Interview by Kyle Calian
Could you describe your path to what you're doing now? How did you end up at Lighthouse?
Naama Tamir: When I moved here from Israel in the year 2000 as a student and an immigrant, the two optional jobs were baby-sitting and working in restaurants, and so that's exactly what I did. I went to school at Hunter College for philosophy and psychology, and somewhere along the way, I realized that though I really loved academia, my real passion was restaurants. I just loved serving people. I loved talking to people. I felt like it wasn't even work, like I was hanging out and getting paid for it.
I worked in different places, often with my brother. Through working together and going out to eat, we developed our own ideas around the [food] industry. Part of it was a lack of transparency. I felt that there was a disconnect between the idea that what you're making will end up in someone else's body. I think food has to be delicious, absolutely, but it also has to be nutritious. We want to be responsible and honor that trust.
It shouldn’t be just about the chef's creative aspirations or whatever is hot on the market. Food is what your mother used to do when you were a baby, feeding you breast milk. The connection that what you eat today is your body the next day was something that I thought was lost at that time. It was just the ‘food awakening’ or the ‘foodie movement.’
Another aspect was the enormous amount of waste. I grew up in Israel, where farm work was part of the curriculum — actually working the fields. Weeding, planting, composting, everything that needs to be done on a farm.
I love nature and being around it. As kids, my parents took us mushroom foraging in the winter, asparagus picking in the Spring, we would pick almejas from the sea, which are tiny little clams. I am fascinated by ecosystems and biomimicry, I just see us as all being a part of it.
So that connection was always really there for me. I love nature and being around it. As kids, my parents took us mushroom foraging in the winter, asparagus picking in the Spring, we would pick almejas from the sea, which are tiny little clams. I am fascinated by ecosystems and biomimicry, I just see us as all being a part of it.
Being in this very urban environment (NYC) where everyone moves so fast and everyday items are single-use and easily disregarded was overwhelming … The early 2000s were an era with a lot of money and corporate cards and so much excess. And I thought there has to be a better way. I didn't know what it was, but a seed was planted.
Another reaction we felt was that service became a little less loving and warm, and there was this “Brooklyn cool service” like, oh, you're lucky to be here. Where for us, someone sitting down at your table is like hosting friends at home. Make them feel welcome and safe and taken care of.
It was very meaningful for me to create a place that embraced humans, especially in New York, which can be cold and lonely. I was craving a place that embraced you, that said, "Hey, you're home or you're here. How can we make you happy? How can we do this great?" — a place that creates connectivity and community.
Then, just before we opened, I went to Israel to visit for my nephew’s bar mitzvah, and jetlagged I found myself watching the science channel. I happened upon a documentary called “Cradle To Cradle,” and I'm sitting there watching it and having the biggest aha moment I've ever had in my life. I called my brother and said, "I know why we're opening a restaurant. We're opening a restaurant to reinvent what restaurants are like."
And I told him about this movie, and I immediately ordered a bunch of books to read.
Yeah, “Cradle To Cradle” and “The Upcycle.” It really shifted the way I was thinking. All of a sudden, I had a plan. I had this blueprint and this real incredible way to think and talk about solutions, rather than the problem. I really love their positive approach, solving and addressing issues through design and good systems. It didn’t occurred to me before — to take a really wholistic mindful approach to problem-solving where everything is a part of the equation.
The animals, the quality of soil, water, air, the earth, the people, the human spirit and creativity. It's a win, win, win, win, win, win situation, which was just so inspiring. So we decided that that's what we're going to do — we're going to create this beautiful restaurant that encompasses these wonderful values.
And then we came to the action of it, and I realized that none of those systems were in existence and that being a sustainable restaurant was so much harder than I imagined… Parts of it were impossible at first, because we built a restaurant with our own hands and without real investors. Budget was definitely a challenge, but we decided to do what we could and continue to work on it and find partners because that was the answer to being sustainable. You can't do any of it by yourself. It's about building a community and collaborating and finding people that have the same values.
So, for example, we had a neighbor that was dying fabric organically using little bits of organic waste — onion peels, avocado skins and pits, beet tops ... It was a drop in the bucket, but it was a start … Then, a friend of mine introduced us to the incredible Billion Oyster Project, so we started separating our oyster shells to be upcycled as oyster reefs in the New York harbor.
In terms of being a part of a healthy food system, a major part is sourcing, knowing what kind of meat we wanted to use, using seasonal ingredients.
In terms of being a part of a healthy food system, a major part is sourcing, knowing what kind of meat we wanted to use, using seasonal ingredients. Over time, we started naming these processes. Our purchasing process is called voting with money, and I'm a huge believer that buying from companies, brands and people that share your values is one of the most meaningful and influential ways to positively impact this world.
