Can Luxury and Sustainability Coexist?

Can Luxury and Sustainability Coexist?

“These wines were created to give back,” the sommelier tells our table. She’s talking about ONEHOPE, a California winery with charitable and environmental components built into the business model. It funds hunger relief efforts, tree plantings, aiding in natural disaster relief, and scores of other programs. The Terranea Resort, where I’m part of a two-day press tour to experience its farm-to-table and sustainability initiatives, is a partner with ONEHOPE, just one of its many efforts to up its eco image.

“I’ll have the veal,” says the girl sitting next to me.

I do a double-take. When the waiter asked our table if anyone has any dietary restrictions, I discover I’m the only vegan at our table of seven. The woman on my other side condescendingly taps my arm and says, “good for you,” like something you’d overhear being said to someone who’s just returned from the Peace Corps or ran a marathon after beating cancer. I’m not used to being congratulated for my dietary choice — especially by a person who will soon be chewing on octopus tentacles.

The chef is shaving white truffles onto our dishes with such vigor it feels like it’s keeping us all alive. I think it is for the woman across from me who keeps raving about the white truffles she ate in Italy. My own dinner is an off-menu bowl of “market” vegetables. I eat a few of the brussels sprouts but leave the unexpected pile of cocktail onions and melon-balled turnips for the compost pile while my dinner mates ooh and aah over their carcass-stacked plates.

I can’t help but wonder why there’s no vegan option that’s not a salad or a side — or better yet, a separate vegan menu — at a place like this. Surely Terranea’s clientele includes affluent and educated consumers who stock their fridges with nondairy milk, tofu, and veggie sausage, even if they do still eat animal products, too. Instead of being wowed by creations like I know exist at a steakhouse just 30 minutes north in Santa Monica, I  feel like I’m at a steakhouse in the midwest thirty years ago. The tablemates seem satisfied, though; not just at the arguably unsustainable foods they’ve eaten (veal contribute not only their own methane to the atmosphere but as a byproduct of the dairy industry, even more methane from their mothers), but at everything the resort representatives are telling us about how perfect the place seems to be. I’m a little annoyed with myself that I don’t feel like such a willing accomplice to such blissful ignorance.

view from the Catalina View Garden

It’s not that I find resort life offensive. Quite the opposite. Before becoming a mother, frequent jaunts to resorts were part of my DNA. I’m getting a little misty-eyed now just thinking about how infrequent those visits have become these days with weekends filled up instead with birthday parties for preschoolers rather than last-minute trips to hot springs, my favorite. No, I’m having a hard time because I’m failing to maneuver decadence and sustainability into the same field of existence in my head — something Terranea seems to have no problem with. My brain can only see them like clear plastic sheets with partial drawings laid on top of each other to make it appear like one picture. But they’re not actually part of the same page at all. The waiter scrapes away my meager pile of onion crumbs.

The Terranea Resort is located in beautiful Rancho Palos Verdes, the literal southern tip of Los Angeles County, a peninsula. It was the last approved coastal resort in the state — there won’t be any more built in a long, long time, per current coastal preservation regulations that now prevent such construction. It sits on 100 acres, with a clear and fairly stunning view of Catalina Island. The resort, which employs more than 1,500 people, is a lush seaside escape overgrowing with coral trees, bougainvillea, agave, rosemary, and all kinds of native plants. It’s a destination for weddings, business retreats, and celeb getaways (I swear I saw Adam Scott entering the restaurant as we were leaving on the second night).

Not quite a mile down the road from the resort is the Catalina View Gardens where Terranea leases a few plots to grow lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, beets, onions, and herbs. It harvests meyer lemons from the fruit trees on the 95-acre garden property. The staff also harvest avocado, olives, and honey — which comes from the one-hundred-thousand bees that pollinate there. It has also recently acquired six chickens (the story is a resort guest gifted them to the head chef when she could no longer keep them). The hens produce about an egg each a day, and the plan is to expand the hen house and add more room and more birds. The eggs go into select dishes as does the daily produce haul.

The view from the top of the garden is stunning. It’s quiet, save for the squawks from the red tail hawks circling above the chicken coop. It’s peaceful in that way 95 acres of old growth olive trees, rows and rows of wine grapes, avocado trees, and sweeping ocean views make you feel. It’s a retreat in its own right, confusing me even further.

All of this is a big selling point for the resort. There are packages that allow visitors to tag along with executive chef Bernard Ibarra as he visits the gardens and harvests ingredients. But the majority of the resort’s ingredients, like most food service entities, come from distributors. And being a California-based resort means most fruits and vegetables are considered “local” by default — we grow an immense amount of fresh produce here: 99 percent of artichokes, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots for the entire United States are grown in-state. In other words, it doesn’t take much to slap a “local” label onto your menu.

After the garden tour, we head to lunch where we’re met with the resort’s sustainability leader, Lauren Bergloff. She’s bubbly and passionate about her job. With a conservation background, she actually started at Terranea as a hostess, moving on to give the daily nature tours of the property, and then evolving that into her current role. She was just at a conference in New York with other hotel and resort staff all working to solve the sustainability issues of running such intensive operations.

She expounds on the resort’s efforts to minimize its food waste. In just the first two weeks in November it donated 500 pounds of food. At that rate, it’ll be giving away close to 12,000 pounds a year — and that’s only edible, properly stored food. She couldn’t produce the number of how much will actually be tossed out. Still, the resort is aware of the problem, turning some food waste into grey water, which is being sent right down into the sewer line. It’s trying to be creative in other ways, like with fruit peels, for example, turning them into fruit-infused drinking water.

