Can Sushi Save The World? How Chef Bun Lai Leads a Sustainability Revolution of Love

Kat Bein | April 22, 2021 | Food & Drink People

Sustainable sushi

If the best food is made with love, than the trip to Miya's Sushi in New Haven, CT., is worth any charge. The family-owned and operated restaurant opened in 1982 under the direction of Yoshiko Lai. Named after her daughter, Miya's found new life when her son, Chef Bun Lai, transformed Miya's into the world's first sustainable sushi restaurant.

Lai's dedication to taste and freshness is bested only by his commitment to making the world a better place. In 2005, he put invasive species on the menu, and in 2016, he was named the White House Champion of Change Award for Sustainable Seafood. More recently, he turned the restaurant concept inside out, reconnecting his staff and clientele with nature by moving the whole process outdoors.

We caught up with Chef Lai via email to learn more about his passion for sustainability, the secret to some of his favorite Miya's Sushi dishes, and how we can all join him in the fight for tomorrow.

See also: Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten on Sustainable Eating & How It Has Transformed His Restaurants

Did your mother’s passion for sustainability and your father’s scientific background influence your career path?

My mother has an artist’s soul, and my father is a scientist that has never stopped discovering. I feel like I am equal parts of each. Ever since I was little, I knew I was an artist, but I stopped doing art at 18 because it felt selfish, and I knew I wanted to do something that contributed to the world in a positive way. I never planned to return to art through food and learn that art is such a powerful tool for good. I never thought I’d ever be reading scientific papers for fun like I do for my work in sustainability.

What brought you to sushi?

My mother, Yoshiko Lai, started Miya’s in 1982 in New Haven. Her little traditional Japanese eatery was the first sushi bar in Connecticut. When I was a kid, there used to be a line a block long of people waiting to get in. I came to help out after college, never planning to stay this long. We used to have a sushi chef with a bit of a drinking problem. One night, he called one of our waitresses a [rude word], so I fired him and took over sushi-making duties with my best friend, Dan Schuman. No experience has been more valuable than caring so deeply about something but being so terrible at it, for years. I nearly drove Miya’s into bankruptcy many times during my first years helming the sushi bar. That’s how I got into sushi-making.

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Why is sustainability so important?

The most destructive force today is humans. Humans are the cause of a wide range of issues that threaten the planet. Climate Change is happening at a rate that humanity is not prepared for and will hit the poorest people the hardest, creating civil unrest and famine. Overfishing, overhunting, habitat-destruction and invasive species have propelled us into a new mass extinction era; air and water pollution has made our world toxic; and we are in the throes of two pandemics that sprang from the food we eat—the COVID pandemic and the diet-related-disease pandemic. We humans are destroying ourselves and the world we live in at an unprecedented rate, and sustainability is about ways we can tackle these potentially catastrophic problems.

What does it mean for sushi to be sustainable?

Sushi is the most popular seafood-based cuisine in the world. It’s popularity has contributed to overfishing and habitat destruction of our marine and inland waters, as well as a plethora of complex social issues. Miya’s seafood is fished or farmed in a way that is environmentally and socially responsible. Furthermore, we won’t use factory-farmed animals for the adverse impacts that form of food production has on the environment as well as human health.

We also do most of our dinners outdoors at our farm to reconnect people to nature, and so that my team and I can work in a way that restores us in a way working in a building never can. The fun thing about sustainability is that the possibilities for improvement in how we do things is endless.

See also: 5 Luxury Fashion Brands Celebrating Earth Day 2021

What steps do you take to ensure the sustainability of your ingredients?

Many of the ingredients most sushi restaurants serve are not responsibly-fished or farmed. As a chef, it’s not good enough to make food that tastes good. It’s every bit as important that we know how what we choose to consume impacts the world. At Miya’s, we don’t use most of the seafood used by most sushi restaurants, because they don’t pass the [test]. Instead, we use ingredients like invasive carp, farmed mussels, and vegetables that are not usually made into sushi.

You started serving invasive species in 2005. Where did that idea come from?

There is no greater environmental problem than that posed by invasive species. Invasive species are connected in numerous ways to many of the environmental issues we face today, including climate change and the precipitous loss of biodiversity that many in the science community have called the Anthropocene Extinction.

As regions become warmer, invasive species establish themselves to the detriment of native species. In the U.S. alone, there are over 50,000 established invasive species resulting in trillions of dollars of economic damage and often irreversible environmental and social destruction.

From the woolly mammoth to the passenger pigeon, humans have eaten countless animals to extinction. Today, hundreds of animals are facing extinction due to the human desire to eat them. The human appetite is one of the most destructive forces on Earth, so shifting that appetite towards invasive species—and away from species that are farmed in a way that is environmentally destructive, such as industrial livestock production or other’s that are overfished or over-hunted—is part of the complex solution to an increasingly complex plethora of human and environmental problems.

Any innovations or new techniques you’ve been playing with recently?

