A Low-Carbon Four-Course Meal: Can It Be Done?


Helene York

When you work in a company with 500 creative executive chefs, the last thing you expect to be asked to do, ever, is cook. Somehow, though, last Sunday I was preparing a four-course meal for 18 people I didn't know. Never mind how I misread the expectations of the gig I agreed to do, or why I agreed to do anything on a Monday when many of our chefs take the day off (and therefore couldn't make me look good).

The organization that hosted me as a speaker (and cook), 18 Reasons, is a nonprofit organization in San Francisco dedicated to engaging the community through food and art. Since I can't imagine a mission better than that one, my answer to their request was "Yes, of course." They wanted me to talk about the principles of the Low Carbon Diet I designed in 2006 and have been working to implement continuously within Bon Appetit Management Company cafés ever since. (It highlights the connection between the food system and climate change and attempts to change the way we eat through the 120 million meals our company serves each year.) Somehow the original request—"to lecture over dessert or an appetizer" —turned into a two-hour presentation and a tasting menu.

I used every little cucumber that came from the week's box—a feat of prevented food waste if I do say so myself.

The lecture part was easy—I've given dozens of talks over the years—but what to prepare was the bigger question. Eating less meat, especially from ruminant animals, is a key tenet of the Low Carbon Diet, but this event was part of their Meatless Monday Series, so "less" became "none" this time, though I generally prefer to emphasize that using meat as a garnish is a great option.

Despite the cold weather in San Francisco, it actually is summer and the produce is extraordinary. After examining my CSA box I decided to focus on melon and tomato and use avocado and olive oil as creamy substitutes for lots of cheese. I also consulted cookbooks and drew most of my inspiration from Patricia Wells's Trattoria and Provence, both of which adapt well for cooks anywhere. This was my menu:


Watermelon-Mint-Tomato Soup

Steamed Cauliflower in Anchovy-Garlic Oil


Arugula-Watermelon-Tomato Salad with Honey-Lavender Dressing


Sandwiches and Homemade Pickles


Honeydew-Jalapeño, Cantaloupe-Lime, Strawberry-Port

The soup was served in three different shape and size vessels—two, three, or four ounces. Besides using a vegetable stock (rather than a cream base), my point was to illustrate that we can easily fail to see how much food we are consuming by misjudging portion sizes. Sometimes the error is our own, other times it is intentional on the part of a food seller.

The cauliflower in oil was an alternative to the common cheese course, and, I hope, just as satisfying. Using vegetables and a sustainable little fish instead of crackers, smoked farmed salmon, and imported cheeses, the dish had a carbon count that was way down.

The salad was an attempt to pair bitter and sweet flavors, use a homemade rather than bottled shelf-stable dressing, and deemphasize lettuce. That so many people on the East Coast eat lettuce trucked 3,000 miles from California in winter is a clear example of how the food system contributes mightily to climate change. There are so many other delicious seasonal and regional options to eat.

I cheated with the entrée. I prepared ingredients but let everyone make their own sandwiches using a choice of (store-bought) artisan breads. Elements included red peppers stewed in balsamic vinegar, pan-fried tomatoes and eggplant with garlic and herbs, avocado slices, and shredded crunchy greens. The pickles hadn't pickled long enough, but I used every little cucumber that came from the week's box—a feat of prevented food waste if I do say so myself. I also wanted to suggest some uncommon sandwich ingredients, since delis often steer us to the same old-same old, with an emphasis on meat, and to allow my guests to choose options.

I scream for ice cream like most lactose-tolerant Americans, but ripe fruit and therefore low-sugar frozen desserts are significantly lower-carbon options. Fresh, seasonal fruit is even better, but I wanted to offer similar options more than stark contrasts. Three little scoops offered variety without overindulgence.

While cooking, I imagined the menu would be composed of very different items if it were winter, but the basic principle would be the same—serve good food in appropriate quantities. The discouraging news about obesity in the U.S. is partly a reflection that a majority of Americans have the opposite view of food. They, and our fragile ecosystems, are the worse for it.