What Is Sustainability?
D.C. chef Rob Rubba’s landed on localized vegetarian food (plus oysters) as his answer.
A sticky rib dish was extremely popular at a restaurant where chef Rob Rubba had been working, so one day, he calculated the number of pigs that had to be slaughtered in order to serve it. “It just blew my mind, and I was like, This just feels so wrong. I kind of don't want to cook anymore. I'm not sure I want to do this,” he told me over the phone. Then he remembered cooking is what he does best, and so he figured out a way to continue after becoming a vegetarian in 2017.
The realization was part of a broader hard look at how much waste is created in a professional kitchen, and it inspired him to start thinking about how to make restaurant operations—from sourcing to labor—sustainable. “That’s the very seed of Oyster Oyster,” Rubba told me over the phone, the Washington, D.C., restaurant he opened with restaurateur and sommelier Max Kuller and bartender Adam Bernbach in 2020. They have been receiving accolades ever since, making a strong case for localized vegetarian cuisine.
The restaurant also offers a vegan menu, with the optional addition of an oyster course. The two oysters in its name refer to the mushroom and the sea-faring bivalve. I had long been trying to figure out an excuse to talk to Rubba to see how he’d comes to this approach to mid-Atlantic region farm-to-table fare, how he defines sustainability, and why it’s important for restaurants to set the tone for eating in sync with local ecology. (Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.)
Alicia: How do you define sustainable and how do you define the approach you take at Oyster Oyster?
Rob Rubba: Where's restaurants I would just say like zero waste, right? But zero waste, you could have a really bad carbon footprint still. Saying you're just vegan, you could have an awful carbon footprint and be just as wasteful, so we look at it as a whole. And to me, it's kind of looking at it as not being a trend. It's about thinking about the future, right? So the practices we take or the farms we work with, they have to be doing something to be enriching the soil so that the farm is going to be putting out better food five, six, seven years from now.
It's the practices within our kitchen—how much resources are we wasting? We don't do large pot blanching, which is such a classic technique, right? So like, make vegetables nice and green and then shock them so you have an easy pickup. I mean, it's just six, seven gallons of water down the drain. Maybe in America, we don't see it as a problem, but in the rest of the world, water is a pretty valuable asset, and we're seeing that in California—it's just not talked about enough. And so things like that, really looking at it holistically, for the earth and for society, and eliminating things that don't make sense for here.
We try to cook what we think is mid-Atlantic cuisine, right? We can't use just native ingredients because we would never be able to supply our guests. So we use farmers, but they're all doing their best. We don't use any single-use plastics in the restaurant, because we have a big problem with microplastics. There's no sous vide cooking because it makes no sense to put something in a bag, cook it for a little bit, open that bag, throw that bag away, right? We don't wrap anything in plastic wrap at the restaurant, etc.
So, I mean, it's such a hard thing, because it's not a point A to point B situation. It's very rounded, right? You can look at it from so many angles. I mean, it's down to making sure some of the farms we use are either (a) very small teams or (b) they have some kind of hydroponic setup that they are able to keep their employees year-round rather than it being seasonal work and really getting a better life for those workers as well.
I love this because your restaurant is how I've landed on how to eat, and so I like to hear how other people landed on this. Obviously, to me, it makes sense, but what do you say to people who tell you that it would be sustainable to serve some amount of meat? Why vegetarian explicitly?
One, there's fair arguments there, right? Like, I'm not an anti-animal person. I think there's reasons to have animals around for fertilizing and stuff like that. I think they can live happy lives on a farm. But for us, for the vegetarian thing, is that chefs—I feel like there's this big trickle-down effect where—I mean, always use like, the “New York $25 Burger” thing ten years ago, when that started kicking off, maybe even 12, 13 years ago, but it's like okay, so maybe you are buying a really good quality grass-fed small product beef, that's actually maybe carbon neutral or whatever: But you're gonna get written up about it. People are gonna say, Wow, that's awesome, and then they’re gonna buy some crappy commodity beef and just try to copy it, right? It's going to still create this burger trend, and people are still going to eat it. So if I don't do any of that, I have no influence whatsoever to make someone want to eat meat, right?
And give them the option to eat vegetables, whether that's once a week, once a month, they come to this restaurant that's doing better, for us and with the way we approach it by sourcing locally and stuff. We're not really adding to the carbon issue with our vegetables that we source, right?
Well, what is your response when people say that local food is inaccessible? How are you responding to that?
I think it's up to us as chefs to demand and make it more accessible. And I think in D.C. we have some really great community gardens and urban gardens that are very accessible and do feed underserved communities—it's just helped pointing people in that direction and showing them that it is accessible and it's not expensive and that they do do it for that reason, to kind of eliminate that, and I feel like the more I do this, then we can get more chefs involved, the bigger these farms can kind of become within a sustainable size. And then eventually, they should be able to supply better and we can make more demands for the local supermarket to carry their product, rather than relying on something flown in from the other side of the country like we saw in the early days of COVID.
I mean, my restaurant is across the street from a giant supermarket, which is funny, and those shelves were completely empty. And I have my farmers sending me, Listen, can you send out CSAs to some of your guests or whatever, because I just can't sell any product right now. I mean, that's heartbreaking: We have local food that's healthy, that's grown well, and there's no contracts to put it on the shelves in these markets and communities.
That's wild to me, and that happens here too where the supermarket for whatever reason will bring in plantains or mangoes from the Dominican Republic, and it's like: We have those here. And if we don't have them here, then it's probably not the season for it, so why are you trying to sell them anyway?
