Heroic Endeavors: Chef Clayton Chapman of The Grey Plume

The Green Restaurant Association has rated the Grey Plumein Omaha, Nebraska as the most sustainable restaurant in the country. The Grey Plume excels in the areas of physical structure, water, energy, recycling, pollution and chemical reduction, and in the use of disposable materials that are biodegradable, recycled or compostable. Clayton Chapman is the Chef/Owner of The Grey Plume, who recently spoke to me about the burgeoning Omaha food scene and the comprehensive sustainability initiatives at Grey Plume, from lighting timers on their house-grown microgreens to solar-powered water faucets in their restrooms.

How did you develop your environmental consciousness? When is the first time you can remember thinking about the environment, or sustainability?

Our "environmental push" really developed with the need to know where our food was coming from. We wanted to know the farmers, ranchers and growers who were producing the food that we were serving. From there, stemmed the rest. We really felt that we couldn’t serve sustainable, wholesome food, without providing the same type of dining environment. I think I have been conscious about my/our environmental impact for quite some time now, but my active participation and significant life style change really developed when our son Hudson Grey was born.

How did you come to create such a sustainable business, from its transparency in sourcing to its building structure and operations?

We wanted to know the farmers, ranchers and growers who were producing the food that we were serving. From there, stemmed the rest. We really felt that we couldn’t serve sustainable, wholesome food, without providing the same type of dining environment.

As I mentioned before, it all started with the food and grew from there. We wanted to enthrall ourselves into something that we believed in and something we were proud of. I think authenticity is somewhat hard to find these days and being transparent in regards to business practices is somewhat of a necessity for us. We hope that our transparency allows other restaurant owners or chefs the opportunity to learn from some of the initiatives we have instilled into our curriculum. Our long term goal is to see this become the industry standard. We hope to see more restaurants celebrating local food, initiating sustainability into their practices and embracing community.

Ecocentric writes extensively about the connections between food, water and energy, and the Grey Plume’s sustainability initiatives cover these three areas so well. Can you talk about some of the restaurant’s water and energy sustainability? Why should restaurants care about sustainability?

Yes, we like to think that we are conscious on all three levels. As far as water is concerned: we have aerators on all of our faucets in the restaurant that greatly reduce our gallon per minute usage. We also have a low water toilet in the restrooms, which may not sound like a huge step, but in just a very conservative calculation, saves more than 3,000 gallons of water per year. We try and do everything we can to reduce our energy usage as well. This includes everything from occupancy sensors in our office, restrooms and storage closets to Energy Star rated equipment to LED and CFL lighting. We utilize an EMS (Energy Management System) for our make-up air and exhaust in the kitchen. This allows the fan to only run when it needs to. We have lighting timers on our in-house grown micro greens to ensure we don’t forget to turn off the lights. We utilize solar powered faucets in the restrooms. We think it is important to recognize your footprint or the state in which you are leaving things when you are done with them.

We heard that you were invited to speak at the Xeriscape Water Conservation conference in February in Albuquerque. Did you ever expect, as a restaurateur, to be speaking to a bunch of water wonks? What insights did you share?

No, I never would have imagined. It was really a great experience. The entire audience, at least that I could tell, was very receptive and provided great feedback. I discussed everything that we do, on all levels. From our recycling/composting program to how we developed the restaurant. The focus of the talk was more about sustainability as a whole that it was just about water, but water conservation played a dynamic role.

How did you get connected to the local farmers you source from? Are there challenges involved in working with farmers?

We have spent the last four or five years developing our list of contacts. We have been working with some of the farmers, ranchers and growing for that whole time, but most of them have been added to our network in the last two years or so. We spent a lot of time researching our area. We followed the Nebraska Food Co-op. It is always amazing to me how small the degree of separation is between those involved in local agriculture. Everyone seems to know one another or knows someone who knows someone else. We would be working with one farmer to grow vegetables per se and they would refer someone else who raises bison and so on. It has been a pretty rewarding process to be part of. There is always going to be adversity no matter who you choose to source your food from. The small hurdles we face working with small growers are hurdles we greatly welcome, especially considering our alternative resources to sourcing food.

What has been the local reaction to the whole sustainability concept?

We have had a great local reaction to our approach to sustainability. We really do feel privileged to be in a community that has provided so much support for a small local restaurant.

Can you tell us more about Grey Plume’s connection to local artists?

At TGP, we strive to support the local art community as much as we possibly can. In our planning stages we partnered with the "Hot Shops", a local art co-op in our downtown area. There is a small group of artists we worked with to produce everything from recycled plates to wine bottles to bread boards that are hand carved out of reclaimed wood. In addition to our serving pieces, we partnered with all local artists for the art on our walls in the dining room. Some of which is for sale by the artist and some of which is just on display. We partnered with a local clay sculptor to make large planters that sit outside the restaurant’s front door. These planters are made from native Nebraska clay and also duo as rain barrels with spigots on the bottom to drain the water.

What is the local food scene in Omaha? Are there certain environmental factors in the region that influence the cuisine?

The local food scene in Omaha is growing. Five years ago it was pretty obsolete, but we feel that the awareness in our marketplace has boomed in the last few years. There are a core group of restaurants here that really support local food. The winter months here pose for difficult growing seasons. We work with a few growers who are willing to keep things in hoop houses and green houses for us during the winter months as well as mulch root vegetables over to keep them in the ground. Unfortunately, we are not able to produce tropical type produce. That being said, we do source some items regionally, but purchase from sustainable, biodynamic farms.

What do you think consumers can do to support local farmers besides patronizing sustainable restaurants like The Grey Plume?

Check out your local food pantry or co-op! Frequent farmer’s markets when they are in season. Join a CSA (community supported agriculture)! There are so many ways a community can support local growers, it just takes a little more planning on the consumers' side.