Jesse Ziff Cool opened her first restaurant in 1976 using local, organic and sustainable ingredients. Back then, she says, few people knew what those words meant. "My philosophy was to work with what was in season," she says. "I didn't have meat on my menu until I could find it with no hormones, and I only used seafood caught in the right way."
For Cool, who grew up in a small coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh, food was a way of life. Her uncle owned a slaughterhouse so she "always knew where things came from and where my food was grown—it was just part of the integrity of the way my family lived and ate." The experience fostered a "connection to where things came from, and what was real. It's not okay to intrude on any living creature—from plants, to animals, to seafood—without carefully considering who we are in the equation, and who we impact. There is respectfulness in my company."
Local connections are paramount. Cool has a seafood purveyor that she trusts implicitly to find fish that are caught in the right way. "I call him the keeper of the gate," she says, "the protector of seafood. He watches out for all my companies, and knows the standard by which we buy fish."
It all boils down to the "integrity of how someone catches food, treats the environment, and treats the people who work there—and that carries through to seafood. I don't choose seafood according to what's the most chi-chi or glamorous or exciting. My choices are more in line with the ethics of food."
One way to limit environmental impact is to choose seafood at the bottom of the food chain. With this in mind, she serves a lot of "little fish." One of her best-selling appetizers is crispy sardines, prepared with spicy seaweed salt and meyer lemon.
When it comes to buying seafood, Cool recommends asking plentiful questions of your supplier. "If they don't know the answer, say "I'll be back." This way, one by one, we're able to let others know we care about real food and real people.
"What my dad taught me was that you don't hurt your neighbor. When you know where your food comes from, that's a relationship of mutual trust—that's not elitist, it's old world."