At one point, the conversation turns toward President Trump’s reversal of the ban on elephant trophies (he’s since reversed his reverse putting the ban back into place). “I love elephants!” says Bergloff. “They’re my favorite animal.” She eats more of her tuna poke bowl. I dig into the Mediterranean falafel bowl — the only vegan-friendly menu item that isn’t a garden salad. And as I stare out at the Pacific Ocean — the restaurant has a fabulous view — I can’t help but feel like the (other) endangered fish at the table. Or, more accurately, the endangered fish out of water.

Dinner would sadly be more of the same — my tablemates discuss the texture nuances of beef tongue and duck meat. I try to stomach my edamame by gazing out at a tiki torch off in the distance like I’m on a boat trying to steady my queasiness by staring at the horizon.

vegan dessert — sweet potato mousse

After dinner, we wind down the halls to meet Pierino “Perry” Jermonti, the resort’s executive pastry chef who’s arranged a special tasting for us in the kitchen. I’m shocked to see three of the four desserts are vegan. After two days of barely a fully vegan dish on the menu without modification, this feels like the 21st century. I breathe a sigh of relief. As he talks about his process, Jermonti lights up with excitement about the need to cater to this demographic. And I find this most unusual as baking is much more a fine science than cooking is; it’s easier to improvise a bowl of noodles and veggies than to take chances with baking soda and cornstarch in place of eggs, for example. But not only does Jermonti understand the need for vegan sweets, his creativity in producing them is commendable. A cranberry chocolate cheesecake, a sweet potato mousse. He seems to be the only chef here who’s embraced plant-based food as a challenge rather than a chore. This sweet ending takes a bit of the bitter edge off.

Running a 100+ room resort is inherently the opposite of sustainable. You’ve got lights on 24 hours a day. There’s the laundry, the dishes, the elevators, the pool heaters, the constant cleaning and cooking and maintenance. Does that mean we should never vacation? Of course not.

But is picking lettuce from across the road really making a difference in all of it? And more than that, why are plant-forward menu items so absent from this place claiming to be so 21st century sustainable? The world’s leading climate scientists all agree that animal agriculture is the biggest cause of methane — a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2. There’s no way around it, no matter how “buttery” the filet mignon is. Despite poke being one of the hottest trends in seafood right now, it’s also sourced from one of the least sustainable fish populations on the planet (yellowfin tuna), even if suppliers insist that it’s not. Considering too there’s so much fish fraud in the world, the risks just seem to consistently outweigh those few moments of pleasure one presumably gets from scarfing down a bowl of marinated fish bits.

I know people eat animal products. More than ninety percent of the U.S. population is not vegan. But do they have to eat animals at every meal? Diet preferences are changing. Flexitarianism, not veganism, is driving the growth of plant-based foods. And I can’t help but wonder if a resort — a vacation from our ordinary lives — should also be a vacation from our presumably normally unsustainable diet habits (my meager bowl of cocktail onions the exception).

We can’t have our steak and eat it, too. Or can we? Because it really seems like we do, somehow, keep stuffing these offenders into our faces all while insisting “someone” should be doing “something” to reverse this dire climate crisis that could wipe out a resort like Terranea. And that hypocrisy, I think, is our great undoing. Even if we’re offsetting a bit of carbon by reducing food waste or funding someone’s effort to plant a tree in Uganda with every sip of sparkling wine as we watch the sun set over the Pacific.

garden plot at Terranea

My mind reels. I think of my daughter. What world are we leaving our children if we eat all the tuna and octopuses and steal baby cows from their mothers and call that sustainable?  A study published just last Monday imagined what the U.S. would look like if we stopped eating animal products. Not surprisingly, we’d increase our food productions 23 percent and decrease GHG emissions nearly 30 percent.

What’s most frustrating though is this resort’s lack of understanding that vegan food is delicious food. It’s often decadent, too. And it’s most certainly the most sustainable option worthy of more than a token “falafel bowl” or curry on a menu filled with dozens of meat-based entrees.

While my media mates guzzled down animal after animal with seemingly no regard — either for the animals themselves (and the consequences) or the awkward (at this point, stereotypically angry) vegan at the table — the conversations occasionally turns to animal sentience, and not at my suggestion, either. This keeps happening perhaps as a plea to placate me or to justify their own quandary about who they’ve just eaten. Someone asks the table if they saw a video of an octopus escaping through a hole. They have. Another mentions a video where after being released into the wild, an octopus appears to thank the human releasing it by wrapping a tentacle gently around his hand. I awkwardly bring up Sy Montgomery’s book “The Soul of an Octopus.” It’s a book I have a lot of issues with, too; the author comes of as self-important and entitled. Like my dinner mates, she can marvel at the intelligence of one creature while eating another. But the book succeeds in delivering powerful anecdotes about these mysterious mollusks who use tools, make friendships, and show emotion. The table shuffles around plates of short ribs and quail eggs. I dip grilled shishito peppers into hot sauce and do my best not to run off and hug a squirrel.

Still. I get it. A place like Terranea with its undeniable immersion in nature can change someone’s perspective. Take a whale watching tour or hike up to a tide pool and that can alter you for life. Vacations do that. It’s why we take them. But can sustainability truly exist in a place like this? I’m not sure I can answer that. But I do know one thing: A few farm-to-table ingredients and efforts to reduce food waste are not enough if we’re not looking at what else, or in this case, who else, is actually on our plates in the first place.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.