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Meet the New Nonprofit That Thinks Restaurants Can Help Save the Planet

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Chris Ying presenting at MAD 4.
Chris Ying presenting at MAD 4.
Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

At this Summer's MAD food symposium in Copenhagen, Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying announced his latest venture Zero Foodprint. The goal, Ying tells Eater, is to "help restaurants become leaders in the fight against climate change." Zero Foodprint is a non-profit, led by Ying, carbon emissions and footprint expert Peter Freed, and SF chef/restaurateur Anthony Myint.

While the non-profit is new, the idea behind it has been in the works since last year's MAD, where Ying and Freed presented on the environmental impact of restaurants. Ying also wrote a complementary Lucky Peach article on the same topic, analyzing Noma in Copenhagen and Prime Meats in Brooklyn.

The main idea: That despite assumptions to the contrary, restaurant cooking is not significantly harder on the environment than home cooking in terms of carbon footprint. And with a few changes, he realized, restaurants could get closer to a zero footprint. Below, is Ying and Freed's MAD 3 presentation from last year:

Why Focus on Climate Change?

"The issue of climate change feels really important to me and really pressing, and really daunting," says Ying. That's where Zero Foodprint comes in. "So I wanted to focus on one aspect of one industry that's important to me." Chef René Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant Noma is the first restaurant to participate the Zero Foodprint process, and NYC restaurateurs Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo are on board to do the process with their next restaurant project. After that, Zero Foodprint will work with chef Danny Bowien's San Francisco restaurant Mission Chinese Food.

The organization has three primary directives at this point. The first is to create a publicly available set of best practices for restaurants looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Ying and Freed are still in the development and research stage here. To that end, Zero Foodprint is working with Origin Climate, the SF-based company formerly known as Terra Pass where Freed was director. (Terra Pass did the initial research for the MAD talk and for a Lucky Peach article.) Zero Foodprint is also working with "restaurant people" to ensure that the best practices are "reasonable and doable" from a practical perspective.

A second mission of Zero Foodprint is to work directly with restaurants to lower their carbon emissions. It's a time consuming process that Ying says "takes a fair amount of initial investment of energy." Zero Foodprint will ask restaurants to gather all sorts of information, including details on deliveries and power bills. Zero Foodprint then uses the data as a starting point for analysis. "We'll interview them on how things work. We ask tons of questions. It's digging," explains Ying.

From there, Zero Foodprint will then identify areas where the restaurant can improve and provide actionable suggestions. The key, say Ying, is to "demonstrate that it can be painless." "We're not going to say you should stop serving meat," he explains. Rather, Zero Foodprint might suggest different lightbulbs, more efficient equipment when the time comes to replace it, and so on.

[Screengrab: Official Site]

Take Zero Foodprint's work at Noma as an example. Ying and his team found that Noma was already using extremely efficient equipment, so not much improvement was needed on that front. However, the restaurant was relying on the city's standard coal-based energy and was not aware of it. They have now switched to a sustainable energy resource. Noma has a world-famous foraging program. Ying explains that if the forager switched to using an electric car, this would reduce Noma's footprint and push them closer to zero. "It's not to say foraging is bad — it has a cost that can be remedied" says Ying.

The third mission of Zero Foodprint is to offer certification to restaurants who achieve a zero carbon footprint. Zero Foodprint hasn't finalized the certification process, but here's how Ying explains it generally: Zero Foodprint will do the study on a restaurant's carbon footprint. The organization will give advise and help offset that number, as explained above. After a year, Zero Foodprint will check back in to see if the restaurant has achieved zero emissions. If the restaurant has reached a zero footprint, they earn certification.

The reasoning behind offering certification is simple: Ying and his team want to make a desirable brand out of being environmentally responsible. "The certification is meaningless by all legal standards," says Ying, "but not in a greater sense." He adds, half-joking, "If restaurants abide by our standards, they get to be in the cool club." Ying hopes that when industry leaders like Redzepi, the Franks, and Bowien join that club, other restaurants will want to follow.

[Screengrab: Mad/Vimeo]

The next steps for Zero Foodprint are to finish assembling a "charter group" of four or five restaurants to participate. This group will allow Zero Foodprint to "hone in our practices [and] make sure we're asking for reasonable and actionable things." Another goal for the next year is to develop a "tier system" to acknowledge restaurants that want to improve but aren't yet ready to go all the way to zero emissions.

Ying has some major long term plans as well. "'Offsets' feels abstract ... we're trying to create tangible, food-related offsets, working with outside companies, and hopefully eventually starting our own projects." These "food-related offsets" may include "improving land management on farms, or installing things like anaerobic digestors on farms, or cook stoves in countries where people generally cook with indoor, wood-burning fires, things that are tangible, food related, and aren't necessarily tied with a corporation looking to reduce its negative impact." But for now, Zero Foodprint is ready to get started. "Restaurants and carbon emissions is something I feel like I can have an effect on."

· Zero Foodprint [Official Site]
· All MAD Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Chris Ying Coverage on Eater [-E-]