Bun Lai leapt off the side of his small motor boat into the Long Island Sound. He swam a few strokes toward the horizon and calmly treaded water. Suddenly, he dove down, with a graceful kind of flip at the surface and a flutter of his feet before they submerged. When he popped back up, he proudly displayed a large hard-shell clam in each hand.
Lai forages for many of the ingredients he uses at Miya’s Sushi, the restaurant he runs in downtown New Haven. Farther out in the Sound, he leases over 100 acres of shellfishing grounds, where he and his staff dive for mussels, clams and oysters. On his farm in Woodbridge, he allows garden weeds like chickweed and lambsquarters to grow freely, and he harvests them along with the rest of his crops. When he orders shipments from afar, he likes to support other people’s time-honored and responsible practices; his lionfish are speared by locals on the Yucatan peninsula, and he relies on a lone Florida fisherman for his supply of pink shrimp.
Lai gathered the members of our ragtag diving crew just as he forages ingredients for his dishes. He had met Francois, a South African doctor visiting Yale for a conference on public health, three days earlier at Miya’s. Francois had asked for a bottle of firecracker sake to take home with him, and before the end of the night, Lai had convinced him to skip out early on the conference and join our expedition. Max — a part-time brewer, vintner, farmer and recent divorcee — was crashing at his parents’ apartment in New Haven when Lai recruited him over a bowl of miso soup. I had first met Lai when I came to interview him at Miya’s — less than 48 hours before the dive.
We dropped anchor near the remains of an old pier — now a series of tilted and slimy wooden poles—and bobbed gently in a still bay ringed by beach houses and summer rental condos. Lai explained that hard-shell clams live in shallow water in patches of soft mud. He gave us each a pair of cloth gloves but only the barest advice on how to clam.
“Swim as fast as you can down and rake your hands around. It’s like picking rocks off the bottom,” he said.
My ears hurt from the pressure every time I dove, and when I finally reached the bottom, I only had a second or two to rummage before I needed to launch myself up again. I took a few moments between dives to catch my breath and float about; the occasional gust of September wind blew by, but the water temperature was still in summer. On probably my 15th dive, I grasped at something that indeed felt like a rock. I cleaned off the mud from the outside of the shell and swam back toward the boat.
Lai never had any real culinary training before he was put in charge of Miya’s. His mom, Yoshie Lai, had owned the restaurant since he was little, but Lai only began to help out — serving and bussing dishes — after he left college. Miya’s sushi chef at the time had been through the apprentice system in Japan and was secretive about his trade.
“The chef back in those days wouldn’t show us anything,” Lai told me.
Lai and his young coworkers had to teach themselves whatever they wanted to learn.
“After the chef went home, we’d open up cheap cans of beer, and we’d go back there and start messing around.”
When Miya’s parted ways with its traditional sushi chef, Lai took the reins, guided only by the results of these experiments and a few hasty lessons from a generous sushi chef in Hamden.
“In a lot of ways, I wasn’t part of the food world. I didn’t know who many of the famous chefs were. I never read cookbooks,” he told me. “We were so naïve and isolated — it was like the Galapagos Islands. Good and bad ideas just happen here.”
One of the good ideas was plant-based sushi. Traditional sushi — what Miya’s had been serving for over a decade — contains raw or cooked seafood, sometimes complemented by vegetables and herbs. Lai experimented with inverting the standard formula, making vegetables the basis for his new rolls. For a stretch , Miya’s menu became nearly 90 percent vegetarian.
Not long after Lai introduced plant-based sushi to Miya’s, he and a friend were walking along the beach when they noticed an explosion of invasive Asian shore crabs crawling about.
“I grew up right around here, flipping rocks and fishing,” he said. “When we saw those crabs, we knew that, man, we’d never seen these before.”
Asian shore crabs soon became the cornerstone of a new Miya’s menu, joined by Asian carp, Japanese knotweed, Chesapeake Bay catfish and other invasive species.
The theory behind the invasive menu, as Lai explains it, is to help out native species by consuming the competition. He thinks it may even be possible to eat the invaders into extinction.
“If you think about all these different species, from the woolly mammoth all the way to species that are threatened today—in sushi, it would be the Bluefin tuna—we know the human appetite is capable of a lot of destruction,” Lai told me, optimistically.
His dedication to innovation and sustainable cuisine has earned Lai high praise from food critics and environmentalists alike. Today, he is considered the father of plant-based sushi and is credited with the invention of the sweet potato roll, now a staple of sushi menus around the globe. By bending the strictly traditional — and often ecologically destructive — constraints of sushi, Lai has pioneered a diet for the future.
