The food industry has become one of the most publicly scrutinized in terms of its contribution to climate change. From oat milk ads asking people to “Ditch Milk” to grocers figuring out the best way to package their goods without plastic, food professionals everywhere are being challenged to think about the environmental impact of their work. Pierce Abernathy, who founded the food collective Aerthship with his friend and collaborator Tin Mai, sits at the center of that conversation. His collective is finding ways to conduct eco-friendly food experiences, fusing food and art, and generally trying to make sustainability aspirational. Here, the chef and model gets candid about his favorite ingredients, his pop-up tour across Brooklyn, and prioritizing sustainability in the kitchen.
CULTURED: What did you have for lunch today?
Pierce Abernathy: This is quite rare for me, but I had half of a burger. I don't eat a lot of meat, but I went to Keens Steakhouse for the first time. It's really iconic. I think it's one of the oldest restaurants in New York. Very old school. And recently I've been very into this nostalgic New York restaurant world and restaurant scene.
CULTURED: You've been on a restaurant pop-up tour for the past few months. How’s that going?
Abernathy: It's been amazing and exhausting. Rhodora was such a highlight. I did one dinner before with my friend Edy who runs Edy's Grocery in Greenpoint, but that was quite casual. Rhodora was the true tour kickoff. The turnout was great. We ended up breaking the sales record for Rhodora. [The tour has] been something I've been planning with my business partner and creative partner, Tin, since January. So it's been really validating to see it come to life.
CULTURED: It’s kind of like touring with a band. If you could collaborate with one musical artist, who would that be?
Abernathy: This feels really basic, but [I’ll go for] a hometown hero. I'm from Kentucky. Jack Harlow and I are both from the same city. The Kentucky Derby is a very big thing in Louisville, and I think it would be really cool to do a Kentucky Derby dinner collaboration with Jack Harlow. But I would love to do something like a festival. It's something that we've talked a lot about at Aerthship. We wanna be able to answer the question, “What would a zero-waste music festival look like?”
CULTURED: Speaking of Aerthship, could you tell me a little bit about the collective?
Abernathy: We're calling Aerthship an eco-art collective. It’s a creative group of designers, cooks, strategists, artists, and authors. Our goal is to incorporate the earth and ecology into every pop culture conversation and moment. We want to be able to bring the Earth into the social conversation and keep it top of mind for people in a way that feels authentic and not preachy.
CULTURED: You've also collaborated with luxury houses and fashion brands, along with starring in campaigns and walking runways. Where do food and fashion meet for you? How are you bringing the spirit of eco-social awareness to the fashion industry?
Abernathy: There's a lot of power behind these brands. And there's a potential conversation that people bring up around greenwashing. We try to be specific with our collaborations, ensuring we really own the creative. I'm a realist. These brands aren't going anywhere, nor is capitalism. But if we can influence these brands toward more Earth-focused campaigns and events, it gives them incentive to continue this work.
CULTURED: It's been fun to see you bring your chef perspective to TikTok and Instagram. The Internet is what really made your career blow up. What is your relationship to it, and are there any viral trends that stand out to you right now?
Abernathy: I now have mixed feelings around the Internet. The purpose of this tour and pop-up series is to pull me out of being seen as an influencer. My goal on social media is very different from my goal with these events. I want to reach the largest audience possible. I wanna convince Sallie Mae in Idaho, who maybe has never eaten broccoli, to eat broccoli for the first time. I want the recipes to feel very approachable, very visual, and very successful with the ingredients, because it's so important to get people interested in eating things and connecting with their food more.
CULTURED: Is there a kitchen practice you'd like to see become more sustainable?
Abernathy: This will be a very hot take for people who cook, because they love gas stoves and how the heat is pretty consistent and you can char things. But induction is definitely the way forward. It's very easy, far more sustainable, and safer to not have gas in your house. If you really need to use gas for something, you can buy a portable propane burner or you can just use a grill.
CULTURED: What’s your bodega order when you’re on the move?
Abernathy: A falafel pita. To mitigate the potential problem of dry falafel, I want hummus in there, baba ganoush, maybe tzatziki. I love the places where you can customize it, because I want all of the different salads, the pickled onions, the cabbage, the tabbouleh…
CULTURED: What is your attitude toward mess?
Abernathy: My life is, a lot of the time, controlled chaos. If my apartment is not clean, then I will get nothing done. Especially with these pop-ups, I cannot operate in a messy kitchen. But when I'm shooting these recipe videos, in 30 minutes my kitchen is destroyed. The amount of food that I eat over the stove top, where I just put things on a plate and mix it all together… If the world could see some of the food that I eat, it’s definitely not all pretty. It's going from the pan right into my mouth.
CULTURED: What’s a kitchen tool you can’t live without?
Abernathy: I literally just lost it. My microplane. I must have left it at one of these pop-ups I've been doing. A fresh microplane can be life-changing. It's very easy to grate garlic or incorporate something very finely into a sauce, into a salad, into a dressing, as a garnish.
CULTURED: What’s something in your kitchen that you splurge on? And that you save on?
Abernathy: I bought a Vitamix, and I love it. I will also say investing in really nice plates and glassware can transform a plate of food. And then save on… I have peanut butter in my fridge and in my pantry at all times. This is a hot take for people who cook a lot, but I love a bunch of canned products. Especially for weekday meals, they can elevate something quickly. I always go for jarred artichokes.
CULTURED: What’s a dish that represents where you're at in your life right now?
Abernathy: This is maybe more of where I wanna be, but really well-cooked beans. It's something I crave constantly. I've been cooking beans in some of the pop-ups. Even if beans aren't cooked perfectly, they can still taste amazing.
CULTURED: Is there a type of bean that you're especially into right now?
Abernathy: Rancho Gordo is this incredible brand that does heirloom beans. They have this one called the Marcella, which is a beautiful, small white bean. It’s my go-to bean at the moment.