The water in Long Island Sound was barely 52 degrees on a recent cool November day, but Bun Lai, wearing only a pair of borrowed underpants, gardening gloves, and flippers, was intent on going clam diving. With his skin covered in goose bumps and twitching with shivers, he and his buddy Will Reynolds sat on the side of Lai’s boat, the Wabi-sabi. “Man, the things we’ll do for chicks!” Lai yelled, as my colleague and I looked on. Reynolds laughed through his snorkel, sounding like a kazoo. With a self-motivating scream and a count to three, the two pitched forward into the frigid water. The last sight was of their flippers, propelling them down ten feet to the thick gray silty home of the delectable bivalves. Thirty seconds later, Lai emerged, fists in the air. “Two clams right here!” he yelled. Reynolds surfaced, seconds later, with the same haul. They filled a floating laundry basket in ten minutes. “I don’t think I have a penis anymore,” Lai said as he finally hauled himself back onto the boat. “That’s okay. My mom always wanted another girl.”
Lai owns Miya’s Sushi, which he says is the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world. Ten years ago, he took over the restaurant that his mother had opened in New Haven, Connecticut in 1982, and nearly led the place to bankruptcy. He says this experience forced him to start taking the business more seriously. A few years later when it was once again stable, he radically changed the menu from traditional sushi to unique inventions with environmental and sociopolitical benefits. Gradually, Lai removed popular seafood items from his menu that he knew were overfished or caused damage to other species or habitats during harvest. Freshwater eel, called unagi, was one of the first to go. It is popular in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cuisine, but its populations are in dramatic decline because of habitat loss and overharvesting. Taking it off the menu scared away many of his customers and alienated several of his more traditional chefs, but Lai hoped it would pay off by teaching his customers and his community about sustainability. Last year, he eliminated tuna and shrimp—two of the most popular items in most sushi restaurants. He targeted shrimp because of the high bycatch. For every shrimp caught, between three and 15 other fish die in the nets. “These dishes had brought in $450,000 a year to our restaurant,” he said, “but we haven’t suffered any loss in income due to the changes.”
Lai’s 60-page menu is a work in progress as he continues to identify and remove ingredients that aren’t locally-grown or sustainably-harvested. Nearly every mouth-watering dish comes with a cultural, political, or environmental lesson like how rabbit, an ingredient in his Peanut Butter and Jelly Roll, “can provide six times the meat on the same feed as a cow.” Healthy eating is another important goal for Lai, and he offers his healthiest dishes for the same price as a Big Mac.
We first met Lai, 42, and his friend Reynolds, 30, at a dock on Long Island Sound. They had promised to show us the source of many of his sushi ingredients. Looking nothing like a serious restauranteur or social activist, Lai sat shirtless and chatting with his wetsuit sleeves dangling at his sides. They led us to the boat and asked if we knew how to back it out of the dock. At first we thought he was joking, but this was only Lai’s ninth trip piloting solo in the boat he purchased in August. The tiny, rocky islands, collectively called the Thimble Islands, support seaweed that he uses in his miso soup, the shallow waters provide extensive habitat for shellfish, and he scours the beaches for Asian Shore crabs.
About 15 minutes from the shore, we anchored at a tiny island covered in dark purple seaweed. As we sat perched on the side of the boat in our wetsuits, ready to jump into the water for a seaweed harvesting trip that day, Lai joked that he had lost two employees to shark attacks while diving in these waters. Lai delivers his jokes deadpan, so we didn’t relax until Reynolds assured us that the waters were safe.
Later that evening we enjoyed a king’s banquet of gorgeously displayed dishes at the restaurant. Lai frequently left our table to visit other diners, many of whom he had never met before. Lai wants to change how people think about what they eat, so he often gives his diners a free sushi roll to try while he explains where the ingredients come from. He also likes to share what he’s learned about his ingredients with people outside his restaurant. To this end, he recently provided several dishes for Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History’s edible insect cooking demonstration. He served fried rice with mealworms and crickets and also prepared a non-insect treat—an invasive pest called the Asian Shore crab. He was delighted to watch a little girl aged one and a half and her five-year-old brother devour them in handfuls. Insects, which are a rich source of protein and convert the food they eat into body protein three times more efficiently than cows, are a normal part of the daily diet in 80 percent of the world’s nations.
Lai’s menu regularly features invasive species that are damaging the natural environment. “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em,” read the headline of one recent article about Lai’s restaurant. For example, two of the three varieties of seaweed in his miso soup—Rockweed and Dead Man’s Fingers—crowd out native species and threaten the coast’s natural ecology. The Asian Shore crabs, as their name implies, are not native to the US either. Lai features them in a dish called Kanibaba, a sushi roll with tender crab meat wrapped in brown rice and potato skin, in place of a seaweed wrapper, and drenched in an organic Havarti cheese and lemon dill sauce. Perched on top is one of these inch-wide crabs, steamed to a lobster red color. Once you get past the initial trepidation of crunching into a crustacean with eyes and legs fully intact, it tastes like popcorn.
Lai believes that sustainability is a work in progress. A local ingredient’s environmental impact fluctuates with the seasons, with climate change, and with its popularity. To Lai, being sustainable means keeping track of these changes and knowing the effect his food has on the environment. He corresponds with scientists, farmers, and fishermen for advice on how to choose his ingredients responsibly. At the American Fisheries Society’s annual meeting last August, Lai fed over 2,000 people and participated in an exchange of ideas about sustainable seafood with the scientists in attendance. And last June, he partnered with the Thimble Island Oyster Company to launch Connecticut’s first community-supported fishery, which operates on the same principle as a land-based farm share. Members pay a collective of fishermen and then pick up their share of the catch. The wild plants on Lai’s menu come from his friend’s farm in Ledyard, Connecticut, and he gets the tilapia that he uses in place of tuna from the Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture School.
Lai continues to hunt for new ingredients. Right now, he is experimenting with jellyfish whose populations are exploding, likely due to the overharvesting of predator species. He plans to buy his own farm to begin growing more of his own terrestrial ingredients. He has also arranged for his staff of 20 to take scuba lessons to explore the waters around New Haven, so they can have a better understanding of where the food they serve comes from. “People either love us or they hate us,” said Lai, “but once they come in and eat our delicious food, they understand a little better about why eating sustainably is so important.”