When placed over a fire’s high heat, a wok imbues the food it cooks with a very “distinct, smoky flavor.” That’s according to Francis Ang, chef and co-owner at San Francisco-based Filipino pop-up restaurant Pinoy Heritage.
The round-bottom cooking pots are an integral component to many Asian dishes. Any true stir-fry, for example, ought to be prepared in a wok.
“It keeps it from overcooking and oversaturating things,” Ang says, noting that he uses woks frequently in his restaurant.
However, a proposed city regulation could change all that.
On June 30, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced a proposal that would ban natural gas in new buildings. The motivation behind the proposal is to clean up San Francisco’s air and bring the city one step closer to its goal of carbon neutrality.
“Natural gas is a major driver of San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions, and a serious public health and safety hazard, especially in an earthquake,” Mandelman said in a written statement. “That’s why efforts are already underway at the State level to phase out natural gas by 2050 and over 30 California cities have adopted some form of natural gas ban.”
In 2018, 44 percent of San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions came from buildings. Natural gas accounted for 88 percent of residential buildings’ emissions and 76 percent for commercial ones. Electricity was responsible for 10 and 18 percent, respectively.
If approved, all buildings applying for a construction permit after January 1, 2021 would need to go completely electric. Food service establishments, like restaurants, would have one year to come into compliance, and anyone who proves that they need gas to operate would also receive an exemption.
Matthew Dolan, chef and partner at 25 Lusk in SoMa, recognizes the importance of sustainability. The restaurant is a city-certified green business, meeting standards that include composting, conserving water, and using low-toxicity products. But, Dolan says, going electric would seriously slow cooking down.
“By design, they’re less efficient than these natural gas stoves,” he explains. “That’s why most restaurants have gas stoves.”
Dolan notes that 25 Lusk already doesn’t have enough firepower to keep up with customer demand as it is. The restaurant has three kitchens and all of their ovens and stoves run on natural gas.
Chef Nick Cobarruvias, who co-owns Son’s Addition in the Mission, has a similar setup. Other than the electric component to their convection oven, every cooking surface in their kitchen — the grill, griddle, Salamander broiler, and stove — is powered by gas.
Cobarruvias notes that if the proposal goes into effect, equipment and technique will have to completely change. “Chefs are creative. We’ll figure that out.” His main concern, however, is cost. “The timing of it is so bizarre. Restaurants are just being so crushed right now,” he says.
Mandelman recognizes the restaurant industry’s suffering, and explains he’s been working on ways to help sustain ailing restaurateurs — from allowing them to offer outdoor table service to waiving various fees. The Supervisor says he’s open to hearing what else they can do to support restaurants.
This June, Bay Area consumers on average paid 24 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity and $1.64 per therm for gas. When converted strictly between the two measures (1 therm is equal to about 29.3 kilowatt hours), gas is cheaper than electricity. California’s electricity is among the most expensive in the US — just behind Alaska, Hawaii, and New Hampshire.
“San Francisco has made some of the most compelling moves in the world of protecting the environment,” Dolan notes. “But San Francisco has had a funny way of sort of discouraging the small business.”
He mentions that the city’s high minimum wage and mandatory healthcare are incredibly important, but nonetheless more expensive for business owners. This April, a survey reported that almost 7.5 million small businesses across the country are at risk of shutting down from the COVID-19 pandemic. And, more recently, another study found that San Francisco business owners are not particularly optimistic about their future prospects in the City by the Bay.
“I mean, I’m at the end of my rope right now where I’m like, I don’t know if I’m gonna make it,” Dolan says.
Ang is also anxious about the cost of electricity. “Restaurants have already very, very tight margins and that additional cost would probably hit the bottom line a lot worse.” He notes that this proposal comes at a time when local restaurateurs are already struggling to survive, and wonders why the city doesn’t pursue other green initiatives first — like subsidizing electric cars or replacing older buildings’ gas heating with electrical systems.
His other concern involves what food he’ll even be able to prepare. “Natural gas cooking is so essential in a lot of cuisines.” Ang explains that Chinese and Indian cuisines, for instance, use lots of wood or gas in the wok burner. He’s tried induction woks, but noticed they don’t create enough heat.
Cobarruvias agrees that cooking with fire is particularly important for Latin and Asian cuisines, which his restaurant has recently been focused on. He believes the proposal has the right intention, but could use some more fine tuning.
Dolan also points out that much of electricity still comes from nonrenewable resources. In 2019, 62.7 percent of electricity across the country was generated from natural gas and 19.7 percent from nuclear energy. “It’s rather hypocritical to say you can’t have natural gas anymore. Now you have to go to electricity and then have them come from also environmentally harmful sources.”
San Francisco, however, is more environmentally-friendly with electricity. In 2018, 69% of the city’s electricity came from renewable resources.
This story has been updated from a previous version to correct an error and include input from District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.