Fined & Filtered

Beyond Green
A Brooklyn team creates a hyper-sustainable restaurant

Ed. Note: This article appears in our April print edition, published in mid-February, when the restaurant industry looked very different than it does today. And while the team behind Rhodora continues its mission to the best of its ability, New York City has shuttered all dining rooms in response to the COVID-19 crisis. For now, restaurants can operate only through takeout and delivery services. Co-owner Halley Chambers explains how Rhodora is responding to these challenges—and how you can help—here. —C.W.

“Cockles in broth?” Sam Geller asked Calla Camero. As they were setting up Rhodora for service, they brainstormed ways to sell more tins of the mollusks. The menu relied heavily on tinned seafood because the conservas are packed in easily-recyclable metals—an essential quality for the restaurant’s über-green mission. Rhodora didn’t send anything to landfill.

Rhodora co-owners Halley Chambers and Henry Rich. Rhodora co-owners Halley Chambers and Henry Rich.
A zero-waste restaurant is not intuitive, easy or cheap. But co-owners Halley Chambers and Henry Rich are stubborn. The space used to house Metta, a restaurant owned by the Oberon Group, Rich’s collection of carbon-neutral businesses (certified by Zero FoodPrint); those include restaurants Rucola and June, as well as Purslane, a zero-waste caterer. When Metta closed, they decided to build Rhodora around one idea: no catch-all black bins allowed. The idea came from a February 2019 pop-up dinner in Brooklyn hosted by Silo, a restaurant in London, where chef Douglas McMaster and his team recycle or upcycle everything: The ceramics are made with pulverized wine bottles and the tables are made of recycled plastic bags. They let neighbors add to their commercial composter because they produce so little food waste they can’t fill it themselves. McMaster calls it a “pre-industrial food system,” because he believes that excessive waste stems from our desire for excessive choice.

Rhodora, with a NY Sanitation compost bin in the bottom right corner. Rhodora, with a NY Sanitation compost bin in the bottom right corner.
Rhodora found their choices limited, though not as limited as one might think. Finding a cheesemonger willing to work without stickers or plastics posed an issue, but they’d settled in with Cato Corner and Miracle Springs. To keep kitchen prep simple as they worked to get used to their processes, they’d chosen to go with canned seafood over fresh, much of it coming from Spain and Portugal. Going abroad for non-perishables might have increased their carbon footprint but, Rich said, “We are investing in sequestration to offset that. Having removed that variable, I want to work with the person that has the highest integrity in terms of how they’re approaching the process.” During my visit, they were tasting samples from a Canadian company, slightly closer to home.

When it came to wine, Rich found an alignment that didn’t require as much effort on their part. “A lot of natural winemakers are actually regenerative farmers,” he said. “They brought [their soils] back to life through organic matter, which sequesters an enormous amount of carbon because the microbial life in the soil needs carbon to grow. The natural wine world should talk more about how environmentally progressive it is and not just what the wine tastes like and how much sulfur they use.” The restaurant sent its corks to reCORK, and promoted magnums and large-format bottles, which have less extraneous shipping weight. The bar taps poured only beer, but kegged wine was on their wish list.

Rich and Chambers also did away with the standard restaurant business structure, favoring an egalitarian approach. There were no managers, no cooks and no servers. The staff would greet, seat, pour, serve and wash dishes. This way, these jacks-of-all-trades channeled everything into its proper stream. Compostables were composted. Recyclables were recycled. It was a radical approach of self-governance, and Rich found it meshed with Rhodora’s overall mission. “We’re voluntarily opting out of the externalization of carbon and waste and we’ve taken direct responsibility for those outputs. It feels odd in that environment to not trust the staff.” Because everybody worked in both the front- and back-of-house, they understood the challenges involved with zeroing out waste and where they might fall short. The menu was slowly expanding as the staff got more comfortable operating in the system—they had added a few sandwiches and experimented with pasta dishes before the dining room closed. Even now, their delivery service includes no extraneous to-go packaging.

The team at Rhodora hoped to build a community of sustainably-minded people and to give them a forum for sharing ideas. Before March, they had hosted an event with Soapply, a sustainably-minded company, and planned to launch workshops to educate their community about food waste and sustainability. The restaurant’s compost went to Brooklyn Grange, a company that manages almost six acres of rooftop farmland in New York City. Rich admitted that the restaurant’s aggressively sustainable concepts were expensive, and hoped that by building these networks, the zero-waste goal might become easier or more affordable to implement. “It’s not great for the movement if sustainability is so expensive that it will only ever be this lifestyle affectation of the extremely wealthy,” he said. They have continued to build that network even through the closures, sharing podcasts, panels, and educational materials through their Patreon.

Rich and Chambers were surprised at how readily some businesses accommodated their requests. Arrow Linens not only stopped shipping to Rhodora in plastics, but hoped to remove plastic for all their accounts in the near future. When Rhodora asked A Priori, the conservas importer, to switch from plastic to paper shipping tape, the company decided to switch across the board. Rich said that the readiness of businesses to change their practices was an “energizing” part of the process. Cato Corner was fretting over how to ship their cheeses without plastic until Chambers suggested…paper. No plastic, just…paper.

Or cockles in…broth? Only time will tell, and the team at Rhodora has been working to make sure we have more of it.



photos by Liz Clayman

This feature appears in the print edition of April 2020.
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Tags  W&S April 2020  Fined & Filtered  Rhodora  Brooklyn  Zero FoodPrint  Wine Bar  Zero Waste  Regenerative Agriculture  Silo