Green Chef One man’s crusade to reduce restaurant waste

By Mike Hale
Photos by David Royal

Tally what Americans spend annually at restaurants — down to every double bacon cheeseburger and tofu taco — and it eclipses the super-sized sum of $750 billion.

That’s about half of every food dollar we spend.

So it’s no surprise to discover that the U.S. restaurant industry produces about 100 billion pounds of trash a year and consumes one-third of all the electricity among businesses in the retail sector.

“It’s disgusting, really shocking to me what’s going on in this country,” says Carmel chef and restaurateur Soerke Peters. “Restaurants are the biggest polluters as a whole. Even a small restaurant can send 300,000 pounds of garbage to the landfill each year, and use 100,000 gallons of water. That doesn’t have to happen.”

These sobering statistics do not paint Peters’ industry in a flattering light, but he recites them loudly at every opportunity as Monterey County’s de facto green restaurant ambassador.

The current owner of the French-American bistro Etats Unis in Carmel has previously launched the only two certified green restaurants (Basil and Village Corner) in that proud seaside village. Etats Unis will follow in those green footsteps, once it jumps through a series of hoops set up by the Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit that provides certification for restaurants seeking to become more environmentally responsible.

Since 1990, the GRA has built an extensive database of environmental goals for the restaurant industry. It provides both transparency and credibility, certifying restaurants in seven categories (water efficiency, waste reduction/recycling, sustainable furnishings/materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction). Under the program, green restaurants also must fulfill yearly educational requirements.

“It’s the right thing to do, I just wish I wasn’t alone,” Peters said. “Look at where we live. Why wouldn’t we want to take better care of it?”

Peters playfully calls fellow chefs “burros,” hard workers with their heads down, unwilling to budge. He wants to poke them into action, and as president of the Monterey Bay chapter of the American Culinary Federation, he is in prime position to do so.

“Soerke has long been an advocate for all things green,” says local chef Colin Moody, who works with Peters on the ACF’s green committee. “He has always been steadfast and positive in his efforts to convince as many chefs as possible to be sustainable. He does this with confidence, humor and a solid background of actually doing it and living it every day.”

Named an Ocean Hero by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Peters preaches the tenets of Seafood Watch, and meets with aquarium staff and local fishing specialists to create a more collaborative environment. He openly shares his list of quality purveyors and sustainable practices, and has made it his mission to show other chefs and restaurateurs what’s behind the green curtain.

“We discuss how we can help professional chefs buy more consciously,” Moody said. “Chefs as a group are the biggest buyers of fish/meat/produce in the world. We have an obligation to purchase responsibly and with our community and environment in mind.”

Peters also serves as vice chair for the Carmel Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Next year he will become chair, providing yet another platform to call out for change.

He plans to pull no punches.

“In Carmel no one likes to be told what to do,” he said. “But (being greener is) happening … slowly.”

Carmel recently passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic containers and plastic straws and utensils for restaurants and food vendors.

Peters wants to see an even deeper shade of green.

“My vision is to make Carmel much more sustainable,” he said. “Here you can’t cut a tree limb without a permit, but there are no recycling containers on the street. Are you joking?”

Peters believes most people want to do the right thing, they just need it to be made easy for them. “I see tourists outside my restaurant holding a glass bottle, trying to recycle it, so they leave it on the ground next to (the trash bin).”

He says he’s not preaching complicated environmental science practices that require elaborate machinery or expensive, cutting-edge devices. At the very least he embraces common-sense steps, such as installing a bike rack on-site to encourage alternate forms of transportation, replacing conventional light bulbs with LEDs in restrooms, adding a few vegetarian items to the menu, or phasing out bottled water.

“You have to start somewhere,” he said.

Peters claims being green can save some green, too. “People think it’s expensive to run a green restaurant,” he said, “when in fact it’s cheaper. And it’s better for business, because I’ve found customers seek out these kind of restaurants.”

Peters points to dramatic cost savings in utility and garbage bills. And the upside?

According to a study conducted by Purdue University, two-thirds of American diners are willing to spend more if a restaurant uses eco-friendly practices.

Peters, 50, still cannot understand how we reached this tipping point, running roughshod over a fragile planet as its health proves more precarious.

Growing up in northern Germany in the coastal city of Wilhelmshaven, Peters understood the circle of life. He knew instinctively the cyclical patterns of the food chain, the idea that no being is omnipotent or invulnerable, that nature will take and give back life, that the earth is sacred.

He cooked with his grandmother, ate gruel, potatoes, and fresh-grown vegetables. He remembers walking to nearby islands, the route exposed during extreme low tides, scooping up baby eels from the tidepools.

“I’d bring them home, and my grandmother would wash them, and put them in a hot pan with butter. That was the best thing, unbelievable how good that was. Simple.”

Each Sunday Peters would go to the barn and pick out a rabbit for the family lunch. They used every bit of the animal, nothing wasted. They composted scraps of food for the garden, and recycled or reused everything else.

“That was life,” he said. “No big deal, right? Sustainability is not a new idea.”

Peters wanted to be a chef as early as age 5. During the festive late-winter season of Carnival, he would beg his parents to allow him to dress up in a chef’s coat and hat. Try as they might, they could never convince him to be an astronaut or a cowboy.

His grandmother Mariechen trained him first as a gopher (go for potatoes, go for milk), but soon young Soerke could handle himself in the kitchen.

After high school he joined a three-year apprenticeship program, what he called “boot camp.” The schedule: one day in school, five days working at a restaurant, one day off. “If you quit you were never allowed back in the chef program,” he said.

He didn’t quit. He moved on to work in Munich, including as the pastry chef for Tantris, then a three-star Michelin restaurant. In 1991 he moved to New York with a 10-year plan to start his own restaurant there.

Two weeks before he was set to open his place at 86th and Amsterdam, the Twin Towers fell, along with the spirit of a city.

“I closed before I opened,” Peters said. “I was married, had an 8-year-old daughter. I just sat by the TV for three days, couldn’t even talk. I had to come up with a new plan, but I didn’t have one.”

So he moved to Los Angeles, the farthest place from New York on the map: “It was easy to get an executive chef job there.” He lived in Redondo Beach and commuted to Hollywood, and later Malibu, a chef trained in classic French techniques cooking Tuscan-Italian.

Then one day during that grind, his friend Michele Cremonese told Peters he was putting his Carmel restaurant Basil on the market. Peters saw a chance to slow down, to walk to work instead of stewing each day on L.A. freeways, and to begin a movement he knew he was qualified to lead.

He moved to Carmel and began transforming Basil into Basil Seasonal Dining, sourcing produce from Swank Farms and Golden Rule Produce, joining a food scrap program to send compost back to Swank, and converting kitchen grease into biodiesel to power farm equipment.

Peters began drawing that circle of life for others to see.

After selling his shares in Basil, he bought into Village Corner in Carmel, raising its standards to comply with the GRA. He recently gave up his partnership in Village Corner, allowing him more time for his little bistro, his girlfriend Amy, and his work proving wrong the words of Kermit the Frog.

“Absolutely it’s easy being green,” he said. “And it’s the most important thing we could ever do. This is not just about what we do today, but about preserving the planet and our food for days to come.”

Peters holds a plate of his bouillabaisse. | David Royal

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Mike Hale

About Mike Hale

Salinas native Mike Hale is a freelance writer who shares his time between the Monterey Peninsula and Europe.