At our next diving site, Max examined the specimen he’d pulled up from the mucky sea floor. Its shell had a similar texture to the clams’, but it was not of a symmetrical form; the shell spiraled out elegantly from around a small aperture.
“What did you get there?” Lai asked, gliding toward Max. “Oh, you got a snail!” Max looked ready to toss the creature back into the water—we kept only about half of what we found— but Lai stopped him.
“Throw it in the bucket, snails are delicious!”
Most of Miya’s menu is served nowhere else on the planet. In some cases, conventional ingredients find their way into extremely unusual combinations. These include “The Roll of Milk and Honey” (figs, dates, raisins, goat cheese, cinnamon, spicy red pepper, honey, pistachio, and broccoli) and the “Hot Headed Cowgirl” (coconut fruit, Japanese pickles, and wine-soaked cashew cheese). Other dishes are based on ingredients that most people would not consider food. At Miya’s, weeds like dandelions and garlic mustard are included in sushi rolls, season soups and salads and decorate table centerpieces.
“A quarter of the plants that are growing in the gardens, that are growing wild, are edible, so it’s a complete waste of resources to not be using them,” Lai told me.
From the compost piles at his farm, Lai harvests ingredients for one of Miya’s signature dishes — black soldier fly larvae sashimi. When the larvae are ready, they climb out of the soil substrate and up a wooden ramp Lai has built for them, eventually plopping into the bottom of bucket.
“It’s a kind of animal farming,” Lai said. “The idea is that food like this is thrown out—the stuff that we’re eating.”
On our way back to the harbor, the wind picked up, drying out Lai’s straight black hair and pushing it back on both sides of the even part down the middle of his forehead. Standing behind the wheel of his motorboat in a pair of absurdly small running shorts, he looked like the captain of a Mediterranean trireme. Lai wrestled competitively during and after college and is in phenomenal shape for 45. He smiles broadly whenever he has the chance to crack a joke. His expressive face has the energy and humor of a younger man, though today his forehead was spotted by some fresh poison ivy scars. In the setting sun’s fabulous light, Lai suggested we take a photo and directed us to gather inside the boat’s prow before him.
“Bun, let someone else take it — you have to be in this!” Francois urged.
“It’s okay,” Lai tilted his phone to get us all in the shot, holding back a grin. “I’m already in magazines.”
Lai’s mom, Yoshie, opened her original “hole-in-the-wall” sushi bar in 1982 in a tiny, ground-floor space on Chapel Street, around the corner from Miya’s current location. After a few years of customers lining out the door to have a taste of New Haven’s very first sushi restaurant, Miya’s moved into its own one-story building, where it’s been ever since. When business boomed again in the early 2000s under Lai’s leadership, Miya’s expanded again, this time at the expense of cooking space.
“As a rule of thumb, restaurant kitchens are somewhere between 20 and 25 percent the space of a restaurant,” Lai told me, “but for us, it’s about 10 percent.”
Lai and his cooks, however, are clearly used to the close quarters of their narrow sushi bar. When I visit, I like to watch them as they wheel confidently around to reach for a pinch of spice to throw on a sushi platter or for a blowtorch to add a tempura finish.
In Miya’s dining room, the tables sit close together on top of a striped carpet that runs right up to the sushi bar. Marine murals decorate wall space above cabinets of cookbooks and mementos. Near the host’s desk, there’s a stand-alone fridge covered by an array of photographs—of Lai, Yoshie and guests. The ceiling is strewn with strings of round holiday lights, reminiscent of anglerfish bulbs, while just inside the restaurant’s front windows, foraged weeds and leaves diffuse into vinegar stored in rows of repurposed wine bottles.
In the corridor leading to the restrooms, and inside the restrooms themselves, diners find collages of framed magazine spreads hanging from the walls. Displaying a variety of languages and design templates, they are all thematically connected by images of Lai’s face and of artfully arranged sushi. The World Wildlife Fund credited Miya’s as “the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world.” The Obama White House recognized Lai as one of their 2016 “Champions of Change.” In a 2017 “Greatest Person of the Day” write-up, the Huffington Post called Lai the “Sustainable Sushi Guru.” The New York Times described him as “eradicating invasive species one sushi roll at a time.”
Not everyone, however, is as convinced of the impact that reporters attribute to Miya’s. Josh Galperin is a lecturer specializing in food law at the Yale School of Forestry. Galperin knows Lai and Miya’s well and has had conversations with Lai about his culinary philosophies. He believes that, following standard patterns within the food system, Lai’s conservation strategies are unlikely to succeed and fears they could even backfire. He outlined for me three reasons why converting invasive species into popular food items might be dangerous.
