The first thing you’ll notice when you enter Taranta restaurant on Hanover Street is nothing, nothing, that is, that is unusual for the North End. The requisite white linen covers tables that dot the floor. The aroma of freshly sautéed garlic and other mouth-watering flavors delight the senses, as the dimly lit room invites and relaxes as any good Italian restaurant should.
But look more closely below eye level around Taranta, and you may notice some things that are unusual. There are the environmental accolades and sustainability certifications from the Green Restaurant Association, MassRecycle and the City of Boston. They’re unusual awards in this otherwise traditional neighborhood. But even these have not been conspicuously displayed.
To the untrained eye, these alone hint at the energy and innovation Chef Owner Jose Duarte has infused into his unique restaurant. Duarte, 42, is one of the “greenest” chefs you’ll ever meet. At a time when celebrity chefs fill the airwaves barking at wannabes, Duarte is busy insuring that his food and restaurant are as environmentally and socially responsible as possible.
In fact, if he had his own reality show, he’d likely be yelling at the appliances to be more efficient, training the fish to swim straight to his restaurant, and teaching the utility companies about energy efficiency. Because Duarte brings both a passion for fresh, well-prepared food and a fine-tuned eco-consciousness to Taranta. He wants his customers to have a memorable dining experience with minimal environmental impact. His reward is to be the only restaurant in the neighborhood certified by the Green Restaurant Association, which uses a rigorous scientific checklist to verify and validate all environmental claims.
Taranta is among the “cream of the crop” nationally, says Green Restaurant Association founder Michael Oshman. It stands as the most environmentally friendly in the North End, he adds. While other restaurants may make claims, he says, until they submit information to back them up and be reviewed by GRA’s scientists, they are just claims.
Duarte walks the talk of environmentalism with vigor.
"What's driving me is change,” he says. “I think innovation is important for business. I think a passion about being innovative and creative [is important].”
Those innovations can be literally measured with his smart phone in systems like Taranta’s electricity monitoring application, which provides real-time energy statistics and remote outlet control. Innovation is also visible in the ultra-high efficiency LED lighting inside and outside the restaurant.
The passion for hospitality, Duarte recalls, is something he had from childhood. The desire to combine hospitality and innovation came in his thirties.
Born in Peru and raised in Venezuela, Duarte says he knew at age 4 that he wanted to be in the hospitality business. At age 11 he had an epiphany after seeing a chef in Peru pull a flounder from the water and serve it to him within 10 minutes.
“I want to do that!” Duarte recalls thinking.
Listen to Chef Duarte recall his inspiration to become a chef:
His quest took him from tourism training at the Universidad Nueva Esparta in Venezuela to obtaining an MBA in Food Service Operations from Lynn University in Florida. He honed his cooking and management craft running a catering operation in Philadelphia and eventually moved to Boston and opened his first restaurant, Taranta, in 2000.
Duarte initially set Taranta apart from the dozens of other Italian restaurants in the North End by drawing from his Peruvian roots and incorporating unique ingredients such as the Paiche fish from the Peruvian Rainforest. The restaurant's name is short for Tarantella, a ritual of southern Italian folk music and dance once used as therapy for depression. Duarte says the practice at one point was outlawed by the Catholic Church, but a secret web of musicians and dancers formed to continue it.
Listen to Chef Duarte explain the origin of Taranta:
The connection to southern Italy evoked by Tarantella and the mystique of the secret web struck a chord with Duarte in 1999. He saw a connection between that theme and the then nascent World Wide Web, where people were congregating in groups online based on their similar interests. He used the Web to search for Tarantella imagery and acquire artwork for the centerpiece of his restaurant.
Duarte’s desire to blend old-world tradition and contemporary innovation has been a recurring theme, one that led to his next epiphany in 2006: the need for an eco-conscious and sustainable food service.
“There’s something coming, but we don’t know what it is,” Duarte recalls saying to himself back then.
He remembers noticing the magazine covers and media buzz about global warming and climate change around him and thought, “let me find out if I can anticipate a trend somehow.”
And so Duarte positioned himself to be in the forefront of the sustainability trend commonly referred to as ‘going green.’ His first step was to power his truck with vegetable oil so he could stop paying for grease removal and transfer the waste to energy- saving money and getting free fuel in return. From there Duarte tried several energy-saving practices and eventually pioneered techniques of his own in conjunction with the utility company to save energy and make his appliances more efficient.
In those early efforts Duarte saw how being more efficient translated into savings and ultimately a lower carbon footprint, which means his restaurant reduced its overall greenhouse gas emissions. But the more he investigated environmental best practices, the more he realized how he was only scratching the surface of what could, and in his words, "should," be done. Now after years of research and attending seminars on sustainability, both as a researcher and guest lecturer, he sees things in a new light.
“Now we are looking at sustainability as a whole engine,” he explains. “We look at the social aspect, the economic aspect and the environmental aspect.”
The “social aspect” refers to the impact on human life in terms of labor conditions for the workers who harvest his supplies. When possible, Duarte and his staff travel to the source of these supplies. They visit local farms for seasonal produce, travel to Sicilian vineyards for organic wine, and are connected with a network of local fisherman for sustainable and fair-trade seafood. That network is called Trace & Trust®, which is an organization that vets its member food producers and distributors. Duarte is helping the organization use technology to track fish from local waters to the dinner plate. He envisions technology that not only insures sustainability and fair-trade, but allows his customer to know the food source and the “story” of the people behind that food.
Self-described a “geek chef,” Duarte has no plans to rest on his laurels. He says he is seeking to optimize Taranta’s eco-friendliness, but also to teach what he’s learned to others. His dream is to become a university professor who teaches sustainable restaurant operations.
If he succeeds, he’ll rework the old proverb by not only teaching a man how to fish, but also how to do so sustainably.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.