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Restaurateurs are beginning to put environmental issues at the top of the menu as they look for ways to cut food miles, reduce their carbon footprints and save the planet. Jenny McIvor reports
The message from scientists is as clear as it is dismal: climate change is happening and we and our decadent, energy-guzzling western ways are to blame. Such is the regularity of news reports on rising carbon emissions cooking up the planet that it’s tempting to switch off and head out for a nice meal to distract ourselves from the growing sense of doom.
And that would be fine, if only the restaurant industry weren’t treading a mammoth carbon footprint of its own. Some 18,000 tonnes of carbon emissions are generated by food-related road traffic each year, much of it linked to restaurants; 75 per cent of the 600,000 tonnes of glass bottles junked every year by restaurants, cafés, bars, hotels and clubs never gets even close to a recycling plant; and a third of the food ordered by the trade is thrown away. So, right now, that distracting dinner for two is very much part of the problem.
However, a new wave of eco-conscious restaurants is starting to turn that around.
Perhaps the one that has most successfully captured the public’s imagination is Acorn House, which has set itself the laudable aim of being the most sustainable restaurant in the UK. It’s an ambitious goal but, set in a bleak area of King’s Cross, it has proved that an eco-friendly restaurant can flourish without its own five-acre stretch of bio-dynamically farmed land and walled herb garden.
Opened last November, Acorn House is run by Arthur Potts Dawson and James Grainger-Smith, who head the Bliss Restaurant Consultancy.
Both men have impressive pedigrees: they have notched up stints at restaurants including Kensington Place, La Tante Claire and The River Café. But, while they’re proud of their professional backgrounds, they feel frustrated by what Potts Dawson terms the ‘embarrassing’ levels of waste often blithely tolerated by conventional kitchens.
It was when regeneration charity the Shoreditch Trust, and subsequently the Terrence Higgins Trust, approached them about setting up a training restaurant – the two men having already been involved with Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen – that they saw an opportunity. ‘I wanted to create something different,’ recalls Potts Dawson. ‘I wanted to change the supply routes, the waste management and rubbish disposal to make sure they don’t affect the environment. The whole project had to have a holistic balance.’
The term ‘holistic’ crops up a lot in Potts Dawson’s conversation – hardly surprising given the domestic environment he grew up in. ‘At home, we were always recycling – my mum practically knits her own muesli,’ he says.
The systems he and Grainger-Smith have put in place at Acorn House reflect this ethos, albeit on a much bigger scale: 100 per cent of waste is recycled, including food waste, which is processed through the restaurant’s wormery to create soil for the roof-top vegetable garden; drinking water is purified on site to cut down on bottled water transport; and a bio-diesel van is used for transport within London.
The restaurant also insists on good animal husbandry, gives industrial farming a wide berth, has produce delivered in reusable, eco-sustainable containers, and is training 10 student chefs a year to follow the same eco-friendly methods of running a kitchen.
Potts Dawson has dubbed the food on his monthly changing menus ‘modern London’. ‘This is a seriously cosmopolitan city and I want the menu here to reflect that,’ he says. ‘I love serving Thai curry or beef stroganoff one day, and mackerel sashimi served with English mustard, rather than wasabi, the next.’
Whatever tag the restaurant gives its food, one thing is certain: the punters and critics love it. The place has been packed since it launched, and The Times critic Giles Coren has called it ‘the most important restaurant to open in London in the past 200 years’.
This is the kind of fulsome praise for which the pair could allow themselves a moment of mutual back-slapping but, for them, that kind of personal gratification isn’t what it’s about.
If everything goes to plan, the Acorn House approach won’t just benefit the charities behind it but the future of the whole industry. ‘Restaurants – and not just eco-friendly ones – are facing a huge crisis in finding good, properly trained young chefs,’ insists Potts Dawson. ‘What we’re offering our 10 students is an apprenticeship covering everything from cooking through to procurement and sustainability. The graduates will be the first generation of green chefs – they’ll be an incredible resource.’
Barny Haughton shares Potts Dawson’s commitment to training. He opened Bristol’s Bordeaux Quay around the same time as Acorn House, with a policy of eco-training its taff. It also contributes to Bristol City College’s catering courses.
A £3m warehouse conversion on the city’s waterfront incorporates a deli, cookery school, bakery and bar, alongside a brasserie and a more formal, fine-dining restaurant, it is the culmination of Haughton’s 19-year career as a chef and organic pioneer. The the sheer scale of the project (there are 80 employees) initially led to some jittery moments for Haughton, however.
‘One day, I walked into the stock room to find that a particular chef had ordered in pasteurised egg yolks,’ he recalls. ‘I mean, what are they? They’re as at odds with what we’re doing here as powdered eggs would be.’
Along with the chef, the offending yolks were ditched before they made it onto a guest’s plate. But Haughton’s reaction to the discovery demonstrates his belief that re-engaging with food provenance is critical.
Just as much thought has gone into the building where diners eat Bordeaux Quay’s food. It has been adapted to leave a minimal carbon footprint – all its waste is composted or recycled and the loos are flushed using rainwater collected on the roof.