The first is what Galperin calls “the economic and sociological Catch-22”: “If you convince people to eat something, and they like it so much, they won’t want to get rid of it.” Once an appetite has been established for invasive species, consumers, as well as companies economically invested in the market will not want to see invasive populations dwindle.
“I have no doubt that if Lai was about to harvest the very last Asian shore crab, he would do it, and he would sell it, and that would be the end of it,” Galperin said. “He would gladly go from the Asian shore crabs to something else, if he could exterminate it, but most people probably wouldn’t be as driven by the ideology.”
The other two reasons are biological. By the time chefs are interested in moving invasive species from threatened ecosystems into their kitchens, those organisms have often already made their impact on the ecosystem. Invasive wild hogs, for example, taste the best and provide the most meat after they have reached reproductive age. And while the consumption of invasive species is supposed to limit their spread, or invasion into new ecosystems, their popularity as food items would likely have the opposite effect.
“If we have a market big enough that, in principle, it could have a biological effect,” Galperin explained, “that means we are harvesting and shipping these things across the country.”
Galperin recognizes that he is one of very few specialists who have thought through the extended consequences of exciting proposals like Lai’s, and he understands why journalists give Lai so much attention.
“It’s a positive story, it’s a story of ‘Hey, we can solve this problem. And we can do it on our own, and we don’t need government, and we don’t need complex science, we don’t need consensus, we can just start doing this,’” Galperin said.
Though Galperin is skeptical of the feasibility of eating invasive species to extinction, he told me that he believes there is great value in projects like Lai’s in the conversations they bring to the table.
“It’s an opportunity for people to participate, and when people participate, that is part of forming social movements, and solving problems that ultimately need to be solved not just at the grassroots level.”
At a conference Galperin hosted at Yale a number of years ago, a panelist suggested that McDonald’s could take a lesson from Lai, and start putting invasive Asian carp in its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. Filet-O-Fish patties are already battered, deep-fried and slathered in sauce. Practically nobody knows what type of fish is used, so nobody would notice when Asian carp was substituted in or when it was finally gone.
“And I don’t think you’d have an economic issue,” Galperin added.
McDonald’s could flip between different fish bases at little cost, so it wouldn’t have an incentive to keep Asian carp populations robust. The Filet-O-Fish sandwich weighs 2.7 ounces, and about 200,000,000 sandwiches are sold per year. Americans could eat 33,750,000 pounds of carp, or the equivalent of 675,000 individual carp, every year.
“It’s a lot, though not enough to have an actual biological impact, based on my back-of-the-envelope calculation.”
Still, according to Galperin, these kinds of projects — expansions and variations on Lai’s — are steps in the right direction.
“If your goal is to educate, and it’s not illegal, and it’s not going to make matters worse, then by all means, it’s worth doing, whether or not it works.”
Over Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at the McDonald’s on Whalley Avenue, Lai admitted that he rarely reads what is written about him. He told me about a friend of his who had recently seen an article about Miya’s in Reuters.
“She was like: ‘I didn’t know you smoked.’ And I said ‘what do you mean?’ and she was like, ‘Bun, the world knows you smoke.’”
Lai believes in the “ripple effect.” At these early stages of the sustainable food movement, it is impossible to predict, and to keep track of, all the reactions and effects that small projects like his will produce. To Lai, everything is connected in complicated ways, so it is sometimes best to keep to yourself.
“What people write about us is ultimately none of our business,” Lai said. “We have to just keep on doing what we’re doing. That goes for food critics, it goes for people in the environmental movement, it goes for everybody. We don’t have the answers — we’re putting out possibilities.”
Before we arrived, Lai claimed he had not been to a McDonald’s in eight years. Apparently, fast food is not his cuisine of choice, but he did not appear to hold any resentment for the place. When we ordered, Lai bought me a happy meal toy as a souvenir — a pullback car driven by one of the characters from Wreck-It Ralph. We moved along the counter from the register, and our meals were waiting for us inside individual boxes within seconds.
“It really is delicious,” Lai said through his first bite after we’d found a table.
Without much formal education on the political and scientific sides of the sustainable food debate, Lai still holds highly pragmatic opinions. He doesn’t allow the familiar examples of fast food chains’ environmental carelessness to minimize the positive impacts these companies can have.
“If McDonald’s were to create a market for Asian carp, that would be a really big deal,” he said. “I think that’s a great thing, I hope it happens.”
