With the silver screen stars from Roberto de Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio backing more responsible green projects, the general public is starting to listen more attentively to the sustainability echo of the ecological groups. Beyond hybrid cars and non-polluting energy sources, eco-eating is becoming a global trend. Yet, as my highly-involved intercontinental sondage revealed, sustainable restaurants are still a rare breed. With most of us dining out more than ever, our choice of a more environmentally-friendly restaurant can have a huge impact on the future balance of our Planet. As my critical palate has discovered, there is some excellent food made sustainably, so go for it! Now that the top names in the culinary industry forge the ecologically responsible path for farmers and other chefs, the diners’ trust can comfortably surrender.
First, let’s make clear what a chef and the restaurant itself have to do in order to be entitled to claim that they feed us sustainably. There are different criteria depending on which organisation defines them, but generally from sourcing the low carbon imprint ingredients, choosing cutlery, pots and the use of energy inside the kitchen and the dining area, to tackling food and water waste, these are the game-changing practices to ponder about. The Soil Association, born in 1946 as a pioneer of sustainable farming and dining in the UK, offers a great and simple definition of sustainable food system: “Good food [is] produced in a way that protects our natural world and allows every farm animal to feel the sun on its back.” They support every business in the food chain through independent by science supported advice, and further provide an assuring, annually inspected certification to make the Earth-friendly choices easier for consumers.
The aim of The Food for Life Catering Mark is to encourage and reward caterers who:
- serve fresh food made mostly in-house
- source environmentally sustainable and ethical food
- make healthy eating easy for consumers
- champion local food producers
For details check their online handbook for cafes, restaurants and caterers. I read all the 70 pages, so rest assured that there are not significant catches, except for the compulsory payment if the business wants to be considered. Nevertheless, this certification serves as a reasonable motivation for restaurateurs to improve their eco-credentials and customers’ trust. Seek the Gold Catering Mark for the highest standards.
Another UK organisation The Sustainable Food Trust lists the key principles for sustainable food systems:
- Optimise the production of high quality safe food
- Minimise the use of non-renewable external inputs
- Maintain and build soil fertility
- Enhance food security and a high degree of resilience against external shocks
- Support plant and animal diversity and animal welfare
- Minimise environmental pollution
- Promote public health
The SRA, Sustainable Restaurant Association, in the UK with its President chef Raymond Blanc, OBE, envisaged a star rating for sustainable restaurants, where there stars reaped the highest acclaim. Now in its fifth season the SRA hosts the annual Food Made Good Awards contest honouring the most sustainable restaurants in the UK. Past winners include: Poco, Daylesford, River Cottage, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Geronimo Inns, The Savoy, Wahaca and Feng Sushi.
Celebrity chefs step in, rooting for sustainable change
Despite of the billions of people not having enough to eat, most of the developed world is either overfed or wasting too much food. Since the chefs’ voices are now also heart outside of the kitchen, their support for a more sustainable food system has now an immense impact. New York chef Dan Barber together with his team at Stone Barns Farm grow for flavour not yields, and use locally produced ingredients at all of his restaurants including the Blue Hill. No beef, with an exception of its marrow that was leftover at butchers, is featured on any of the menus. Barber was further inspired by our ancestors’ diets utilising leftovers at his high-end Manhattan restaurant. Although scarcity once forced us to use every bit of food, overabundance in one part of the world does not guarantee it elsewhere, and infinitely.
The most watched Italian chef, Massimo Bottura, together with 65 international chefs (such as Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca) prepared meals from the bulbs popping 15 tons of waste during the Expo in Milan. By providing delicious food for the homeless at the temporarily set Refettorio Ambrosiano, like a mind-opening art piece, made many attendees to realise that there is so much food wasted in the developed world, that many of the poor could be fed with these still fresh leftovers. Bottura’s non-profit organisation, Food for Soul, continues to forge his activism. The chef explains: “The foundation of the Italian cuisine, or cucina povera, when matriarchs needed to use all the parts of an ingredient to provide meals to their families, inspired us to bring back our grandmother’s way of thinking and translating it into a contemporary work: Do not throw away that piece of meat, don’t waste this Parmigiano-Reggiano crust.” His work now serves also as a balancing social role model.
