Though incredibly rewarding, sustainability can be a hard road to walk in the restaurant industry. When opening a business, creating a welcoming physical space and aesthetic, managing staff, and sourcing
quality ingredients can be difficult at best. Adding a pledge to sustainability brings even more challenges, but ones that forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs are willing to tackle.
Renee Erickson has long been considered one of the leaders of Seattle’s culinary scene. In today’s turbulent restaurant industry, she is appreciated even more as a chef-restaurateur who looks after her crew as family. Twenty-five years ago, as a student at the University of Washington School of Art, Renee had her eye on becoming an art teacher. After spending time in Rome, Renee started to fall in love with food and restaurants. Over the next three years, she split time between Europe and Seattle, balancing her studies with working at Boat Street Café, a beloved neighborhood French-Pacific Northwest bistro in Seattle’s University District. At age 25, Renee returned to Seattle to follow her path in art school but was then offered the chance to buy Boat Street Café.
I loved [Boat Street Café] because it didn’t feel like a traditional restaurant. I was really in love with the experience. I asked my family and … some really close friends if I should wait to hear back from graduate school or buy the restaurant. Everyone told me to buy the restaurant. So I just did it.
With the help of her parents, Renee went ahead and bought the restaurant. Ten restaurants later, Renee is an eminent force in the Pacific Northwest food scene, not to mention the nation. In 2016, she won the James Beard Award — the Oscars of the culinary industry — for Best Chef Northwest. In spring of 2022, her locally-focused restaurant The Walrus and the Carpenter — where oysters are a star ingredient — was nominated by the same organization for Most Outstanding Restaurant.
As a young chef/owner, Renee was hooked by the experience of running a restaurant, but not everything was easy. Reconciling costs with her vision of sustainability was a challenge at first. Buying local and sustainable ingredients definitely requires more initial effort and investment, but it’s worthwhile in the long run; both for the quality of ingredients and for our planet. Consumers are taking notice. The National Restaurant Association’s 2022 report states that local sourcing is directly impacting the restaurant scene. 38% of adults stated that they’re more likely to choose a restaurant offering locally-sourced foods over one that doesn’t.
I think from then until now, everything, I would say, about the industry has changed and some of the really exciting stuff is around sustainability. I remember having a really hard time buying produce that wasn’t grown in California or Mexico and now we largely don’t buy anything not grown from here. We have purchasing guides [for the restaurant staff] and things like that. I think it forces people … to make an extra effort.
The effort is worth it. As Renee’s restaurants grow, she adheres more and more to the sustainability model. When she and her staff performed an audit of ingredients purchased for Boat Street Café, she was expecting to see maybe 60% of food sourced locally (within a 100-mile radius). Instead, she learned it was more than 80% locally sourced.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, Renee finds it relatively easy to source lush and bountiful produce. There are farmers markets in most neighborhoods, while fresh fish and seafood choices are plentiful and spectacular. Renee works closely with Hama Hama Oysters, a shellfish farm on the Hood Canal in Washington State. Not only are oysters a delicious treat, but whether caught wild or farmed, they are incredibly sustainable. Oysters, in fact, make a positive impact on the environment; a single oyster can filter up to fifty gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen and phosphorous.
Buying from local fishers might be more costly, but it reduces carbon footprint, and results in a vastly superior ingredient. Renee says she receives fresh catch usually within 24 hours, up to two days, tops. From a mass distributor, the “fresh fish” is around 10 days old. This problem was exacerbated during the pandemic, when supply chains were stalled, even “local” fish and seafood had to be sourced and shipped in from other parts of the country. Renee is determined to fight against this trend, engaging with local fishers and shellfish farmers. Despite the cost differential, she says she wouldn’t do it any other way.
As Renee’s restaurants became increasingly centered around seafood, she found herself in the middle of the argument for marine sustainability. Six or seven years ago, she found the courage to speak up about her ecological beliefs, despite her concern that she might offend, or in some way upset, the seafood industry’s status quo.
For a long time, I felt like I was going to harm the business by … having a firm belief about something or standing up for something. Now, I think it’s more important than ever.
Not only was she advocating for sustainable fishing but in 2018, she made the bold choice to remove Chinook salmon (or king salmon) from her restaurants. Chinook is a prized ingredient in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, but it has recently suffered a drastic population decline. Environmental changes, degradation of habitats and spawning grounds, combined with overfishing have all hit hard. Although Bristol Bay, supplier of the roughly half the world’ sockeye, has not encountered the same problem with increasingly big harvests. Bristol Bay sockeye is still served in Sea Creatures’ restaurants and, whenever possible, reefnet fished salmon from Lummi Island. In reefnet fishing, the flood tide brings salmon into an artificial reef and they swim into a netted live well open to flowing seawater. Other sustainability factors include electric powered boats to avoid exhaust from gasoline fumes and eliminating by-catch through releasing unwanted species back into the water.