[Those experiences] changed my mind about consumerism. For so long I was this pragmatic minimalist, and now I think, well, it's an opportunity to support someone that's doing something wonderful, someone who has more than one bottom line.
Cool. Well you just answered-
All of them? I do talk.
[Laughs]. What's the story behind the name?
Lighthouse is a metaphor for being a beacon of light. We really believe in being mindful, in doing things right, that it's possible to source well, pay good wages and be a financially viable business. It is advantageous to treat people well and to pay them as much as possible, rather than as little. Lighthouse is a human-centric kind of place. So it's all of these things. We want to set an example, and we want to be a beacon of light.
It is advantageous to treat people well and to pay them as much as possible, rather than as little. Lighthouse is a human-centric kind of place.
That's our way to change the world. I think we've made a few unsavory turns as humanity and instead of talking about the negative, we feed people good food and treat them with respect and love, with the hope that when they leave here they'll be kinder to the next person.
My brother who came up with the name says Lighthouse is for the drunken sailors of the sea. A place to gather and come together, a safe place for immigrants and all those connotations.
Shifting the conversation just a little bit, you already talked about your childhood experiences with foraging, going to find mussels, oysters, and things like that. Outside of that, in terms of your own education when it came to sustainability and agriculture, where did that start?
It began when I moved here and I realized that my body was reacting to the food differently, because it was just so used to more natural clean food, the Mediterranean diet … I think immediately some things spiked and I was like, oh, that's weird.
So, for example, the milk tasted different, meat tasted different. I gained some weight. I craved food in a different kind of way, and as a curious human being, I started learning about it. I read “Fast Food Nation” and “My Year of Meats,” and the wheels started turning.
So a little bit of education, a little bit of popular culture and being in tune with my body.
And walking into a GreenMarket and … well that is just pure beauty.
Yeah, it's something to take in, for sure. In terms of menu creation, how do you pick menu items? I know some things change seasonally, so how do you make those decisions?
I go to the market almost every week to shop and observe. When you're ordering off a site you don’t always understand how far food travels and what's really in season. So I like to see it and feel it and talk to the farmers.
The menu changes seasonally. There are big changes over the seasons, and then we have micro seasons. Asparagus and ramps have a very short season. So we do some specials, and we play around. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
You've mentioned your Israeli upbringing. How has Israeli cuisine affected your approach to cooking?
We have these basic ingredients — tomatoes, herbs, tahini, olive oil. I’s all very simple and relies on the quality of the ingredients, so the food is very flavorful but also clean, healthy and easy to digest. For example, herbs bring so much flavor, they have incredible health benefits, and they enhance savoriness so you can use less salt.
Right, and they're also naturally medicinal in many ways. It's one of the funny things I've noticed about American cuisine and some people who are traditionally used to eating American. I'm Mediterranean as well, and my grandmother would cook with boundless herbs. But that’s almost nonexistent in American cuisine. It's crazy.
The main herb is corn syrup.
Yep, and you can see its effect on health. To me, herbs are a cornerstone of a healthy diet. A diet that lacks in herbs, also vegetables, but herbs specifically because of some their anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory properties is just that, lacking.
Food is medicine.
Let thy food be thy medicine. Exactly. If there was one thing you could tell readers to do to have a bigger impact, what would it be?
Be informed about your consumption, demand transparency. Be it food, fashion, books, cleaning supplies. It's such a simple way to support the good players. I think knowing how staff is treated is oftentimes overlooked. But to me, that's a big part of sustainability, too — making sure that we're building a sustainable system where everyone gets to participate and no one is left behind.
I think knowing how staff is treated is oftentimes overlooked. But to me, that's a big part of sustainability, too — making sure that we're building a sustainable system where everyone gets to participate and no one is left behind.
I'm really proud that my cooks can afford to eat at Lighthouse, and part of our mission is to make good food affordable.
I think if we all become diligent about it, companies will pay attention, and it will become a part of their bottom line. There are a lot of corporations out there that are lowering their costs, but the cost is hiding in our soil, our air, our water, our well-being.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Favorite cocktail at Lighthouse:
Negroni or Foggy Dog
Favorite dish at Lighthouse:
Favorite dish you've had recently outside of Lighthouse:
Steak tartare at the Hoxton Hotel
(chef: Matt Deliso).
Favorite episode of “Parts Unknown” by Anthony Bourdain:
French Polynesia. They're eating crab that tastes like coconut.
Favorite park in New York:
Central Park and also that one on Grand right by the water right here. It's a good place to think – Grand Ferry Park.