The word restaurant is derived from the Latin restore meaning “to restore.” In France, the word restaurant was first used to describe an eatery that served food for pay, decades before the French Revolution. Le restaurant specialized in soup designed to restore one’s health. Today, most restaurants don't serve healthy food like restaurants of yore. From my experience, most restaurants aren't healthy places to work either.

When I was a kid, I was happiest when I was outside in the woods flipping over logs looking for salamanders, or fishing in the Mill River. Today, scientists have discovered what nature-lovers have known all along; that being outdoors in the woods, by the rivers, streams and seas has the power to heal our bodies and our spirits.

Taking the restaurant out of it’s building and into the woods has been the biggest recent change. Today, I cook in the most restorative way possible; healing, nourishing and connecting ourselves to each other and to nature, outside surrounded by trees and in the fresh air, using foods that we forage and grow ourselves.

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What are some of the dishes at Miya that you are most proud of?

My favorite recipes are ones that tell a story; that illuminate important ideas. Here are a couple of my classics:

KIRIBATI SASHIMI: Thin-sliced Florida lionfish with Kiribati sea salt and spices.

This recipe, which combines two ingredients that originate in the Pacific Ocean, help tell a complex story that interweaves the proliferation of invasive species, climate change and the destruction of coastal cultures.

Climate change helps invasive species spread. Lionfish have been spotted as far North as Long Island Sound. After being released from aquariums, lionfish established themselves in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean. Protected by venomous spines, lionfish are a voracious apex predator that has decimated native fish populations of coral reefs that have already been suffering from the impact of climate change, pollution and overfishing.

The island nation of Kiribati is one of the world’s poorest countries, with few natural resources other than the salt from the ocean around it. At only 8 to 12 feet above sea level, Kiribati may become the first nation to be completely swallowed by the ocean due to climate change.

MISO WILD: This soup—which Momma calls delicious medicine—features medicinal wild plants that are despised by farmers and lawn owners alike. Garlic mustard, nettle, purslane, dandelion, clover, plantain, amaranth, chickweed, chicory and Japanese knotweed make this the healthiest and tastiest soup you’ll ever put in your mouth.

This miso, which features invasive plants and weeds, is the healthiest and tastiest soup you’ll ever put in your mouth and features a dozen wild plants, including Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, nettle, purslane, dandelion, clover, plantain, amaranth, chicory, and chickweed.

There are three very good reasons to eat invasive plants and weeds:

1) Over 16,000 years of farming, humans have been able to cultivate plants for greater flavor, size and physical appeal, but never for increased nutritional value. In fact, farmed food has become less nutritious over time. As a result, conventional crops are much less nutritious than the edible weeds that grow among them. In a world where malnutrition has led to global epidemics of hunger and obesity, humans must expand their palates to include a wider variety of unconventional healthier-to-eat food species. Invasive plants and weeds fit the bill; they contain loads of fiber to boost gut health and a wide range of phytonutrients that prevent damage from free radicals that cause many chronic health problems, including inflammatory diseases, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

2) As the world warms, unpredictable weather patterns have become commonplace, causing crop failures and increasing global hunger. Invasive plants and weeds are more resilient to extreme weather patterns and therefore could be cultivated in regions where they already exist and where climate change will decrease the production of staple crops.

3) By foraging/cultivating edible weeds, we do not contribute to the poisoning of our planet with pesticides. Five billion pounds of dangerous pesticides are used worldwide each year, affecting every living thing, from beneficial microbes in the soil that plants depend upon, to the community of gut bacteria that live within us and are the bedrock of human health.

See also: Ermenegildo Zegna Celebrates 110 Years By Turning To Sustainability

Is tradition a barrier to the spread of the sustainable sushi movement?

Chef Jiro, in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, laments the disappearance of the fish in the ocean yet still serves bluefin tuna, an endangered species. Jiro and all the most famous sushi chefs like Nobu, Masa and Morimoto all serve bluefin tuna and other non-sustainable seafood at their restaurants. They are among the most creative sushi chefs but are unwilling to reimagine how they cook. The change would happen more rapidly in the sushi world if the most influential chefs made sustainability a guiding principle of their cooking. Tradition has never been a barrier to change for these wildly-imaginative and famous chefs who have boldly innovated the cuisine of sushi, but greed and a lack of guts have been.

How can people make more sustainable choices in their everyday diets?

Choose the food you eat thoughtfully, and chew your food mindfully. Avoid processed foods like sweeteners and anything made from white flour or rice. Choose sustainable seafood over land animals, and avoid factory-farmed animals. Eat a wide range of plants. Your microbiome diversity, and therefore your health, depends on it. Choose to eat organic when you can to help you avoid pesticides.

Here are a couple of websites that make sustainable seafood choices easy peasy! Find sustainable seafood in your area with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector. Learn with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide. Learn more about edible invasive species in a fun and interactive way with Dr. Joe Roman’s Eat The Invaders, and learn more about which produce you should be bying organic via EWG’s Dirty Dozen List.

Photography by: Mahmoud Fawzy / Unsplash