Jin Yang: Boise Co-op Culinary Director, Chef, Fisherman, Sustainability Warrior 

By the time Jin Yang started working in the kitchen at Bamboo Sushi, an eco-friendly, fish-focused restaurant in Portland, Oregon, he had already cut his teeth on the tenets of sustainability. In fact, he credits his fisherman father with making the philosophy part of his life since childhood.

"As a child I used to pick up trash. I used to have bags of garbage in my trunk, and me and my friends would stop and pick up trash [on the roads]," Yang said, "And I've fished my whole life, so that's always meant something. That's something that my father and I did." Even now, Yang said, he sneaks off when he can for stints of commercial fishing in Alaska, in what he described as the planet's healthiest fishery.

It was a background that would serve him well at Bamboo (and later at the Boise Co-op), even though his early cooking leaned heavily on fried chicken and mashed potatoes—staples from his upbringing in Charleston, South Carolina. By 2016, Yang was named one of the world's most innovative sustainable chefs by Uproxx, which placed him alongside pros from around the world. Bamboo went so far as to track the carbon footprint of each of its dishes, aiming to spread what Yang called the "gospel" of sustainable eateries. But it was his next job, as a corporate executive chef at Sustainable Restaurant Group, that brought him to Boise. When his co-worker Michelle Andersen became the Boise Co-op's first-ever CEO in February, Yang followed her east, pulled in by the Co-op's tight-knit team and the siren song of recreation in the Boise foothills.

His first goal, he said, is a healthy culture. Yang has a lot of buzzwords, and trust and respect top the list. They're feelings he hopes to foster not just in his team but the community.

"Everyone has a soulful reason why they shop at places now," Yang said, pointing to the Co-op's green initiatives and local emphasis. "Not just because it's cheapest. ... I think our generation and the future generations coming up, we have a deeper care in how our money affects [things]. That dollar is kind of a vote in what the future holds."

By early April, when he met with BW at the Co-op's wine bar, Uncorked!, he had already started to audit the grocery's prepared foods menu, adding his own recipes, raising the profile of local, seasonal produce and removing allergens, like swapping tamarind (soy paste) for nutritional yeast in a vegan recipe. That way, he said, he could keep the dish's umami flavor without making it off-limits for people with soy allergies.

"Every time I'm formulating recipes all of those things are in my mind," he said. "How can I cook as gluten-free as possible? How can I cook as paleo as possible? I can't make everybody happy with every single recipe ... That's the biggest challenge in any restaurant, in any co-op, in any situation when it's dealing with food."

Yang also plans to add more food demos and cooking classes to the Co-op's roster, helping solidify the farm-to-table process for customers.

click to enlarge Boise Co-op's new deli containers can be composted slowly at home, but not through the City of Boise's short-turnover compost program. - COURTESY BOISE CO-OP
  • Courtesy Boise Co-op
  • Boise Co-op's new deli containers can be composted slowly at home, but not through the City of Boise's short-turnover compost program.

"Moving forward, we have beautiful relationships with the farms and all of the local stuff that we have right now, and I just want to integrate that and showcase that a little more. I have a million ideas," he said.

Right now, he's splitting his time between the two locations of the Co-op and his house, where he works on recipes while fending off his cat (which likes to sleep on his computer keyboard).

Yang's job at the Co-op goes beyond the food itself, extending to its packaging and presentation to customers—two areas where he saw room for improvement, particularly considering the changes to Boise's recycling rules that reclassified the deli's plastic clamshells containers as trash. Just a few weeks after BW sat down with Yang, the Co-op announced that it had officially embarked on a change to its deli packaging, replacing the non-recyclable clamshells with plant-based, slow-compostable Eco Products.

"We're fighting, quote-unquote, against these large corporations that have been telling us how to shop, what to buy and what we need to have," Yang said. In Boise, he's on the front lines.

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