In The News
Bottled or tap?
In The News
Will That Be Bottled
(Shame, Shame, Shame) Or Tap (How PC)?
The newest front in the
green revolution: your water glass
By Diane Weintraub Pohl
Dylan’s “times-they-are-a-changin’” prophecy is again upon us, this time in full ecological force. We’re trading gas guzzlers for hybrids, fossil fuel for solar, industrial farming for sustainable. Bottled water for. . .tap?
At several restaurants around the country, and now in Westchester, it seems the new front in the green movement’s surge is drinking water. Tides are shifting, and the one that’s on its way out is dotted with bobbing bottles. Most of them read S. Pellegrino, Fiji, and Acqua Panna—foreign brands that, for years, have landed with tsunami force on restaurant tables throughout the country.
But that force now has to reckon with another just as powerful: chefs sworn to the local/organic/sustainable ethos. A handful of them have extended their commandments from grass-fed beef and hydroponic baby greens to domestic bottled
water and, more radically, to filtered tap water only.
The movement, not surprisingly, gestated in California as a way to reduce pollution and fuel consumption from bottling and shipping the colossal amount of bottled water Americans drink—10.8 billion wholesale dollars’ worth last year, according to the International Bottled Water Association. When ethical foodways high priestess Alice Waters gave the action her blessing, disciples nationwide took notice. Mario Batali came on board, and several county restaurateurs are following suit. The paths vary, from going cold-turkey on all bottled water in favor of filtered still and house-carbonated tap like Waters’s Chez Panisse and Batali’s Del Posto, to the middle ground of forgoing imported bottled water for domestic like Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, to the benign approach of offering the imports on request only. Lines are still being drawn and parameters are still in flux, but change is indisputably afoot.
Dan Barber is, of course, a standard bearer for local food practices. The Stone Barns’s fields produce most all his restaurant’s meat and produce, and he considers his recent switch to domestic bottled water a moral imperative. “It’s irresponsible not to look at where you are purchasing water from,” he says. “To ship it across the world seems ironic and contradictory”
For many chefs, the challenge is balancing ecological awareness with customer service. “We’re in the hospitality business,” says Peter X. Kelly, whose latest venture is the high-profile X20 Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers (see review, page 207). “Our job is to give people what they want, but we have a responsibility to do something if we’re
adversely affecting the environment.” He currently
offers Fiji and S. Pellegrino at his restaurants, but says he is “investigating the option of offering domestic brands.”
So is Harvest on Hudson Executive Chef Vincent Barcelona. The restaurant grows its own produce in its Hastings riverside gardens, and Barcelona views a switch to domestic bottled water as a natural extension. “We do as much business locally as we can,” he says.
Philip McGrath, chef/owner of Pleasantville’s Iron Horse Grill, offers domestic bottlings but says his customers usually prefer an import. “I would rather sell local Saratoga,” he says. In
Matthew Karp and Wendy Weinstein Karp of Larchmont’s Plates don’t share this dilemma. They’re sticking with their Italian label. “We cater to the tastes and enjoyment of our customers,” Weinstein Karp says. “Fine dining is about escape and fantasy,
letting stress and pressures go.” Weighing patrons down with environmental issues, she feels, is inappropriate, even hypocritical. “People are partial to a specific bottled water, just like a wine,” she says. “If you’re not going to serve imported water, you should no longer serve French Champagne or New Zealand lamb.”
At Port Chester barbecue hot spot Q, Jennifer and Jeffrey Kohn serve still spring water that is bottled for them by a Catskill producer and bears the Q label. MacMenamin’s Grill in New Rochelle is following suit with both still and sparkling water, though the MacMenamin’s label will be bottled in Maine. The innovation is good for the environment, and good for
marketing. “It’s branding for us,”
Jennifer Kohn says.
Marketing, in fact, has been the
engine that has thrust the bottled water industry into overdrive. The product’s image is of fresh, pure flows gurgling up from pristine mountain springs. The reality is not so chaste. Many brands are industrially produced, and no brand has to meet the stringent Environmental Protection Agency and New York State regulations that tap water does. (Bottled water is monitored by the Food and Drug Administration, with considerably milder standards.) “It’s a complete misconception that by drinking bottled water, you’re getting something better,” says Westchester County Commissioner of Health Dr. Joshua Lipsman. “Our public water is safe, abundant, and delicious. This great gift of clean drinking water has been devalued by the bottled-water industry.”
Some environmental groups dispute the “safe and clean” claims, accusing the EPA last autumn of deregulating the spraying of pesticides over the nation’s waterways. Dr. Lipsman reports that Westchester’s water supply is tested for pesticides at least once every 18 months, and says that, to date, “pesticides have never been found.”
Still, some restaurants buy costly high-tech filtration systems. Peter Kelly’s servers automatically pour filtered tap water—at no extra charge—and inform patrons of its pedigree. “The majority of my customers prefer it to bottled water,” he reports. Plates’s seltzer infusions are filtered-tap-water-based, as is Q’s iced tea. At Blue Hill, Dan Barber’s housemade seltzer espouses
his philosophy: “The more people become aware of their purchases, the more restaurateurs will have to respond. It’s about consciousness.” —DWP
Bottled Water To The Test
Is there a taste difference between bottled waters? Between bottled water and tap water? Two gourmet-shop owners, Hassan Jarane of Mint Premium Foods in Tarrytown and Norma Olarte-Becker of Café Norma in Armonk, as well as County Watermaster Gina D’Agrosa came to our offices to taste-test still water, sparkling water, and the stuff that comes out of our taps. (Never heard of a watermaster before? Apparently, a watermaster is responsible for all things water in a designated area—from water quality to supply.) And? See the accompanying chart. Our tasters all agreed that New York tap water had a chlorine aftertaste. “Municipalities use chlorine as a disinfectant” says D’Agrosa, “but, if you let tap water sit in an open container for a bit, the chlorine will dissipate. It’s good-tasting and costs less than bottled water.” And, don’t we all know, politically correct.