I sprinkle my cereal with organically farmed blueberries, the spinach in my salad is nothing but organic, and the only meat that passes through my lips is antibiotic and hormone-free (yup, organic). I can proudly state that my fridge is often stocked with the makings of at least two divine repasts that are free from chemically treated ingredients, but yet the question always lingers: What happens when I dine out?
If I lived deep in the country, miles away from civilization, dining out wouldn’t even be an option, but I live in New York City, where apartments are small, kitchens are smaller and counter space is a perk reserved for the rich and famous (OK … or the very lucky). A few nights of cooking must be balanced with a few nights out, and if I could have it my way, those nights would be memorable and organic.
Until recently, it wasn’t difficult to find a restaurant that featured a handful of organic ingredients, but a menu that boasted 100 percent organic ingredients simply didn’t exist. (Really, it didn’t exist.) Then January 9, 2008, rolled around and marked a day in dining history — when Gusto Organics, the first USDA-approved, 100 percent organic restaurant opened its doors.
Gusto Organics is owned and operated by Alberto Gonzalez, an Argentine expat whose fruitless search for fresh, organic food in New York led him to open his own establishment in the heart of downtown Manhattan. Opening a restaurant in New York City is hard enough (in addition to fierce competition and the threat of lukewarm reviews, a restaurateur also faces strict building, health and safety regulations, among other hurdles), but opening a restaurant that is not only 100 percent organic, but also completely green — Gusto uses solar and wind energy, recycles, composts, conserves water and sends customers home with biodegradable containers, cups and flatware — comes with its own very special set of challenges.
Alberto recently took some time to tell me how an organic restaurant comes to be:
Q: A 100 percent organic restaurant? Approved by the USDA? How was the idea born?
A: I came to New York City many years ago from Argentina. The food in my country is very fresh and tasty, and in New York I had a terrible time finding good, fresh food that I could afford. And after I was here for a few months I noticed that I had a serious lack of energy and figured out that it had to be due to the food. I realized that I didn’t want to keep feeling like this and I wanted other people to feel better, too.
I used to work as a business consultant in change management — I like to say that I am a kind of change agent — and a company once hired me to take over an all-organic farming project in Argentina. I used that knowledge to move to New York City and open a restaurant with my life savings. Everyone told me I was crazy. They said, “Don’t go 100 percent organic; it’s too hard.”
Q: What does it mean to be a USDA-certified organic restaurant?
A: We are certified by the USDA NOFA-NY. That’s the USDA arm to the certifications in the New York area. They never certified a restaurant before, so we were learning together. Being certified organic means that 100 percent of the ingredients we use are organic. The only two things that are not organic are the water (remind me to tell you about the water) and the salt — we use only sun-dried sea salt with no additives.
We are the first 100 percent organic restaurant in the country and in two months we will be opening the only all-organic bar in the world.
Q: What’s the story with the water?
A: We are against bottled water. New York City has the cleanest and purest water in the country. So we run it through a UV lamp and then a purification system from Italy that takes all metals and bad stuff out, but keeps the good stuff (like minerals) in. We give this water for free to customers and use it to cook everything.
Q: Why do you think Gusto is the first USDA-certified organic restaurant? Where are the others?
A: The big difference is that we are not a profit-driven company; we are trying to do the right thing and [we know that] the consequence of doing so will bring profits. If you are driven only by profits, you will use whatever is less expensive — and most of the things that make eco-sense are more expensive: organic ingredients, wind power and so on. Take organic yeast. We pay $17.99 per pound for organic yeast, and when I called the supplier and asked “How come?” he said because nobody wants to buy it.
One of the reasons I opened Gusto in New York as opposed to California (where people are more open to the organic movement) is because this is where most of the damage is being done and the impact on the rest of the environment is huge. I was taught to lead by example. If we succeed with this restaurant, others will follow and prices [for organic goods] will come down and more restaurants will follow because it will make more economic sense.
How obvious does it get that we have only one planet? I see 14th Street and Sixth Avenue [where Gusto is located] as a cluster of green restaurants. I’m not worried about competition. I’m looking for cooperation. If we create an organic cluster, more people will come to try this way of eating. We’re planning to open another location before the end of the year in Manhattan. Our vision is to bring organic/sustainability to the mainstream.
Q: Why should diners care about eating at an organic restaurant?
A: 1) The food they will eat at an organic restaurant is better for the body as it’s free from chemicals, hormones and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
2) By supporting organic food we are supporting good farming practices. In America there used to be the best farming practices, but by supporting the $3.99 value meal we killed those good ways of farming. We shape the world by what we eat. Supporting organics is supporting the future.
3) We are protecting the environment by eating organic food. Organic farming leads to safer water and soil.
Q: Did you encounter limitations in creating a green restaurant in New York City?
A: We recycle and compost so we needed specific recycle bins. In 2008 we couldn’t find a company that makes these bins. So we made our own. Everything that makes sense in New York City is more money. Yet we were able to use all recycled wood, no chemical-based paints and LED lighting (during the day 70 percent of our light is natural).
Our restaurant is a New York City idea. Before opening Gusto Organics I interviewed New Yorkers and discovered that people really want good quality food at a fast pace, but they want to use their money to make a change, not only to feed their stomachs.
Q: What about the menu?
A: Gusto Organics is three restaurants in one. We serve breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner seven days a week. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. we are also a self-service restaurant serving slow food at a fast pace: grilled pizzas, piadinas (thin Italian flatbread), sandwiches, empanadas, soups and a salad bar. From five p.m. on we have table service with a candle atmosphere and a different menu featuring risottos, gluten-free pastas (I don’t need to eat gluten-free and I still love our pasta), filet mignon with mashed potatoes, grilled chicken, etc. And on weekends and holidays we do an all-organic brunch from 11 to 4 p.m., serving crepes, omelets and so on.
Q: And the chef(s)?
A: There is no executive chef. We have some very good cooks trained to do what we do. And we’re always training and learning. The recipes we use are from the collection I’ve been gathering since I was a kid. Our flan is my mother’s recipe.
For more information about Gusto Organics, visit gustorganics.com.
Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.