Local Places - Aurea in San Francisco

rooftop herb garden at Aurea, a San Francisco restaurant at the Stanford Court hotel

   This is the first in a series of posts on places committed to going local. Wanda and I celebrated our thirtieth anniversary in San Francisco and the Napa Valley a couple weeks ago. It’s almost embarrassing to admit because hotel restaurants are so often ordinary, but the only place we ate more than once while we were there was Aurea, a little light-fare restaurant in the Stanford Court, which is the hotel where we were staying near the top of Nob Hill.

the menu at Aurea at the Stanford Court in San Francisco contains mainly local ingredients

   The first notable thing we discovered about Aurea was their commitment to local food. It’s illegible in this tiny photo, but the thing that looks like a grey border running around the edge of their menu is actually a listing of their dozens of food and wine suppliers from around the region. We ate at some notable places, most of which busied themselves explaining why they had to fly their food in from halfway around the world. Whereas if you went to those exotic places, they would be just as likely to get their food from somewhere else. It reminds me of a trip with my family up the eastern seaboard of the US when I was a kid. Maine lobsters were always highly-desired in the South, but when we finally got to Maine and my dad said something to the waiter about Maine lobsters, the waiter sniffed and said “we get our lobsters from Newfoundland.”

   Meanwhile, while the other restaurants were making excuses, Aurea was quietly doing excellent dishes with largely regional ingredients, many of which came from less than a hundred miles around San Francisco. Their herbs traveled the shortest distance of all: from their rooftop herb garden just outside the window.

rooftop herb garden at Aurea, at the Stanford Court in San Francisco

   And then a curious thing happened: we started paying attention to other aspects of the place, and found that not only was the food local and excellent, but the service was exceptional, too.

   Accepted wisdom has it that if you’re going to be remarkable in one aspect of your operation, you’ve got to sacrifice somewhere else. But Aurea makes me wonder if exceptional commitment to excellence in one respect elevates your entire operation instead, as I blogged about here. Aurea certainly made believers out of us.


~ Steve Mouzon




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Tuesday, June 30, 2009 - 12:25 PM

Michael Rouchell

Many seafood restaurants in New Orleans get their seafood from the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana

SmartDwelling I - The Kitchen Garden

SmartDwelling I's kitchen garden, with the tilapia tank in the center of raised beds, and a green wall behind

   The Kitchen Garden is the one part of SmartDwelling I that a few people look at and say “you can’t be serious!” For them, buying food at the grocery store is simply too ingrained in their version of modern life to ever consider raising any appreciable portion of their own food. And make no mistake about it... the areas devoted to food in SmartDwelling I would likely provide most, if not all, of the food needed by a family of three or four for an entire year, assuming you used the space efficiently.

   How is this possible? Doesn’t the American agricultural system require an acre or two of land (depending on where you are and how long the growing season is) to provide food for just one person? And haven’t we always known that the American agricultural system is the most efficient on earth?

   Here’s the problem. America’s industrial food system is the most efficient on earth, so long as you’re measuring the man-hour efficiency of the guys on the tractors. One person on a mega-tractor as tall as a two-story house can probably work a thousand acres or more in a single day. Meanwhile, one person growing food in bio-intensive fashion has a hard time tending more than a single acre. But that guy on the mega-tractor is only a tiny part of the supply chain. Getting food to market requires truck drivers to take it to the processing plant, workers in those processing plants that break it down into its food-chain parts (high fructose corn syrup, etc.) more truck drivers to take it to assembly plants where more workers turn it into soda, Chicken McNuggets or whatever, more truck drivers to take it to the distributors who hire even more truck drivers to take it to the grocery stores. Is this starting to sound like more oil than food? It is. According to Michael Pollan, delivering a single calorie of highly-processed food (most of the stuff America eats) requires 70 to 90 calories of gasoline! And this doesn’t even take into account all the people working for the processors and the people working for the food manufacturers... who also must, by the way, buy even more gas to get to work in their corporate office parks. So the efficiency of the guy on the tractor (which can cost a million dollars or more, and must be manufactured by lots of employees at John Deere, etc.) is completely an illusion.

   The bio-intensive farmer, on the other hand, while tending only an acre, can take their produce to a nearby farmers’ market or sell it to local restaurants, reducing the food chain to just one person in a truck. And the food chain, rather than stretching across national boundaries, can be as short as 20-30 miles or less.

   So while the man-hour efficiency of the industrial food chain is a complete illusion, the acre efficiency of bio-intensive gardening is completely real. Remember that one person working hard to tend one acre? Well, they’re not just feeding one person (or less) on that one acre like the industrial food system would do. Rather, depending on growing season and local conditions, that one acre can easily feed twenty people or more... and that’s without going to some of the extremes (like Green Walls and Melon Cradles) that SmartDwelling I includes. That’s real efficiency... one person feeding twenty people or more... and with only a tiny fraction of the appetite for gasoline that we find in the entire industrial food chain.

