The Sunny Side Café and its decadent dishes are known to spoil the best intentions to diet. But Albany's first verified green restaurant has another mission: to help the environment by offering customers "low carbon emission" menu choices.
As family and friends flock to the Solano Street café, they can savor such decadent dishes as "Asiago Meatball Benedict," made with grass-fed beef from Niman Ranch, and know the meal was made with local products that traveled fewer miles to reach the table. (The restaurant also has a location in Berkeley on Oxford Street.) It was the first restaurant in Albany to be certified as a green business by the Bay Area Green Business Program of the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Eco-chef Aaron French brought the idea of low-carbon emission choices to the Sunny Side. Originally from Sacramento, French spent a lot of time on a small farm that grew its own produce. He studied ecology at the University of California, San Diego, where he started his career as a chef by working at a campus café. (He also spent two years living with Baka pygmies in Cameroon, where he did research on birds and monkeys.)
"Food forms the most intimate connection that we have to our environment," said French, 39, who wrote the Eco-Chef columns for Bay Area News Group in 2008 and 2009. An article he wrote about the Bon Appétit Management Company inspired him to emphasize low-carbon options by reducing meat and dairy.
"I started to think, 'What are the ways to save the planet?'" he said.
At Sunny Side Café, most of the dishes are made with locally grown products to reduce food miles. The café only serves water upon request, composts all of its food scraps, in addition to recycling, and has switched to low-energy fluorescent lighting.
Customers, distracted by the rich dishes, don't always realize the effort French makes.
"I didn't notice their low-carbon emission choices. But I had an amazing eggs Benedict," said Alecia O'Neil of Santa Cruz, whose friend in Albany recommended Sunny Side. "I love the big portions they serve."
The signature menu item, "The Alameda," is a sandwich made with mushrooms, Golden Gate ham, roasted tomatoes, and Emmenthal cheese sandwiched between two pieces of French toast and topped with two eggs over-easy, Hollandaise sauce and a balsamic reduction.
The concept of low-carbon cooking might seem to contradict the notion of a breakfast and brunch place that serves rich dishes. Customers opt for big portions that may spoil their otherwise fat-and-sugar-restricted diets. When French started the low-carbon menu, he actually tried to reduce portion sizes to cut down on food waste.
"We were throwing out a lot of food," he said.
The economic meltdown in 2008, however, had a negative impact on his goodwill effort.
"People thought we were ripping them off," he said. "In a time of recession, people look for a better deal." So he switched back to larger portions, he said.
Some customers appreciate French's effort.
"A lot of restaurants in the Bay Area use locally grown products. But some dishes taste rather bland," said Daniel O'Neil, an organic restaurant lover, who makes regular trips to restaurants that tout themselves as organic and eco-friendly. But so far, he said, his favorite is the Sunny Side.
"It's really flavorful here," said O'Neil, who teaches Japanese literature at UC Berkeley.
French, who is working on a master's degree at Cal's Haas School of Business wants to connect ecology and business. He said he's confident about his campaign for a low-carbon diet, but that it's not quite his top priority.
"I care about the low-carbon emission choice, but I put my customers' needs first," said French, who will publish The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook in 2011. "But I would be happy if they get inspired by my low-carbon choices, while enjoying our food."
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Everybody makes mistakes ... even us! If there's something in this article you think should be corrected, or if something else is amiss, give editor Emilie Raguso a ring at 510-459-8325 or shoot her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This story originally conflated the Bon Appétit Management Company with a company with a similar name. It also was unclear about how long Chef Aaron French has incorporated low carbon options. The article has been changed to clarify both of these issues.
Lastly, the word certified has been changed to verified to reflect a designation by the Association of Bay Area Governments as a verified green business, not to be confused with a certification by the Green Restaurant Association. An explanation of the verification follows in the second paragraph.