But also, where do oysters come in? What was the inspiration for serving oysters?
Yeah, so I am a vegetarian that eats oysters—I fall into that realm. But it's also where we are located. Like I always say, if we were in Minnesota, Oyster Oyster would not be called Oyster Oyster and we would not serve oysters. We are in the Chesapeake.
The oyster reefs here in this area were crucial to like, as any oyster reef is, really, like it's symbiotic with so many other species, the cleanness of the water with one oyster filtering up to 50 gallons of water a day. Now imagine that reef with thousands of them. It was a huge protein source or source of food by both Indigenous societies here, and then it became this crop that was very cheap by other settlements here, but it was just over-sourced, over-fished, if you want to use that term, to the point where then we just didn't have really clean waterways. We saw the damage of a lot of species falling off because of that. We just feel like we have a responsibility to help build that back up, right?
And we're not taking from wild sources, we're using farmed oysters off the bay, that then we take those shells to oyster recovery programs and those go back into the bay. You need an oyster shell to grow another oyster, essentially, to grab onto. So, I feel like we have that responsibility because those clean watersheds are actually going to translate to all other life even on the land here, our farm quality, etc. So, it's like a well-rounded thing that really plays a part in the restaurant.
What's the response been to that to be vegetarian but have oysters, because I think people get very weird about that.
Overall, I think that these narratives have been around for a good period of time now, right? And maybe even thanks to social media, there's been a lot of posts or stuff like that. So even folks in the vegan sector or vegetarians are aware of it, right? Whether they are into it or not, that's fine. And on our menu, you don't have to have oyster in it. I mean, for the most part, the menu on the inside of the restaurant is primarily vegetarian. And then we have a very small oyster bar next door that opens this week that has more oysters.
But overall, people are pretty understanding and, honestly, I think it gets a lot of folks who maybe didn't do their full research in through the door and then they come in and then they had this awesome vegetarian meal thinking that they were coming to a seafood restaurant sometimes. And by the end of it, I've never had someone like, Oh, we feel ripped off. It’s more like, Holy shit, we had a really good meal and it was all plants, you know? We've been very fortunate. I mean, I wish I had some horror stories [Laughs] but it’s been really great for us.
I’m so happy to hear that because as an ex-vegan, people are so nasty about oyster consumption to me because they see it as—they see oysters as having a nervous system. They don't have a nervous system, but they just see it as a creature that's an individual and that doesn't really square with how I see it.
How would you suggest other people, other chefs, approach this kind of localized vegetarianism? Why do you think this is a good approach? Do you think that it's really replicable for other places?
I think it's important because—I mean, one is, a chef, any chef that wants to be creative, or try new things, I think it's a really good resource, right? I think what the plant kingdom and mushroom kingdom can do for a profile is exciting.
We just know the science if you're doing farms that are being responsible and doing correct growing and it's not monocrops, it's way better, right? It's just better for the earth. It's better for our diets. It's just—you see it moving forward. I mean, it's in this country, specifically in America. I mean, it's not necessarily novel to eat like this. It's definitely many other cultures that have way better cuisines that are long rooted that are vegetarian. But I think it's important to embrace our own, I guess, terroir, right, of where we live, what we cook, how we cook it, and I think plants represent that way better than any livestock ever will.
And it has to be seasonal then, too. And then you embrace that a little more and there's a little more respect and getting in touch with nature a little bit more as well, because things aren't just available 24/7.
Is it possible in your mind and from your research to eat meat every day and call it sustainable?
This is where I don't always fall in line with a lot of the same ethos. I can't say everyone needs to do this. Like if you have indigenously grown up in Alaska, and that is where you live and that's how you support your family and you’re eating off the land, I cannot say that in the middle of the winter you could eat this way, right? I feel like that probably is a situation where you are sustainably living off the land because you know if you over kill anything, you're not gonna have food the next year, right?
I think there's a different amount of respect for that. I think some regions where if you were to hunt overpopulated species of deer, and it was on an individual level, and we're not doing this for capitalism, I think, yeah, you could probably do it sustainably, but we're not there yet, right? No, a restaurant is a business. It's something that makes money, so we can’t view it in the same realm. So I think those are two different things.
Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will include three ways that I like to prepare tofu. They go on sandwiches, work with noodles, pair with rice, and are just generally good ideas to have in your back pocket. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Prism’s “The Meat Issue,” for which I served as editor-at-large, finished up. I filed a couple of essays. I look forward to sharing things when they’re out!
I wrote up some newsletter biz tips based on Instagram questions. If you have others, put them in the comments of that post and I’ll periodically make updates!
A People’s Green New Deal by Max Ajl; The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism by Markus Wissen and Ulrich Brand; and Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese. These were research and I read them all digitally, meaning my already tired eyes are more tired.
Oh, I did a nice feast last week for my sister-in-law and our niece who were visiting that included hummus, zaalouk, pita, a couscous and kale salad in sherry-shallot vinaigrette (paid subscribers have the recipe), and a chocolate mousse tart with a shortbread crust. I also made acerola (Caribbean cherry) jam with lime and nutmeg, which I sandwiched between shortbread cookies in a Linzer fashion.
This is such an interesting, thoughtful discussion about sustainability and community. It is really admirable, and challenging, to think through the meaning of your values and then try to make them work in a restaurant/business setting. I learned a lot - thank you for an excellent interview.