   So beyond the fact that it’s highly acre-efficient, what’s so cool about the Kitchen Garden in SmartDwelling I? Lots of things. See the pool in the center? That’s a Tilapia Pool. Tilapia thrive in incredibly tight quarters... there can be more tilapia than water in a pool and they’ll do just fine. So you can think of it as a water feature, or as a big protein machine... take your pick. You’ll also notice a few chickens running around. Those are the hens that inhabit the henhouse under the stairs to the apartment/guest room/kids’ room/office/studio/workshop/whatever over the garage. You only need a few hens to eat garden pests, provide a continuous supply of fertilizer... and also a continuous supply of eggs for even more protein.

   You’ve probably noticed that the vegetables grow in raised beds. Rather than single rows of plants 2-3 feet apart like industrial tractor farming requires for most crops, raised beds grow vegetables much more compactly. They’re limited only by the reach of the person tending the beds... a three-foot bed allows you to easily work the middle of the bed from any edge without bending over much, if at all.

   You likely also noticed the Green Walls all around the garden. Actually, this drawing hides the near Green Wall so you can see the entire garden. but in any case, the entire garden is surrounded with Green Walls, which are highly efficient for reasons I blogged about earlier.

   But this isn’t just a place to work. See the two little structures with tools handing on the lattice walls, and seats inside? The one on the right is the Morning Pavilion. That’s where you go and sit and watch the mist rising off the garden in the early mornings, maybe with a cup of coffee... and with the morning sun streaming in over your shoulder. The one on the left is the Evening Pavilion. You can sit there at the end of a day of gardening, admiring your hard-won handiwork, with the evening sun streaming in over your shoulder again, just as it did in the mists of morning.


~ Steve Mouzon


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Thursday, February 18, 2010 - 09:09 PM

izzy

You forget the combined outdoor dining option, so you can  impress your visitors as you  enjoy the cool leaves & pool when the garden is at its height in summer, and most importantly, by letting your guests pick their own tomato for dinner. (Envy & desire can be  good catalysts in the green movement.)


Tuesday, February 23, 2010 - 06:46 AM

Steve Mouzon

Exactly, Izzy! Thanks for that!

Living In Season

   I was reading Michael Pollan’s great new book In Defense of Food yesterday when I came across this: “Eating in season also tends to diversify your diet - because you can’t buy strawberries or broccoli or potatoes twelve months of the year, you’ll find yourself experimenting with other foods...”

   That got me thinking... how about living in season? By that, I mean choosing things that we do and how we do them according to the seasons, rather than trying to force everything to be 72 degree, 30% humidity, perfectly lit perfection all the time?

   Think of how many of the rituals of human culture originally derived from the rites of the seasons, and from simple delights gleaned from the time of year. Snuggling in front of a crackling fire late into a clear and brittle night in the dead of winter, or do you remember the sleeping porch with fireflies silently patrolling outside the screen in early June, when it’s just a bit too warm to sleep inside? Or how about going for a quick dip late on a dusty August afternoon? Or maybe letting the dog sleep at your feet on a night that the Hunter’s Moon has brought an unseasonable chill? And whatever happened to Spring Cleaning?

   We did all of these things when the seasons mattered, and when each day could be new, bringing something just a bit different from the one before it. But not now. We can no longer tolerate uncertainty, it seems, even as the world around us grows radically uncertain. Is it possible that we have built this Great Grey Way of everyday life to somehow insulate ourselves from the globally cataclysmic stuff we read about, see, and hear? I really don’t know.

   But what I do know is that our intolerance of days too warm, too cold, too wet, too dry, too bright, or too dark has robbed us of the seasons, and of both the struggles and celebrations they once contained.

   Here’s another thing... not only has our environmental intolerance stolen the delight of the seasons, but it may, perversely, have done something far more malicious. Consider this: the hidden cost of the Great Grey Way is the fact that it requires us to mechanically condition our personal cocoons almost all of the time. So we seal the windows, lower the shades, and power up. And so the machines run... and run... and run...

   No big deal, right? Just pay the utility bill and everything is OK. Or is it? It turns out that the Great Grey Way is, above all other things, an energy hog. And the hogging of energy is the prime culprit in wars, depletions, exploitations, global climate change, and most of the other things we seem to be trying to insulate ourselves from when we create the Great Grey Way!

   Somehow, this cycle must be broken. Sustainability requires it. And the delight of the seasons is still waiting on the other side.


~ Steve Mouzon


Legacy Comments:


Friday, June 5, 2009 - 11:49 AM

Anonymous

I hear, get it and agree!  God planned this world perfectly and but we have not been the best stewards.  Most of my life has been in the "thermostat age" but fortunately I remember my grandparents generation and how they were use to being frugal and embracing the seasons in the fullest measure.  My grandmother and grandfather always raised a huge garden and my grandmother would fill the cupboards with food she preserved for the winter.  She had no concept of expecting it to be brought to her from thousands of miles away! She also knew what she could raise in the fall and winter to eat on. It was all about surviving where you lived. I think we have a generation now that has no perspective of this.  It is a tragedy!  Thanks for bringing these realizations to the forefront, Steve!