‘We carefully weigh up every decision we make in terms of our values: sustainable, local, organic,’ says Haughton. ‘That’s why we have Amy Robinson, our sustainable development manager, on board. Many businesses would see her as a luxury but, for us, she’s essential. Unlike conventional restaurants, there’s no fixed model in place here – it’s a work in progress.’
That includes the food sourcing policy. While almost all of the predominantly organic ingredients on the modern European menu come from within 50 miles of the restaurant’s front door, by 2012 Haughton wants it to be 100 per cent – except for essentials such as lemons, olive oil and spices.
Potts Dawson is a little less hard-line. Although the Acorn House menu is strictly seasonal, using ingredients mostly from producers located within the M25, he’s happy to source some ingredients from Europe, as long as they’re not air freighted.
‘Europe’s just over there; I’m closer to France than I am to Scotland. If I can serve customers good, ethically-made European produce that comes in by train – mozzarella from Naples, say, or charcuterie from Barcelona – I will. I don’t see the problem with that.’
A recognition of the richness that European produce can bring to a menu is shared by Geetie Singh, owner of organic gastropub The Duke of Cambridge. Yet she finds herself agonising over decisions that could adversely effect the business’s environmental impact.
‘Recently, we wanted to buy cream from a lovely local, organic diary,’ she says, ‘but we pulled out when we realised our delivery would have been the only one they were making in the area – really unsustainable. It was a tough call.’
The Duke of Cambridge opened in Islington 1998 and has never made a big deal about its eco-credentials. It’s only when you take a close look at the blackboard menu of modern European dishes that the all-organic policy becomes clear. It even extends to the entire drinks line-up.
In fact, so exacting are the Duke’s organic standards that it’s the only pub to have been certified by the Soil Association. But, while the business’s commercial success has been constant, over the years Singh has noticed a fundamental shift in customer’s attitudes.
‘When we opened, people would ask if we served meat and whether the beer was alcoholic,’ she says. ‘They associated being organic with pleasure-denying, vegetarian, beansprouting hippydom. That doesn’t happen any more, thank god. The public seem to be much more accepting of green issues.’
The pulling-power of being green has also been a factor in fast-food chain Leon’s success, though development chef Allegra McEvedy is the first to admit the business isn’t entirely organic.
‘As a young, expanding company, we just can’t afford to be. But because we offer a lot of superfoods on our menu, and run Leon as conscientiously as we can, people think that being organic is what we’re all about. It’s not – but sustainable values are.’
With business partners John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, McEvedy opened the first branch in 2004 (there are now five). They stripped the fast-food restaurant model down to its chassis and rebuilt it around fresh, carefully sourced ingredients and regularly evolving seasonal menus.
All the meat and (uniquely for the fast-food market) chicken is free-range, some lines carry a Fair Trade stamp and, while the ingredients are British rather than just local, the company has worked hard to reduce the environmental impact of the transport involved. ‘Our suppliers deliver produce to a central point, then a single drop-off is made to us,’ says McEvedy.
As a growing number of restaurants prove the viability of using greener techniques, the mainstream restaurant industry is beginning to pay attention. During the renovation of its Scott’s restaurant, Caprice Holdings invested in bore-hole technology to draw up naturally chilled water from 120ft beneath the building to cool the restaurant – a far more eco-efficient system than conventional air-conditioning.
Tom Aikens is another convert. Having established recycling programmes at his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant and Tom’s Kitchen, he wants his new fish and chip shop, Tom’s Place, to be his most eco-friendly yet.
As well as kitting out the venue with
recycled and organic materials, he’ll also be working with the Marine Stewardship Council so that he serves only sustainably caught fish. That will put the stalwarts of cod, plaice
and sole strictly off limits.
‘Restaurateurs have a massive amount of power to create change,’ he says. ‘If all of us decided to keep just one thing off the menu because it was air-freighted, and sourced something locally produced in its place, that would have a huge impact.’
Meanwhile, just around the corner from Acorn House, at Konstam at The Prince Albert, Moro-trained chef Oliver Rowe has turned the local/seasonal concept into a mantra. He serves north European-style dishes using ingredients sourced from within the limits of the London Underground network. It’s the kind of marketing genius that cynics might write off as calculating – after all, it clinched Rowe a BBC2 series about the project’s development – but the chef insists otherwise.
‘If people see my sourcing policy as a gimmick, I don’t mind. But the reasons behind it are absolutely gimmick-free,’ says Rowe. ‘London tends to be quite disconnected from the seasons,
so I love the fact that the way we source and cook here brings me, and our customers, back in touch with them.’
Tracking down a mushroom supplier underneath a North Circular flyover, a honey supplier in Tower Hill and flour supplies in Ponders End involved considerable culinary sleuthing. But, although such a sourcing policy significantly reduces the business’s carbon footprint, Rowe is at pains to convey that it’s the food, rather than the ethos, that’s at the centre of his business.
‘I am a chef – I’m not an environmentalist,’ he insists. ‘What I’m passionate about is making good-quality food, and if the way we do it helps the environment, that’s a happy bonus.’
