. I would show up to school with a roasted rabbit leg; the other kids had Velveeta-and-white-bread sandwiches, so that labeled me a bit of a freak at that age. But I appreciated a really good egg, a perfect tomato. Ninety percent of our produce came from our farm and most of our meat, too. We would grind our own wheat on a stone ground mill to make bread.
Growing up, I didn’t eat processed foods or sugar. My mom was the impetus for fresh food, fresh-from-the-garden food. We would eat the food we grew and sell the extra to the local food co-op, local restaurants, and some eggs to local customers.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I had no idea that I wanted to be a chef. Originally, I wanted to be an oceanographer but I ended up majoring in ecology and evolution. I spent a semester abroad in Costa Rica and fell in love with the tropics. Tropical biology is really similar to oceanography in some ways. So I became a tropical ecologist, a naturalist, and started working with birds. Later I worked in Cameroon, in Africa, as a field assistant and then later went back to direct the program for my master’s research.
How has your philosophy on food evolved since growing up on the farm?
I don’t think that my philosophy has changed; I’ve simply realized what it’s always been.
Over time I’ve become increasingly aware of the congruence between ecological choices and health choices. They’re almost always the same without any exceptions.
You can’t say you’re an environmentalist and not do anything about it. Our actions are all there is. And our food has the biggest impact on the land.
I began to cook professionally in college. At UCSD, I got a job as a cook in collective hippie café connected to a farm. That was the first time my experience was appreciated.
I didn’t appreciate growing up on the farm then, but I came to appreciate it in college.
After college I lived for so many years in marginal places, with indigenous people, remote research sites. I spent time with Native Hawaiians who were pickling tree ferns—pretty esoteric stuff. What a special experience that was in this modern world. Wherever I would go, I could see how the food people ate connected them to the earth. I became appreciative of what that was, of that connection.
For a time I was on the edge, with the pygmies, one of the last hunter-gatherer groups in the world. I was affected by working, living [there], seeing how they lived, how seasonal their whole experience was: they ate to gluttony when there was food; they didn’t when there wasn’t. For example, when they collected wild honey, they wouldn’t bring it back to camp. They would gorge themselves on the honeycombs. I learned: Enjoy, here, what’s now in front of us. It took a lot, though, before I could get past the gluttony and gorging to see the value and beauty in that and how that forms our connection.
Tell me about The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook.
It’s coming out next August from Voyager Press. I’m looking at 30-plus restaurants, 30-plus farmers, and discussing the connections between the two. How do those connections inform what the farmers grow, and conversely how do they affect what foods the restaurants prepare and how they present it? I’m looking at these relationships and how they affect Bay Area dining.
The book will include recipes from different local chefs and lots of food and farm photos. Each chapter will feature a joint farmer-chef profile. Typically the process involves my asking chefs what farmers they’re working with. I’m choosing restaurants, farmers. I have 60 to 70 interviews that are being shaped into profiles. I’m the sole writer and am working with a second photographer.
It’s been interesting learning, through this process, how different restaurants think about and purchase the food they use. I think it’s fine to make compromises when you need to, if you’re honest about it. I think you buy the best [ingredients] you possibly can. I’m constantly adjusting that mix. I don’t buy 100 percent organic, but I try to, as much as possible.
You’ve carved out quite a name for yourself as an “eco-chef”. What does that mean to you?
About eight years ago, I was trying to figure out what how I wanted to intersect the two worlds of ecology and food. This was before conversations around food and its ecological impacts were as common as they are today.
When I started describing what I do to people, I got a lot of “What?” That forced me to articulate what I meant regarding the connection between food and ecology, the things that I was doing in my life. It was more of a gradual awareness.
The name “eco-chef” was given to me, a long time ago, almost as an insult. Back in college, at the Che Café where I cooked, there was a strange mix of hippies and vegan straight-edge punkers. We were composting our food waste but still not entirely recycling our trash. One day when I was trying to separate the recycling, some guy—I remember his name, it was Justin-Man—said, “What are you trying to do, be some kind of eco-chef?” It was an insult!
Really, it’s just about making those integrated choices. People want directions about how to be an ecological eater. What I’ve come to over time is: what’s the best choice for where you are? If you’re a busy soccer mom shopping at Wal-Mart, for example, maybe you should look at the organics aisle and see what you can afford and start to buy that. And if you have time, walk through the farmers’ market and see what’s local, available, affordable.
There’s a wide range of actions you can take. Beyond any action, though, it’s about trying to make people aware. There’s been so much greenwashing: the terms “green” and “eco” don’t mean anything anymore. They’ve been entirely co-opted. So sustainability is about a direction. Through my actions, I want to point people to environmental awareness. Maybe they can shift slowly over time and eventually there will be less international shipping and things like that. I’m hoping for a trickle-down effect.
You’re a dedicated environmentalist. You’ve written about reexamining the term “sustainable” when it comes to food to ensure that we’re all on the same page about what it means. At The Sunny Side Café, you identify menu items that are low-carbon emission choices. Do you consider yourself an activist? Why or why not?
I do consider myself an activist. However, a lot of activists might look at what I’m doing and say “no.” For me, it’s about intention and direction and education. A lot of activists in my experience are extremists, saying, “I will only eat x y and z, and anyone who eats otherwise is terrible.” To me, that’s the worst kind of activism. Let’s try to be inclusive, bring everyone in, take one step in the positive direction. I don’t preach. I don’t talk about what that is every day at the Sunny Side, but I hope that it gets people thinking about their choices. If they see that globe symbol [that denotes the low-carbon choices at The Sunny Side Café] and wonder about it, then I’ve won. I also calculate the average food miles each week for my weekend specials menu, and print the number directly on the menu. For example, the produce used in this past weekend’s menu traveled less than 65 miles, while in the winter I have to get some food from farther away, and my average is closer to 200 or 250 food miles.