The idea that making Filet-O-Fish patties from Asian carp is only possible because people have no idea what they’re eating doesn’t thrill him, but that concern is secondary.
“No one asks what kind of fish this is,” Lai pointed to his lunch. “Is that correct? No. But that shouldn’t dissuade us from doing it.”
At the counter, we had actually waited far longer for our water than for our food. We asked for cups that we could fill up on our own, but the cashiers told us they had to prepare the drinks themselves; otherwise, we might use the cups for soda from the fountain without paying. Every McDonald’s franchise, after all, is furnished with conveniently located beverage machines, offering Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola and a variety of other sugary drinks eternally on tap. Beginning a few feet away, furniture is arranged depending on the shape and size of the particular franchise, but the chairs and tables are all designed off the same blueprints from the same plastics, and most stay nailed to the floor. The kitchens are practically identical across the board, as well as the ingredients, the trucks that deliver them and the menus that advertise them.
“When McDonald’s makes a small change, they have to make it systemwide, thousands and thousands of times over,” Lai said. “They have to have a team of people, the greatest minds at work for them — statisticians from M.I.T. — to figure out how the nickels and dimes are going to work, and how it will work within their system.”
He continued to explain to me how a small business like Miya’s can operate with such flexibility, while a large corporation requires months of planning to move an inch. Miya’s can run a constantly evolving menu of invasive species sushi rolls night after night, for example, while the logistics behind McDonald’s changing its fish base for only one dish are unimaginably complicated. The flipside, Lai reminded me, is that when a huge operation makes a change, “it creates waves that are incomparable to what a few small restaurants can possibly do.”
Though McDonald’s does not offer Asian carp on its menu yet, its Filet-O-Fish sandwich is already certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. McDonald’s orders its patties — made out of Alaska Pollock — from Espersen, a Danish fishery whose careful fishing practices ensure healthy and productive fish stocks for the future and minimize ecological interference.
Lai made it clear that McDonald’s is not governed by the same principles as Miya’s in making these kinds of decisions.
“Small businesses are driven by personalities, by individuals; big businesses are driven by profit,” he said.
When McDonald’s chooses to source its fish responsibly, it knows for certain beforehand that the extra cost will be more than repaid by increased sales.
“Just in the last handful of years, sustainability has become one of the top causes for people worldwide, and big corporations have known that it’s also good business,” Lai said.
Customers may not know, or care, what species of fish they’re actually eating, but something about the blue MSC label printed on every single Filet-O-Fish package across the United States makes it more appetizing.
If shifts in societal attitudes toward food redefine what means good business, restaurants like Miya’s can help to make a difference. Lai mentioned to me the example of fair-trade coffee.
“Fair-trade coffee was brought into cafés, not because the demand for it, but because café owners really believed in it, and they were able to convert the customers,” he recounted. “Now that the small cafés created this demand for it, then big businesses got into fair trade. It’s like a bottom-up effect.”
In the grand scope of businesses, McDonald’s and Miya’s are about as far apart as they can be, but they are both still businesses. During his years running Miya’s, Lai has learned what it means to be a businessman and has experienced stages in the restaurant’s development when his own ideals ran parallel to his business models and also when they ran opposed. If Miya’s purchased only local ingredients and did not buy any factory-farmed vegetables or fruit — as Lai wishes he could — its dishes would sell for prices that excluded many customers, perhaps too many for a small restaurant in New Haven to even survive.
“I made the decision of fighting the battles that I thought were the most important to fight but understanding that, man, we want to make food for everyone,” he admitted.
Lai takes advantage of the versatility afforded to small restaurants by welcoming different kinds of diners through a wide variety of options.
“Listen, you can get sushi at Miya’s that is definitely Michelin-star level,” Lai told me. “But you’re going to have to pay for it. Like a roll that’s thirty-five bucks and looks like something from a museum.” He paused. “The flipside is that on my new menu, there’s a lot of entry-level dinners that are priced at ten bucks. And I’m walking into McDonald’s, and they’ve got a lot of stuff hovering around ten bucks.”
Lai craned his neck to look toward the menu boards. Turning back around, he scanned the length of the restaurant. There were men and women on break from work getting their meals to go, families with small children seated around large tables or wandering back and forth from the counters for more drinks and condiments; there were white people, black people, Hispanic people, even an older Chinese man who had taken the length of our 45-minute conversation to finish a Filet-O-Fish happy meal.
“Miya’s really wants to have its doors open for everyone sitting around here at McDonald’s. They may not come in, but they are welcome.”
Matthew Kleiner | firstname.lastname@example.org .