Eat your politics

Local culinary sage Larry Bain's Nextcourse bridges the food divide and brings good eats to the masses
A lot has happened since Californians first rebelled against the canned food and Jell-O molds of the postwar industrialization era. The American food politics revolution is very much alive and well and thriving in the Bay Area, where the movement started. And California is still the food basket of the United States — it's been the top grower in the country for more than half a century. The dialogue about sustainable growing practices and environmental impact is open, and the fight for more mindful production practices is still on.
We are home to around 100 farmers markets — including Alemany, which, at 63 years old, is the granddaddy of local markets. Alice Waters's groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant celebrated 35 years of organic-minded Epicureanism this year. CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms) — started in the United States in the 1980s — are going strong. Local groups and organizations that continue to educate and activate the revolution around here include but certainly aren't limited to San Francisco Food Systems, Food Not Bombs, Food First, and the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust, which protects farmland against development. Blogs like the Eat Local Challenge, written by authors across the United States, and resource Web pages like those of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the organization that runs the Ferry Building farmers markets, offer a plethora of information about the local food politics movement.
And then there's Larry Bain — restaurateur, activist, and founder and executive director of Nextcourse. He doesn't just eat his politics, he feeds them to the Bay Area. Bain has a hand in a few of the finest and fanciest restaurants in town (Acme Chophouse, Jardinière), but his work through Nextcourse in San Francisco jails and schools and with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area narrows "the food divide" and shows how eating well doesn't mean breaking the bank for artisanal olive oil. We talked to him about his organization and some of the major issues it's taking on in the quest to bring mindful eating practices to the larger community.
SFBG What inspired you to found Nextcourse?
LARRY BAIN I've been a food activist since 1983, when I opened [Zola in San Francisco] with the intention of creating a new model for restaurants. Restaurants use more energy per square foot than any other retail operation, so the consumption of water, gas, electricity, and the generation of greenhouses gases tend to have a very deleterious impact on the environment. Then there's the cleaning solutions used in restaurants. And the amount of garbage generated, the packing, and then of course the stuff we know and think first about restaurants, where food comes from, the fossil fuels used in the creation and transportation of food. Every year I owned a restaurant, I got more excited about the positive impact restaurants could have and about finding ways to influence other restaurateurs. Because nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "I want to be the cause of 17 trees being felled in the redwood forest."
But I wasn't big enough to take it all on. Every issue is far more complex than you'd think. Whether it's a straightforward Atlantic salmon or a Chilean sea bass, there are layers of impact. Even eating local — what does that do to communities that depend on people in America buying their coffee beans or some other product? I wasn't sure where to focus until I went to a seminar that was given at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. All of my heroes were up on the stage: Vanda Nashiva, Orville Schell, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Carlo Petrini.