The Future of Food
Chef Bun Lai's Prey
Photographs by Jesus Brazon
When Chef Bun Lai took over his mother’s sushi restaurant Miya’s in New Haven, Connecticut, he didn’t set out to create the world’s first sustainable sushi restaurant. Instead with time, research and some trial and error, it felt like a natural calling.
“My mother taught us how to forage, so we grew up foraging wild plants to eat and my father used to take us out to rivers and lakes and the ocean, so as a kid I spent a lot of time fishing and catching all different types of creatures. That was really genesis of it all. It was my parents who instilled a love of the outdoors and nature.”
As an adult Chef Bun Lai began to think about sustainability and what we as people choose to eat has an impact on the earth.
In 1995 Miya’s began to introduce plant-based sushi, swapped sweetened white rice for whole-grain brown rice, and reduced its offering of fish not considered sustainable. By 2006 the menu was 80 percent was plant-based and offered only sustainable seafood. In the same year, Chef Bun Lai introduced his first invasive species menu after encountering Asian Shore Crabs on the Connecticut coastline just miles from his family’s restaurant.
The change of focus gained the restaurant international acclaim, credit as the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world, and a James-Beard nomination in 2013.
Prey is the first outpost of Miya’s outside of New Haven in its 33-year history. Working with the 1 Hotels to bring a slice of Miya’s to South Beach, Chef Bun Lai has curated a menu that offers a mix of sustainable seafood, plant-based side dishes, and plant and invasive species-based sushi. Some of the dishes are classics from the Miya’s menu. Others have been updated to reflect the Florida landscape, including plants and species that Chef Bun has procured from the area, either through foraging, hunting or diving – a practice he already does every few days for Miya’s back home in Connecticut.
“The menu is really about taking on the problems of specific ecosystems. I spent a month learning about South Florida invasive species because the ecosystem here is completely different here than what I’m used to, “ he says. During his research Chef Bun ventured into the Everglades for the first time, where he killed and ate a python – a known invasive species to Florida. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I don’t enjoy killing animals, so it was definitely heartbreaking. It was twelve-feet long and one of the most beautiful animals that I’ve ever touched.”
Though python isn’t on the menu, the list of ingredients reads like a wilderness guide including Asian Carp, Wild Mugwort, Burdock, Crickets, and Feral Hog but each dish is so artfully prepared and contains such unique flavors that it is easy to forget that PREY isn’t serving a typical meal.
PREY pays homage to the predator and prey roles that underlie the complex natural interconnections of the food chain – climate change, habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, over-crowding of the planet. - PREY
Lionfish – one of the more exotic items on the menu – is served frozen, sashimi-style on top of a small half-mooned block of ice flecked with seaweed. The dish is a symbol for climate change, the ice glacially melting as slices of sashimi are consumed. It is beautiful, communicating the larger message that Chef Bun Lai has spent years exploring, “Our relationship to food has never been simply about nourishing our physical bodies, it is about nourishing our spirits as well. Today we don’t respect our food and our relationship to nature that provides the food. And we have a responsibility to use that relationship to also take care of and revitalize our planet.”
[Venomous Lionfish, native to parts of the Indian and South Pacific Ocean have become prolific in the waters in the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean. With no natural predators, they post a threat to the reefs and native fish populations of the area.]
And, it also tastes like pastrami.
While Chef Bun Lai’s intention was not to make Lionfish taste exactly like deli meat, the association is exactly what makes the concept of Prey, and ultimately Miya’s so complex. Chef Bun manages to replace typical Japanese menu items like tuna or red meat with lionfish or antelope while creating a flavor profile that is already familiar to the American diner.
By making a food that is so foreign feel so familiar, he is able to demonstrate that plant-based foods and edible invasive species are not just a novelty but actually could be the future of food.
From the Menu
Pequeno French fries and tomate salsa Japones
A medley of wild and cultivated seaweed
Invasive Florida Lionfish sashimi and a dozen mouth-warming and cooling spices
Finger Lickin' Fish Ribs
Fall Off The Bone baked ginger guava invasive carp ribs
Where the Antelopes Play
3 Pieces of Wild Texas Antelope nigiri sushi – sesame seared
The partnership seems to be a perfect match: 1 Hotels leads the way in the realm of sustainability in the world of hotels, Miya’s leads the way in the realm of sustainability in sushi. The pop-up is located on the rooftop of the 1 Hotel and is open until April 30th. The menu is served A La Carte, Pre-Fix or Late Night, depending on preference and can be enjoyed with house-made sake infused with local berries Reservations are recommended, email firstname.lastname@example.org.