It’s a bleak future that is first described in Saveur’s 2017 article entitled “What Dinner Might Look Like in a Future of Global Warming and Rising Sea Levels.” A future where “…tuna are extinct, meat is unsustainable, and agriculture is forced to be nearly completely reinvented…”. It was this same article that sparked what is now to be one of Washington D.C.’s most anticipated restaurant openings of the year.
“I wanted to do a restaurant that had more purpose and gave towards the future,” says Chef Rob Rubba, formerly of Hazel. After reading the article, Rubba states, “It spoke to me and I feel like I didn’t really have a choice for how to move forward as a chef.”
Serendipitously, a close friend and restaurateur Max Kuller (Estadio) also read the article and felt a similar calling.
“I became a vegetarian when I was 15. It’s always been a big part of me. I’ve been in the restaurant business for two decades now and all the concepts I’ve been involved in are not vegetarian or plant-centric.”
While Kuller takes great pride in his career, he wanted to do something that was more personal. “It makes sense that I want to show people all the wonderful things that exist within that realm. But, really, the sustainability part emerged as a key driver during our conversations.”
Oyster Oyster refers to both oysters from our ocean system as well as to oyster mushrooms. After not eating any fish for years, Kuller made the decision two years ago to introduce oysters into his diet, primarily because of the ecological benefits. For instance, recycling oyster shells can generate ten new oysters. Additionally, oysters and other bivalves (clams, mollusks, scallops, etc.) play a tremendous role in our ocean systems with their ability to decontaminate polluted waters by acting as filtration systems.
“I was also very compelled by the merroir aspect of oysters.” Kuller continues. Just as wines are affected by terroir, oysters have a vivid expression of the waters and areas from which they originate. “I knew [Rubba] did great things with oysters in his food. After that article, we knew we wanted to focus on oysters, mushrooms, dark leafy greens.”
When it comes to the mushroom aspect of Oyster Oyster, it’s simple—mushrooms are one of the most naturally sustainable foods to produce. The amount of water and energy required to grow and harvest mushrooms is a mere fraction of what is needed for other foods. The composting process uses primarily recycled materials and agricultural byproducts. And, The Mushroom Sustainability Story: Water, Energy and Climate Environmental Metrics reveals that up to 1 million pounds of mushrooms can be produced on just one acre of land.
“At the core, it really is about being stewards for the future of our families,” Kuller explains. “We’re thinking of this as a way we can make an impact while still delivering delicious meals and a dining experience that people would want from a high-end culinary experience without sacrificing flavor.”
It’s no surprise then that Rubba and Kuller recently returned from a trip to Copenhagen where they visited one of the world’s best restaurants—according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants—Noma.
“It’s definitely unlike any other restaurant any of us had ever been to.” Rubba says. “It felt like a liberal arts college dedicated to making dinner.”
While they only dined there once (Noma has a minimum requirement of three months for a ‘stage’), Rubba and Keller did take a tour of Noma’s fermentation lab and kitchen.
“It’s funny,” Rubba mentions. “We definitely went to go see the practices for sustainability and responsible stewardship of having a restaurant. But just to see their level of vegetable cookery in the middle of winter was extra inspiring.”
The dinner put a level of extra confidence to their own attempts of vegetable cookery and sustainability here in the United States.
“Copenhagen was such a big experience,” Kuller agrees. “There was a whole level of things that were really impressive in a harsher environment than ours.”
Unlike Noma or even Azurmendi—winner of Sustainable Restaurant Award 2018—Oyster Oyster will dedicate itself to bivalves and vegetables. There will be no meat products on the menu.
“We’re not doing something vegetarian or pescatarian,” Kuller clarifies. “It’s about this vision of the future and sustainability. There will be a richness to our cuisine. Chef has some beautiful ways of producing hearty, rich food. People will definitely be full. In general, I got the sense that diners were fulfilled and satisfied with our popups.”
Enthusiasm exudes from both Rubba and Kuller as they begin to enumerate the different ways they hope to make Oyster Oyster a truly responsible environment for workers and for the planet. Extensive training programs for the staff, following guidelines for reduction of carbon footprint, and equipment decisions are just a handful of ways they’re hoping to make an impact.
“To us, it’s not a trend. It’s part of the ethos on what we’re doing. We don’t want to make compromises on anything. We want to be a reference point for other people that are thinking about doing things this way,” Rubba confirms.
“There’s no proprietary thing. The more people who do it, the better, so please copy us!” Kuller urges.
Rubba and Kuller aren’t the first to incorporate sustainable practices across all components of a restaurant. There has been a (much needed) shift within the industry where both operations and kitchens are beginning to consider how they can do their part for future generations. Will Oyster Oyster take things to a whole new level in the United States? I, for one, look forward to finding out.