Back in 2008, I wrote an article about the work that the Bon Appétit Management Company was doing in relation to the environmental impacts of our food. They commissioned a nonprofit group in Oregon called Ecotrust to study the carbon emissions created by our food system. It’s a much deeper way to look at food than simply through the labels of organic and sustainable, which are elastic terms. I was excited to see them using scientific metrics of sustainability in relation to greenhouse gasses. In general, meat and dairy have the highest carbon impact.
Based on what I learned from researching that article, I redesigned my menu to have over 50 percent of the menu options at the Sunny Side Café be a low-carbon choice. To do that, I took the cheese off of some of the dishes and made it optional, for example.
But I have contradictions. For example, The Alameda—it’s a big, crazy, over-the-top, stuffed French toast with ham, mushrooms, Swiss cheese and balsamic. It started out as a special but it was so popular we added it to the regular menu. It’s a fun, party, celebration sort of food, but as a whole it doesn’t reflect eco-chef. I think that’s OK. But it’s an inherent contradiction.
The Sunny Side is an upscale-casual breakfast and lunch café. My philosophy is: Within any category that you work with, how can you adjust it or tweak it to become better? The Alameda took on a life of its own. Excess and over the top: where can we go from there?
You’ve been a food columnist, have long been chef at the Sunny Side Café, will soon be a published cookbook author, and until recently you were the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. Tell me about your favorite food-related role so far.
It’s about the connection and synergy between these ideas, bringing together people and ideas, bringing those into the conversation. If I’m ever in the middle and not on the edge of something, I’m not content. I want to focus on topics that are not being discussed. I want to push the edges and bring together food and ecology. I’m trying to figure out where the boundaries are. I guess I’m a provocateur in that way, trying to get people to think about their choices.
That’s specifically why I chose not to do academia, because it’s singularly focused. I got accepted to Cornell for a PhD in Ornithology, and declined it. I don’t like doing just one thing. It’s a combination of all of them that makes me happy.
Before you became a chef, you were a scientist. Do you think you’ll ever return to your scientific roots professionally? Do you see a third type of career role in your future?
Right now I’m doing my MBA at Berkeley, I’m writing The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook, I’m a chef…I can’t think past all that!
I love the science as long as it’s part of everything else I’m doing. Scientists, for the most part, are separate and do science. There’s not a lot of room for most scientists to dabble. In the future I look forward to being able to be more involved in science in a tangential but serious way. I constantly look for opportunities to do that. I am interested in the intersection of science and policy. There’s such a disconnect between the two and that’s too bad. Scientists understand the changing matrix of truth.
You’ve done so many interesting things in your career. But no matter what career role you take on, you seem to be on a path of continuous personal growth, improvement, and achievement. What’s next for you personally?
I’m looking forward to more integration of it being assumed that all of these aspects of what I’m doing are part of the mix and more. It’s been a juggling act to integrate these different aspects of what I do. It’s been serendipitous that people understand. Michael Pollan’s books have really helped people understand what I’m talking about. Personally, I want all of these aspects to become more seamless.
As for what’s next, I’m not sure. I’m keeping it open. There’s a lot of opportunity and possibility. I don’t know! It’s a changing matrix, for better or worse, with the economy. These things are pushing forward very quickly. I hope we’ll be having a new conversation at the time, as a society. I hope we’re not in the same place. I hope any ideas I have now would be out of date then.
You’re a role model to a lot of people. Can you tell me about a couple of people, or maybe just one person, who changed your outlook on eating? How did it change?
Can I be cliché and thank my mom? Although at the time I personally resented having to come home and feed the chickens and wasn’t so stoked. So: thanks, Mom.
I also think I’ve been influenced by a lot of the really thoughtful writers like Wendall Berry, who’s been writing for so long and living a true life, being able to articulate it with intelligence and humility. His message is so simple and so true; he’s a cult hero but not a popular hero. I don’t read him often, but when I do it carries me for a long time. He has a working farm and lives on the land. His inspiration comes from his farm; it’s about the entire world from that simple truth of his life. His words are timeless, extremely deep, but in an unpretentious way. There’s no one else that has that semi-academic farmer-writer quality.
I studied nature writing in college. Berry was one of my favorites even back then, writing about place and time, and being in nature. I realized later in my career that he was writing about food and farming.
Are there any ingredients that you find intimidating?
Not per se. For me, it’s tough. It’s really fun for me, with the book, to go into all these kitchens to see how these chefs work, what their prep looks like, how many people they have working to prepare this food, all day long.
The intimidation is—for example—getting in fresh fish, it just takes a lot of prep time to do it properly and I won’t do it if I don’t have the time. I want to be able to devote the time I need to prepare it properly. It’s not intimidating, but time- and budget-wise I have to be aware of what’s possible and doable.
At home, I seek out the weirdest thing I can possibly find. If I make a mistake, that’s great. I’ve eaten fried beetle larvae in Africa, rats in Southeast Asia—it’s all good in the way it’s interesting. Professionally, I want to do what I can do in the kitchen given any limitations. Personally, sky’s the limit.
Is there anything you haven’t yet mastered in the kitchen, but hope to?
I’m self-trained. I never had a formal culinary education, so what I’ve learned is hit-and-miss. I know a lot, but I’ve never worked in fine dining, for example. I’d love to go back to culinary school. I’d love to study to become a Certified Master Chef, simply to have the experience, but it’s not like I want to make perfect tureens and mousses for a living. What I know best is what I do every day. But I love that I have the flexibility to create my menus which force me to work on new techniques. I don’t claim to know everything about anything…cooking is so huge. In California, we can own a bunch of flavors around the Pacific Rim and incorporate them into California cuisine.
But I’d like to improve.