Homegrown Truths From Chef Aaron French

by Sarah Henry on January 24, 2012 · 16 comments

in berkeley bites,civil eats,food books,restaurant food

Self-described eco-chef Aaron French. Photo: Elizabeth Tichenor

Aaron French, a self-described eco-chef, has headed up the kitchen at The Sunny Side Café on Solano Avenue in Albany since it opened in 2004.

For the past two years he’s served up breakfast standards (think pancakes and eggs) and simple lunch fare (burgers, sandwiches, salads) at a satellite café of the same name in Berkeley.

French bounces between the two popular spots several times a day and jokes that the breakfast-brunch shift is the Rodney Dangerfield of cooking (it don’t get no respect).

Still, he’s proudest of his low carbon emissions menu options and his weekend food specials, a short, seasonal list that emphasizes local farms and calculates food miles.

French isn’t your typical chef. Before he cooked for a living he worked as a scientist. His interest in ecology led him to spend two years living among pygmies in Cameroon, where he studied seed dispersal by monkeys and birds.

An avid nature photographer, he’s also written about the relationship between ecology and food for the Bay Area News Group, where he penned the EcoChef column, as well as for Civil Eats and Fungi Magazine.

French, 40, is the author of The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook, which reveals the partnerships between 29 local chefs and farmers, and features fellow Berkeley chefs Amy Murray of Venus and Revival, and Marsha McBride and Rick DeBeoard of Café Rouge, as well as local fungi foragers Mil Apostol and Lucy Collier of Gentle Giraffe Farm and Forage.

He is studying sustainability at the University of California’s Haas School of Business, lives locally, and is co-raising his preschool age daughter, who was adopted from Ethiopia.

Local mushroom foragers Mil Apostol and Lucy Collier. Photo: Aaron French

When did your interest in local food begin?

I spent part of my childhood on a small farm in Sacramento, where we grew all our own vegetables and fruit, and ate the eggs from the farm’s free-range chickens. Eating locally literally meant walking out the back door and harvesting dinner.

Where did the moniker eco-chef come from and what does it mean?

It was an insult by a co-worker at a hippie, student-run, super-crunchy, college collective called Che Café on the U.C. San Diego campus, where I worked when I got my undergraduate degree. One night, as we were cleaning up, I found myself separating the recycling from the trash. This was before recycling was routine. And my co-worker just wanted to get out of there and he said: “What are you, some kind of eco-chef?”

Years later, when I started cooking full-time, I decided to embrace the label as a positive thing. On the one hand, it means nothing really. But I’ve come to think of it as cooking in a way that supports local food systems and honors the people who raise our food sustainably and I incorporate those principals into everything I do, given the limitations I have.

I have to think about price point, so I don’t buy organic potatoes, for instance, I don’t pretend I do. I’m doing breakfast for about 10 to 12 bucks a plate per customer, so I have to work with that.

But Sunny Side was the first green-certified restaurant in Albany. We use quality local ingredients and humanely raised meats and eggs. My five-item food-miles menu, which makes up a third of our weekend business, calculates food miles, and is like my gateway drug to sustainability. I do as many things I can given what I have to work with.

Do you have culinary aspirations beyond being a breakfast chef?

The bar is pretty low for breakfast food so I actually find it’s really creative to work within the parameters of what you can do on a breakfast menu. I’m always looking for ways to increase the connections between ecology and food. That’s what keeps me going and inspires me. And the issues behind being “green” or “eco” or “sustainable” are all things I think about as I’m cooking on the line. I look forward to the day when none of us need to use these labels, which are buzzwords now, because they’re simply standard practice.

Aaron French and a panel of chefs and farmers featured in his book will discuss local, seasonal food at Berkeley’s Books Inc. tomorrow, Wednesday, January 25, at 7:00 p.m.

A version of this post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished by Civil Eats.

You might also like:

Cool Cuisine Author Advocates Green Grub to Save Globe
Food Day: Growing a Movement Around What we Eat
Cooking Breakfast at Bette’s Diner in Berkeley for 27 Years

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie Haiken January 25, 2012 at 8:54 am

What an interesting “Renaissance man” guy. I’ve gone by that cafe a million times and never realized there was such an interesting backstory. Thanks!

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Sarah Henry January 25, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Good spot for you and I to meet for eggs & pancakes — after a monster hike, of course;)

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Alexandra January 26, 2012 at 9:08 am

Loved the description of the origin of “eco-chef”!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..More Reasons to Walk the Beach in Winter…

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Sarah Henry January 26, 2012 at 9:31 am

Too funny, hey?

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NoPotCooking January 26, 2012 at 9:20 am

It’s interesting that the bar is so low for breakfast food. That’s a shame and I’m glad it’s something he is changing!

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Sarah Henry January 26, 2012 at 9:32 am

Agreed. It’s the first meal of the day, so it should be darn good.

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Living Large January 26, 2012 at 3:42 pm

After reading your interview, I’m interested in the book!

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Sarah Henry January 27, 2012 at 7:07 am

It’s nicely done, LL, do take a look.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. January 26, 2012 at 6:32 pm

In NYC, breakfast either means an egg-and-cheese sandwich from the bodega or full-on fancy brunch. Gotta love the in-between restaurants that will serve simple but satisfying dishes. Kudos to Chef French on his cookbook!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Take a Taste of Dragon’s Breath

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Sarah Henry January 27, 2012 at 7:09 am

Good to get an East Coast perspective on the most important meal of the day. Sounds like there’s an opportunity for something similar to Sunny Side in your neck of the woods.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey January 28, 2012 at 7:57 am

Another inside look at the person behind the food behind the purpose. Very nice.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question [Screenwriter+Author+Therapist for Creative Issues] Interview: Dennis Palumbo

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Sarah Henry January 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Nicely, put, Merr. And thanks.

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MyKidsEatSquid January 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I like the term eco-chef too. I’m wondering did he go into any more detail about his time in Cameroon?

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Sarah Henry January 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm

He did, MKES, though the details escape me right now, it was clear it was a significant experience.

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Jane Boursaw January 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

Eco-chef – love it.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Take a Look at Brad Pitt’s Outtake from the Hollywood Reporter Cover Shoot

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Em (Wine and Butter) January 30, 2012 at 2:24 am

I love reading stories about Chefs who got into food from another field – and boy it sounds like Aaron has his hands full! I always thought Sunnyside would be a kind of generic cafe, but I’ll definitely have to give it a try next time I’m in Berkeley now!
Em (Wine and Butter)´s last [type] ..Food Inc.

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