Whetting our appetites for waste-reducing cooking, the World’s Best Chef Bottura brought the ripened cultural concept to Rio’s Olympics. In the community kitchen model Refettorio Gastromotiva together with more than 30 guest chefs (Alain Ducasse, Alex Atala, Joan Roca, Virgilio Martínez) the culinary stars worked with surplus ingredients from the Olympic Village’s catering services, as well as surplus food from sponsors and partners’ grocery stores. Plans are now being hatched together with the actor Robert De Niro for a new Refettorio in the Bronx, NYC in 2017.
Cutting the food miles traveled: local ingredients
Like many California chefs, at his three Michelin starred restaurant Bottura supports local producers in his native Emilia Romagna. In the Golden State of California local has become the norm and even a trend thanks to the outspoken chef Alice Waters, who staunchly for more than 40 years put the farms names on the menu at her Berkeley restaurant and café Chez Panisse. Today, from Wolfgang Puck in LA to Slanted Doors in San Francisco share the chef’s fame with the local mainly sustainable producers. The farms names are either listed on the menu or at the restaurants’ websites. Sourcing ingredients from biodynamic or organic local farms that subscribe to sustainable agriculture should become also the norm. This is also where Urban or Periurban Agriculture steps in. As we live increasingly in cities and dine out more frequently, growing food locally becomes also better for our food security. In the case of natural disasters or wars, our cities would be better equipped to feed its residents.
In the US activists and now top chefs lead the consumers’ enlightenment. In the steps of Alice Waters, the author Michel Pollan, the actor Robert Redford, the chefs Tom Collichio, Jose Andres, Matthew Kenney and Dan Barber are joined by Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his ABC Kitchen in Manhattan, Hearth in Manhattan’s East Village, and others. Spruce in San Francisco uses local organic produce, while Philadelphia-housed chef Jose Garcia sources ingredients from his organic Luna farm in Pennsylvania. Nora Pouillon opened the first organic certified restaurant in Washington, DC.
In Paris and now in London, Frenchie, the ultra-popular contemporary bistro uses mainly local organic ingredients. In Monaco, the first fully organic certified Michelin starred restaurant Elsa seasonally offers creative Mediterranean cuisine. The chef Paolo Sari, an organic eater for more than a decade, organises the annual Route du Gout, organic festival in Monaco.
While not all chefs can have their own farm, many can grow some ingredients in the kitchen or on the roofs of their restaurants. Some, like the exquisite contemporary British Michelin restaurant Fera in London, combine both. Fera at Claridge’s brought nature back to the iconic hotel’s lavish dining room. The chef’s two farms provide most of the ingredients, and herb pots jotted overhead in the kitchen supply the finishing aromatic touch to many of the two Michelin starred plates.
Role of the chef expanded: cooking with low carbon imprint ingredients globally
Europe has been in the forefront of the sustainable dining movement, but the appeal of local, organic or biodynamic produce served in a stripped down interiors of big city eateries and even at gastronomic restaurants (thank the sober Nordic chefs for influencing their fellow chefs to spread the love for foraged, diverse and unpretentious plates). One of Noma alumnus, the Oregon-born chef Chris Kiyuna at the Perennial restaurant, the new eco project by restaurateurs Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz of the highly successful Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, challenges his culinary creativity as he prepares perhaps the most sustainable restaurant plates in the US. There, the food miles are as short as possible, small plates encourage finishing, and if you leave anything on the plate then the scraps are composted at their aquaponic greenhouse in nearby Oakland into food for worms that are dehydrated in solar oven and fed to the fish to be served served at the restaurant. As the fish fertilise the water, edible aquatic plants are nourished with 10-times less water than in the soil in the process called aquaponics. The perfect food cycle is possible!
The work of the Perennial team reaches beyond just serving sustainable food. During a recent TAKEOVER” event at The Asian Art Museum they presented a variety of ways to engage with food and climate change, hosted a series of talks centred around food and the environmental creations at the restaurant’s bar.
Beyond private restaurants, the green food word in the US travels through the activities of the Sustainable Food Trust, Land Institute, Slow Food USA , and increasingly many other NGOs and charities.
The UK pioneered the sustainable efforts through the Soil Association. Many farms and businesses have joined its cause for better farming. Poco in London and the Daylesford farm and a chain of casual restaurants and cafés are shining and delicious examples. Launched successfully as a pop and now in search for a permanent location Tiny Leaf was London’s first and only organic, zero waste, vegetarian restaurant. The menu was rooted in organic surplus food by local suppliers, supermarkets, farms, and plant breeders.
Instock restaurants and take-away outlets in Amsterdam “rescue food” from overstaffed supermarket shelves. Instead of being thrown out, it is redistributed for lower price into its food outlets dotted around town and delightfully presented to the hungry, a quick bite seeking citizens.
