Bun Lai has reinvented the wheel at Miya’s. This time, the wheel is rolled in multi-grain rice, potato skin, and wild swan.
From his eclectic kitchen at Miya’s Sushi on Howe Street, Lai (at center in photo) has long been known for pressing the culinary envelope. Now he has been as the only sustainable sushi restaurant on the East Coast.
That recognition came from author and activist Casson Trenor, a leader in the movement to make sushi not just chic, but sustainable.
Separate from the sustainable seafood movement, the push for sustainable sushi asks chefs to elbow out popular highly endangered ocean life from their menus.
This has been a movement so far realized in only a handful of restaurants on the West Coast. Trenor, who was selected as one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009 for his entrepreneurial strides in the sustainable sushi industry, lauded Miya’s as the only East Coast establishment with a sustainable menu. He will be working with Lai to develop a regional network for others looking to get their feet wet in the new order.
“[Promoting sustainability] is way easier than anything I’ve done to get here in the past,” said Lai. “We’ve already pushed through a lot of the hurdles, now it’s just convincing other people.”
Today’s system leans heavily on the demand of sushi diners and what they perceive to be tradition, Trenor said. Fish like Bluefin , Yellowtail and hamachi are being depleted from the oceans and farmed because of uniform demand for these fish in locales they don’t call home.
“[People should be] generally used to eating fish in the area of where they live. Today’s sushi doesn’t work that way,” said Trenor. “It should, but it doesn’t. There’s a cookie-cutter system for sushi.”
On the handstamped pages in Miya’s menu, there’s a lengthy vegetarian selection, the largest in the world for a sushi restaurant, Lai claimed. An entire chunk of the menuis devoted to invasive species in the cuisine.
“I wasn’t trying to make the biggest vegetarian sushi menu in the world, I just care about it that much so it happened,” Lai said. “It was the same thing for sustainable [sushi], I wasn’t trying to be one of the first in America to do it, it happened because I cared about it.”
Trenor said he’s never seen a menu like Lai’s.
“We need innovation to fight through complacency,” he said. “When chefs hear they can’t sell their top five sellers [in order to be sustainable], there are two responses: One is ‘How can I make ends meet with the 10 items I have left to work with?’ The other is ‘Okay, I’m going to go out and find things to replace them.’”
Becoming more sustainable and local is a constant work in progress for Lai. Recently, Spicy Tilapia Roll replaced the less sustainable roll with red snapper.
Lai addresses the challenge with an almost vigilant creativity. “I took the cuisine and dropped it on its head,” he said. He’s had his share of traditionalists slamming the door on their way out and even encountered his mother’s criticism at first. Lai said he has worked within his mother’s own philosophy which built the restaurant in 1982: earnest, ethical, sustainable thinking, which ultimately translates into the food. Embracing sustainable alternatives was easy on an alternative menu.
During walks on the seashore years ago, Bun and one of his waiters both picked among the tide and the shells to find species like the Asian shore crab, which appeared on the coast in 1988 with a diet broad enough to significantly decrease other shellfish life on the rocky shore. “Invasive species are what brought me into sustainability,” said Lai. “We looked at them and wanted to find a way to eat them.” One way he came upon: Shreds of pulled barbeque wild swan rolled within a steamed kudzu leaf and wild mushroom.
“We know it’s dangerous and scary,” Trenor said of the pitch he and Lai will offer to establishments interested in sustainability. “But we’ll come to support you.”