In April, eagerly anticipated vegan restaurant Little Saint opened in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg with some lofty expectations of its culinary and bar programs: to exist within a small but thriving ecosystem in which “everything that is grown is celebrated,” multiple times. Executive bar director Matt Seigel prioritizes ingredients cultivated on Little Saint Farm, an eight-acre parcel that’s barely tilled, a practice that builds the soil’s climate resiliency and boosts the nutrient density and flavor depth of the produce — and also gives the kitchen’s botanical byproducts even more lives beyond the plate. In his virtuous spins on classic cocktails, the 41-year-old bartender — who was formerly behind the bar at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park — incorporates non-traditional mixers like beet-poaching liquid and pickled pepper brine, along with sustainably minded luxury spirits, into stellar cocktails.
Seigel doesn’t even keep a garbage bin behind the bar. The principled tactic is less about marketing than it is about keeping the bar honest in its use — or reuse — of ingredients in other parts of the drink-making process. Nowhere does the hypnotic incantation “zero-waste bar” appear on the restaurant’s website or menus. Instead, the concept is a rallying cry, a rebel yell, a raison d’être to guide the environmentally sound creation of what is essentially a potable vice.
“The food industry is responsible for so much destruction of our planet,” says Seigel. (According to The New York Times, food production is responsible for as much as 30 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.) “We have an opportunity to plant a flag where beautiful food and drink is purposeful and meaningful for the earth as well,” Seigel says.
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1. By your own admission, Little Saint is not a pioneer of the no-waste bar. As the bar director, what’s your definition of such a program?
By no means are we the first in the space, not by a longshot. I mean, we literally don’t have a garbage bin behind the bar. We don’t create any bar waste. A lot of what we make is from the byproduct of the kitchen, which is incredibly sustainable on its own. But the ingredients we share are given multiple lives, starting from the farm. We use all the pieces we can of the vegetables, herbs, and fruits that we’re getting. At the end of all those lives, what still remains goes back into multiple compost systems, either for our farm, or to Recology, which disperses compost to farms around Sonoma County.
2. What’s an example of this interconnectedness between kitchen and bar?
There’s a beet entrée currently on the menu called Stuffed Collard Greens with Beet Merguez. In just one of the cooking processes for that dish, the beets are poached in liquid. At the bar, we fine-strain that exact liquid — after the beets have been cooked in it — to remove particulates from the vegetables and the seasonings. Then it goes directly into our zero-ABV drink Beet the Heat, which includes the poaching liquid, plum vinegar, some non-alcoholic bitters, sparkling water and fresh-grated cinnamon. The drink gets this beautiful magenta hue, plus a robust earthiness and a deep-smoke note that you wouldn’t get from just putting beets through a juicer. And yet, the bar team never touches a beet.
Our version of a spicy Margarita is called the What Grows Together. To make it, we use last season’s serrano peppers, which we preserved by lacto-fermentation in a 3 percent salt brine for seven to 10 days. So that spicy, briny fermentation liquid will go into the drink. But then, we’ll take the preserved peppers and use them to infuse Cynar to give it a green pyrazine note. Building spice in this way is more interesting than just buying a spicy tequila. Then, I pass the peppers back to the culinary team to use however they see fit. Right now, they are being turned into a chili paste for the biryani rice dish. Our bar doesn’t acquire too much produce for itself, but is instead reactive to the farm and the kitchen. Beyond that, we’re all at the mercy of what’s happening in the seasons.
3. From ingredients to flavor, what luxuries get sacrificed in no-waste bar programs?
I think it’s a matter of perspective. I can speak specifically for those of us in California — we have access to many ingredients most of the year. Click a button, and you can have it. But that’s not necessarily creative. Pineapples, for example, are a beautiful, exotic ingredient that works so well in cocktails on many different levels. But I’m not going to have them at the Little Saint bar because we don’t grow pineapples around here. There are other ways you can create that flavor, for example with pineapple sage, which grows all over this region. We make a tea out of it and use it in one of our vodka cocktails so that the flavor of the spirit doesn’t overpower the delicate pineapple flavor and aroma of the herb.
I really appreciate the creativity that can come from the inherent limitations of the Little Saint bar program. I’ve been in high-end hospitality for quite some time, and for chefs at this level, it’s not about how many cool, weird things they can do or what kinds of crazy ingredients they can find, or even how many ingredients they can put on the plate. I feel the same way about the bar side of things. Can’t we just be more thoughtful about the ingredients we do have? It’s selfish to not do that.
4. Are no-waste bars going to fizzle out like most trends?
This is the only way that bars should operate in the future. Those of us who choose to work in hospitality need to be conscientious of the disruption that’s happening to our planet. Personally, I’m happy that no-waste is a trend. The idea is that more and more people will catch on, and it will go from being a trend to being part of the norm. Like when sushi first came to the United States, it was this weird raw fish thing. Now, it’s just sushi. You don’t think about it, you know?
5. How are sustainable bars vulnerable?
In a lot of ways. Cost, for one. It’s really expensive to run a bar this way, to pour into the glass spirits that are aligned with our mission — it’s expensive for distilleries to operate that way. Like Arbikie in Scotland, which makes the world’s first climate-positive vodka and gin, or 123 Organic Tequila, which is certified organic. Do you know how hard it is for a distillery to be certified organic? So we incur that cost, and for us not to pass that onto the customer could present a huge problem — but who wants $20 cocktails on the menu? There’s also the potential to be targeted if you shout your sustainability from the rooftops but don’t do it perfectly. By no means are we doing it perfectly — I don’t know anyone who is. But when thinking through the whole drink-making process and evaluating the carbon footprint of everything that goes into our beverages — down to the glassware (we source vintage) and the straws (ours are made with unbreakable stainless steel and have a 50-year lifespan) — we’re doing as much as we can, with the best intentions possible.