Turning the entire operation green
Credit: Matthew Gilson

It's not easy being green if you're running a restaurant. Chefs across the land focus on the local-and-sustainable angle with regard to food, but meanwhile your average restaurant is a high-energy factory in which appliances churn and burn, loads of waste are generated, and design may focus more on "wow" than energy efficiency. Some chefs in green-leaning regions like the Northwest have been working on their carbon footprints, but lo and behold, it turns out the greenest restaurant in America, by one measure, is in Omaha, Nebraska. And it's chef-owner Clayton Chapman's first restaurant.

An Omaha native, Chapman is a new father and felt "a moral responsibility" to make The Grey Plume as ecofriendly as possible, with an eye to handing a cleaner world to his son's generation. He considers the unlikely location a bonus. "I think Omaha needed a restaurant that celebrated local food and practiced sustainability just as much as I needed to be in Omaha. But being conscious about our carbon footprint is very new to this part of the country. We're really on the forefront here."

By the time The Grey Plume opened last December, it had been recognized as top achiever by the national Green Restaurant Association (which, somewhat surprisingly, is 21 years old). More than 300 restaurants meet the GRA's minimum standards, but the Grey Plume sets the new carbon standard. Sustainably sourced food and furnishings? Check. Highly efficient use of water and energy? Yup. Recycling and composting programs? Done and done.

It didn't come cheap. Chapman estimates that The Grey Plume cost 8% more to open: "A lot of these energy-management systems are more expensive in up-front costs. We like to think they'll pay for themselves over time."

Chapman's produce is 85% local (house-made preserves, like cardamom pickled peaches, really help in the winter months) and is showcased in dishes like salad greens with pickled veggie crudités. He buys sustainable seafood and strives to use every ounce of every animal that enters the building.

But green intentions can turn to red ink if the chef can't cook. Based on our sampling, Chapman most certainly can: His sophisticated cuisine could pass muster in New York or San Francisco, while local ingredients like Nebraska bobwhite quail and Dakota Harvest lamb make it a perfect fit for the prairie.

"Omaha has more great restaurants than people presume," says Nichole Aksamit, former restaurant critic for the Omaha World-Herald. "But The Grey Plume is definitely a standout. The level of thought in it just blows me away. But it doesn't come off as preachy or even all that granola. If you didn't know it was the greenest restaurant in America when you walked in, you might leave simply thinking it was one of the most delicious and thoughtful eateries anywhere."