The destruction through logging and cattle farming in the Amazon rainforest could bring about the worst natural disaster imaginable, irreversibly disrupting the ecosystem on Earth. In Brazil, its most famous chef Alex Atala brings the overlooked Amazon bounty to his awards-reaping plates at DOM to remind its wealthy diners of what could be lost.
In Mexico Via Organica, a community lead organic farm and café near San Miguel d’Allende engages its community in sustainable farming practices. The chef Enrique Olvera in Mexico City heralds organic local produce on his menu at Quintonil.
On the other curve of the globe, New Zealand has been for 75 years publishing the Organic NZ magazine. Auckland offers exquisite farm-to-table organic dining at Rosie and the plant-based delectables at the Unbakery.
The Middle East is not dormant. Dubai embraced organics as its international workforce seeks quality and “clean” food. ‘Ripe’ brings local organic farmers produce to restaurants in this affluent Emirate.
Sustainability goes well beyond organic, but using low carbon imprint ingredients requires an in-depth knowledge that should become the part of the chef’s education. To simplify, here is the guidance for the enlightened diner. As our oceans get depleted of wild fish, overfishing of the popular species and the disastrous impact of by-catch, chefs should put less fish, no unsustainably and water polluting farmed fish, but in some cases include the overlooked species that got caught in the by-catch trap and the low on the food chain seafood such as squids. Supporting responsible line caught fishing does less harm than putting sea bass and bluefin tuna on the menu. Beef and other meat should be reduced to a minimum or from carbon farming. Dairy products with the exception of the occasional bite in a goats cheese should be used sparingly. High water demanding crops (almonds, certain types of grains if grown in drought areas) and annuals are blacklisted as is caviar or foie gras, the luxury products of animals raised and killed purely for this small part of their corpses. Heirloom vegetables and biologically diverse plants should be included in the menu to introduce these rare and by large farming shunned delicacies to our oversimplified palates. Read more in my previous musing.
Dilemma: Less or no meat on the menu?
Sustainability professing chef should not just cook original, palate-blowing dishes but also challenge our meat-heavy concept of dining out. After all, restaurants together with unsustainably cheap low quality meat, were the culprits of our increased meat consumption in the past decades. The access for all approach turned against us in this case. Alain Ducasse at his three Michelin restaurant in Paris joined the other three stared chef Alain Passard as they cut the presence of meat on their plates to minimum. Passard caused a ravenously reported scandal in the then culinary capital, when he switched his pricey menus to vegetarian. Today, he serves some meat, that is responsibly sourced, but also features his signature vegetarian tasting menu from his vegetable gardens just outside of Paris. With such respected examples, even in the meat centric countries like the US and France, the leading chefs are reducing the amount of meat on their plates. Good for our health and the Planet.
Plant food chefs like Matthew Kenney has been expanding his vegan dining empire across the US and now educates hundreds of budding chefs from the US to Thailand at his culinary schools. Vegan, plant-focused food is more sustainable if it is also locally and seasonally sourced. But drinking litres of almond milk from trees grown in the water depleted California will not make you an eco hero!
The chefs need to consider the nature of the ingredient, and its need for water in order to serve sustainable food. For example by using carbon farming, where the compost fertilises perennial crops (grains with very deep roots) eaten by the livestock. The roots absorb the carbon and keep it under the ground, while the grazing animal offsets its footprint (farting) by providing their fertile manure to the plants. Perennial in San Francisco sources its meat this way.
Treating staple foods with respect
Bread is currently undergoing a renaissance from its almost tasteless, chemically enhanced, sliced boxed version sealed in plastic. Not that long ago gastronomic restaurants focused more on the wildest flavour combinations from bacon twists, through cheese cougères to pig’s blood buns than the grain from which it was actually made. Robuchon is so culinary yesteryear. Now Chad Robertson of the San Francisco Tartine Bakery inspires chefs and bakeries from London (Spring restaurant, E2 Bakery) to Melbourne, myself included. You will see the loafs being shaped at their Manufactory, but also witness a bread baking demonstration at the upscale Blue Hill restaurant at the Stonebarns farm. At Perennial, they work with the Land Institute which developed a perennial grain called kernza, from which they bake a delicious sourdough with a firm crust and moist centre. In the heart of Vienna, Joseph bakery lures the passers-by in through the fragrance of their organic bread prepared traditionally from the starter. In Prague, Eska bakes incredible slow loafs according to traditional methods. The real bread is back!