Salmon is known as a “keystone” species, playing a vital role in the diet of much local fauna, including the struggling population of Orca whales. The decline of the salmon population has also affected indigenous communities that subsist on salmon fishing. The Yurok tribe, on the California-Oregon border, have depended on salmon for their food and livelihood for centuries. In 2017, the California Fish and Game Commission shut down all commercial salmon fishing to try to let the species recover and it was a huge blow for the community. The Yurok tribe of approximately 6,000 people were only allowed to catch 650 salmon that year. This detriment was a wake-up call to the community.
To step back from salmon, in an effort to let the population recover, wasn’t a hard decision for Renee to make as a restaurateur and as an ecologically aware human. Though she received some backlash from the fishing community, Renee said that most people were grateful for the insight on an issue they hadn’t previously considered.
In June 2021, restaurants in British Columbia followed suit by removing all wild salmon from their menus as a political statement against overfishing and as a commitment to a sustainable future. Fisheries and Oceans Canada promptly shut down 79 commercial Pacific salmon fisheries — accounting for roughly 60% of the region’s fishing industry — in hopes of giving the wild salmon populations a chance for recovery and survival.
Although Renee has taken salmon off her restaurant group’s menus, she says that the impetus to serve salmon in the restaurant industry is still fierce.
I have friends around the country who still serve farmed salmon, which is just as bad. I ask them, “Why are you still serving this?” They say, “Well, we have to.”
Renee says: “You don’t.” If she can get away from serving salmon in Seattle, where it’s not only the most popular local fish but also a cultural representation of the area, then other cities, states and countries would do just fine without it. It might be a heartbreaking reality to find salmon missing from menus, but one with an honorable and optimistic goal.
Renee works closely with Smart Catch, a Seattle-based program funded in 2015 by Vulcan, then a Paul Allen company, to certify restaurants committed to serving sustainable fish and seafood. The program also helps to educate and provide support for chefs on a mission to achieve sustainability. The Walrus and the Carpenter was one of the first restaurants to participate in the program, meeting Smart Catch’s criteria for: fishery management, environmental impacts on fish habitats, volume of catch, and level of fish stocks. Renee says that the program expects all participating restaurants to improve year after year, proving that “farm to table” is an actuality and not just a catchphrase. In 2017, Vulcan Philanthropy gifted the Smart Catch program to the James Beard Foundation, which then expanded its mission and awareness of marine sustainability on a wider national scale.
Being a leader and a role model in the industry is paramount to Renee. Beyond her commitment to sustainability, she also mentors her team and gives back to the local and global communities. Renee’s restaurant group donates to local schools and charities close to her employees’ hearts. In April 2022, her team organized a large UNICEF fundraiser to support Ukraine and Ukrainian immigrant funds. Also, in an industry notoriously difficult for entry-level employees, Renee’s restaurant group Sea Creatures was an early proponent of the minimum wage and tip-sharing movements, and offer a myriad of opportunities such as health care, 401(k) benefits and education.
In 2018, Amazon opened an ambitious structure called The Spheres in Seattle’s South Lake Union district. An innovative foray into sustainable architecture, The Spheres are essentially giant greenhouses — home to over 40,000 plants found all over the world, which are woven into vertical living walls. Renee jumped on the opportunity to be a part of this beautiful and ground-breaking structure, and in 2018 she opened her restaurant Willmott’s Ghost inside The Spheres. Sustainable dining inside a sustainable structure is definitely two steps in the right direction.
As we look to the future, there is increasing hope. Many other forward-thinking chefs are trending in the same direction as Renee and considering the bigger picture: life outside the plate. As more of the industry focuses on partnering with local farmers, fisheries and ranches, we not only look forward to delicious and thoughtfully prepared food, but also foster hope for the future. Sustainability has never looked more delicious.
 “Renee Erickson: The Whale Wins, Seattle,” James Beard Foundation, https://www.jamesbeard.org/chef/renee-erickson.
 “The 2022 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Nominees,” https://www.jamesbeard.org/blog/the-2022-james-beard-awards-nominees.
 “State of the Industry: Sustainability’s Back on Menu ,” National Restaurant Association, https://restaurant.org/education-and-resources/resource-library/state-of-the-industry-sustainability-is-back-on-the-menu/, March 03, 2022.
 Kim Chipman, “Salmon Have Shrunk So Much That Whole Foods Redid Its Guidelines,” Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com, April 27, 2021.
 Alexandra Gill, “B.C. Restaurants Remove Wild Salmon From Their Menus as a Political Statement About Over-Fishing,” The Globe and Mail, July 18, 2021.
 “Sammy Gensaw III Fighting to Save the Salmon,” Hungry for Change: California’s Emerging Food Systems Leaders, Berkeley Food Institute, https://food.berkeley.edu/resources/changemakers/
 Linzi Sheldon, “Paul Allen Launches Smart Catch Program for Sustainable Fish,” , KIRO 7 News, https://www.kiro7.com/news/paul-allen-launches-smart-catch-program-sustainabl/28715032/, July 07, 2015.
Conversations with Jo Eike. Written by Jo Eike. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.
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