Friday, June 5, 2009 - 12:00 PM

Wilhelm Nothnagel

Well said. Our homes are all on lifesupport. What happens when the plug gets pulled!


Friday, June 5, 2009 - 12:54 PM

cindy

great post! i've read in defense of food, and i recommend 100 mile diet, some people get stuck on the '100 mile' and miss the point, it echoes your 'living in season'. we've lost so much by having everything all the time, some people just want what they want when they want it  with no care about the impact of those decisions.


Saturday, June 6, 2009 - 12:31 AM

JIM PALUCH

THANKS STEVE,  Your post here just gets our minds churning of things we should be doing and should not be doing . . . Your continued efforts and others like you will help move the churning and the shoulds to could, can, did and done!   Keep beating the drum!


Monday, July 20, 2009 - 03:06 PM

Anonymous

I remember summers at my grandparents house in Canton Ohio back in the 1950's.   Instead of air conditioning and television, we had large  porches, large shade trees and card games.  Summer meant popsicles and card games on the porch.  Bought a canvas awning last year for my large picture window behind  the deck and my air conditioner has not come on for the first summer since I moved here 17 years ago.  Next best thing to a porch.  Yesterday I made my first popsicle in decades (details on my facebook page).   Her house was built by her father -in -law (a contractore) at the begining of the 20th century.  No living room but a large dinning room and a small parlor and den.  Fit their life style perfectly. 

Grandma's house had mudrooms front and back to keep the cold winter air from coming in the door.   Her high hedges blocked the wind.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009 - 10:39 AM

Steve Mouzon

This is exactly what Living In Season means... thanks for your story! And if you're back here, please leave a link to your facebook page


Saturday, September 19, 2009 - 10:09 PM

Butterfly

We moved to Florida several years ago, I miss the seasonal changes living here. I envy cuddles by the fireside! the autumnal leaf changes... etc.. I enjoyed your post thanks for sharing!


Monday, September 21, 2009 - 05:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Butterfly! We did the same... moved to Miami several years ago, and I have a similar experience. The seasons are much more subtle here: hot and rainy, and not so hot!


Friday, January 22, 2010 - 01:35 PM

GreenHearted

I often point out to students the insanity of heating our homes to 72 degrees F in the winter, but then insisting on air conditioning them down to 65 degrees F in the summer. Think of the energy we'd save simply by switching those two numbers (and not wearing T-shirts in the house during the wintertime)! But I prefer to feel the summer heat (what's summer without heat?) and I feel virtuous when I feel the winter cold (we wear big, cozy housecoats indoors and space heat for short periods, when necessary - plus, let's bring back the hot water bottle at night).

Something else to point out: I am far healthier (fewer colds and flu, for example) when my house is cool in the winter and warm in the summer, instead of the other way round. I'll bet it would be the same for others.

Julie Johnston

Pender Island, BC, Canada (with not-very-cold winters)

SmartGrowth Schools

   Here’s another link you really should check out. SmartGrowth Schools is a site that has just been put up by Nathan Norris, a longtime colleague of mine, and a fountain of more great ideas than almost anyone else I know. The SmartGrowth Schools idea operates on the principle of identifying the most important issues relating to school location and design, and then expressing them in common-sense, plain-spoken fashion (sounds familiar?) in what Nathan calls the SmartGrowth Schools Report Card.

   The Report Card steps through the various levels of competence the school board could likely be demonstrating, from A to F. For each of the grades from A to F, the explanation is clear and concise. The report card on each of the important issues is backed up with one page of explanation and resources.

   “What’s this got to do with sustainability and the Original Green,” you might ask? I’m calling this site to your attention for several reasons. First, most of the patterns are explicitly sustainable. One example is the strong preference for preservation of existing school buildings. Down The Unlovable Carbon Stair-Steps and Preservation vs. LEED are two Original Green posts that back this up. The site’s encouragement of a process that creates “Community Buy-In” can be the beginning of a Living Tradition. The site’s mandate for the “Elimination of Design Constraints” saves many acres of land, tucking the school into a walkable neighborhood. This also can prevent the need for five acres of hot asphalt on which to stack the cars waiting to pick up kids, as parents can park along streets in neighborhood schools. And clearly, mandating that schools should be built in walkable neighborhoods helps in a big way to make the neighborhood an Accessible Place and a Serviceable Place. This is enhanced by the high grades achieved by schools that have shared uses with neighborhood recreation centers, parks, and other facilities. I could go on, but you get the idea. Download the Report Card and see for yourself.

   But there’s also a second reason why I’m calling this to your attention: It isn’t just that the content of the site focuses so much on sustainability issues, although it does. It’s also because of the process that it uses. Rather than just focusing like many sites on big-picture stuff (who’s not for better education, after all) it instead breaks down school siting and design issues into a series of individual patterns about which we can all have an intelligent conversation. And because it’s plain-spoken enough, we can also likely agree at the end of the conversation. This is precisely the technique I’ve tried to employ in A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] because I believe that such an approach empowers everyone and just might re-start a living tradition, which is the only proven delivery vehicle for real sustainability.


~ Steve Mouzon


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