Sourdough and other slow risen, enzyme-rich loafs taste more complex and are easier to digest for most of us, but what is important is that more ancient resistant perennial grains are used in the flour in its baking. Soil depleting monocultures are perhaps the worst natural disaster that ever happened to our food security. If only a limited diversity of modern, heavily fertiliser and pesticide-dependent crops are being planted, then any disease can spread easily to these weakened mutations of their naturally hardy ancestors.
Water is a huge component of our environmental stewardship. A customer friendly approach is serving filtered tap water in places where local source is healthy enough (forget India and some African countries). Plastic bottles and the luxury-evoking water shipped from Fiji to New York are just spoiled consumer marketing. Most farm to table restaurants have turned to filtered water or at least give you a choice between bottled and local tap water. From the casual barn at the Farmstead in Napa Valley, to the elegant dining at Telepan in New York, no Evian or Fiji in sight.
Renewable restaurant design
Not just the ingredients and the cooking methods count into the restaurant’s sustainable credentials, but also the interior design must be considered if the business wants to send its eco message with integrity.
Dubbed as “America’s most sustainable restaurant” by GQ, Perennial went from the floor to roof ecologically sound. Recycled materials were used in the zen-inspired design and the use of energy saving cooking and cleaning technology in the kitchen. Moreover the natural, used desigin became fashionable. Just look above image of the eco Giri Café in Sant Joan de Labritja village in Ibiza, Spain. Natural light penatrates through the large windows and local materials were used on the floors and for the furniture acoompanying the local ingredient sourcing ethos.
In Australia Vue de Monde prides itself to be Australia’s most sustainable restaurant. An E-water system, ‘cold kitchen technology’ (no exposed flames or gas), using recyclable products, seasonal homegrown heirloom and organic vegetables and fruits and small-farm organic produce wherever possible. The meat and seafood are local and sustainably raised.
Food waste management at sustainable restaurants
Human population is rampantly rising and with it our need to increase food production. Managing waste thus becomes an inevitable balancing activity we must embrace sustainably. Serving smaller portions, using the aquaponic system, but also by cooking excellent food so the diner does not need to force himself to finish the plate! The waiters jobs should be extended to finding out what their guests prefer, what they do not like and then recommend accordingly the plates that he might most likely enjoy. We should be aware of our own food waste as it is not difficult to minimise! I develop this theme in my Food Waste musing.
Portions and carte blanche tasting menus
The wide-spread presence of tasting menus at high-end restaurants nags a question – are these tasting menus created by chefs on the base of market produce available to them less prone to waste than serving a la carte smaller portions that the diner actually orders? At times when a chef serves us his surprise tasting, there are a couple of plates we are simply not in the mood to eat or do not like.
Going back to casual dining, the old-school chalkboard menus in France and Italy, offer an easy solution for a day-to-day changing menu (e.g. Couleurs Jardin in France, La Paloma in Ibiza), but technology makes the e-menu so easy to change that any restaurant can add what the local purveyors of deliciousness supplied on the daily basis.
The sustainable bate for chefs
Awarding the most sustainable or the best vegan restaurants became a new focus for the major ecological groups such as PETA, EU ECOCERT, and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). Gauthier in London’s Soho won the best vegan menu award in 2016 by PETA’s standards, and the year before the vegan and mostly raw food serving La Suite West in Bayswater reaped the awards. The small, buzzing and superb ultra local plates driven Poco in East London won the title of the best sustainable restaurant in the UK voted by the SRA. Trying all three, I cannot say which one is better, since all of them offered a distinct and delicious dining experience.
If we eat healthy meals prepared according to some centuries tried traditions or innovative carbon-counting edibles, we can better sustain our health and preserve the precious resources that nature blessed us with. For your better understanding of this beneficial relationship between health and sustainability, in the next musing I will debunk dietary myths and expand on eco-nutrition. Receiving a certified nutritional training in New York, and talking to a number of Registered Dieticians clearly demostrated which diet claims have no scientific backing.
Beyond Organic Lifestyle: Radka Beach
Future of Food: Radka Beach
Food Ecology: Radka Beach
The Third Plate: Dan Barber
Voices of the Food Revolution: John and Ocean Robbins
Sustainable Food Trust UK: Restaurant Revolutionaries Fighting Food Waste
Real Bread Campaign UK
Food Waste Solutions for US Cities