Despite such positive examples of eco-friendly restaurants, would-be green restaurateurs have plenty of hurdles to negotiate. The high density of business activity in UK cities means that municipal
recycling programmes are
often either inadequate, prohibitively expensive or over-subscribed, as Sam Hart, owner of Spanish restaurants Fino and Barrafina, discovered.
‘Westminster Council told us that they were too busy to take us on,’ he says. ‘And private recycling companies either don’t offer a daily pick-up service – essential for us as we’ve no storage space – or are unreliable, leaving us liable to be fined for rubbish bags left sitting on the street for too long.’
Add to that the onerous task of convincing a restaurant landlord to allow eco-friendly alterations to be made to their building and it’s no wonder that the most well-intentioned restaurant strategies can end up in deadlock.
And then there are the customers. It’s hard to escape the fact that London’s much-admired global eating scene is propped up by a huge cargo of imported, often air-freighted produce that most punters aren’t ready to give up.
‘While people might apply an ethical philosophy to their food purchasing when they’re at the supermarket, when they go out to eat, they feel they’re off the hook,’ says The Duke of Cambridge’s Singh, with a disappointed sigh.
Restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin agrees. ‘In my experience, even the most hardened eco-ranter goes rather silent when faced with the opportunity of a spot of luxury dining,’ she says.
So, while one day diners might enjoy basking in the eco-glow of a meal made from local ingredients, they are generally just as happy to tuck into a prime Argentinian steak jetted more than 6,000 miles to their table the next. It’s the dining-out equivalent of David Cameron pedalling his way to work on a bike, with his briefcase following him in a car.
Nevertheless, the mood among eco-pioneers remains buoyant. ‘The increasing awareness of climate change has had an enormous impact,’ says Haughton. ‘As a result, I think the green restaurant trend is at the very beginning of going mainstream.’
Potts Dawson is similarly optimistic. ‘Eighteen months ago, when we first started thinking about Acorn House, there was nothing like the green agenda that there is now, so that consciousness is definitely swelling,’ he says.
Now that consumers have realised how much clout they have in forcing supermarkets to rein in at least some of their environmental excesses, perhaps it is inevitable that public scrutiny will focus on how the restaurant trade goes about its business.
Until then, Singh, like all the other eco-pioneers, is realistic about the most effective way the movement can coax more diners to adopt a greener way of thinking.
‘I’m not interested in ramming my values down customers’ throats and making them feel guilty,’ she says. ‘Basically, I want them to love the food we serve here. Otherwise, they aren’t going to come back.’
No one’s perfect. Sometimes the lure of the most eco-unfriendly ingredient is too strong, even for the most principled among us.
Here’s Square Meal’s top 10 irresistible orders – and their alternatives for when the guilt just gets too much.
Gloriously slithery and unctuous it may be, but even its biggest fans, the Japanese, are recognising that this species in trouble – they’ve just cut their fishing quota by 25 per cent.
The guilt-free order: Marine Stewardship Council-certified mackerel. Not quite the same silky texture, but rich and mouth-filling and makes for wonderful sashimi or tartare.
A strong contender for the most indulgent food in the world but, although the year-long ban of export of caviar from the Caspian Sea has been lifted, environmentalists say sturgeon catch quotas aren’t anywhere near low enough.
The guilt-free order: Avruga (herring roe) looks almost identical and in a blind taste test, BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme couldn’t distinguish between it and the real thing.
Sweetly tender, it’s a welcome sight on any plate in the UK winter. The problem is, it’s been road-freighted from Spain or air-freighted from Peru.
The guilt-free order: Purple sprouting broccoli. Same texture, same pretty, spear-like effect on the plate, it grows from November to April – in time for the start of our homegrown asparagus season.
A fish with a wonderfully firm flesh and an inimitable flavour – but in crisis in almost every fishing ground you care to name.
The guilt-free order: Black cod (aka sablefish), raised to deluxe ingredient status by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa at Nobu. It’s not, in fact, cod at all, but it delivers the same firm texture and a delicate taste.
Every fashion victim’s super-pure bottled water of choice. No problem there, then. Well, no – not unless you factor in the 9,000 food miles it chalks up on its way here.
The guilt-free order: Belu water, sourced in Shropshire and bottled in biodegradable material, with all profits going to water projects in drought-afflicted areas.
The juicy jewel in the crown of 1,000 Thai restaurant menus, but farmed (mainly in Asia) to calamitous environmental effect.
The guilt-free order: North Atlantic prawns are available in abundance because their predators, cod, aren’t around so much. Or choose the equally unthreatened brown shrimp (aka Morecambe Bay potted shrimp).
It has beautifully marbled, succulent flesh, but if you’re eating true Kobe it’ll have been air-freighted over from Kobe in Japan – the only place where the beef can be named as such.
The guilt-free order: Choose wagyu: it’s the same breed as Kobe but reared outside Kobe – there’s even a herd in Wales. Or you can go for British rare-breed beef such as Aberdeen Angus or Hereford.
One of life’s affordable indulgences. It’s shipped rather than air-freighted to the UK, which is another plus but, sadly, there’s still no getting round that 10,000-food-mile tally. Sorry.
The guilt-free order: British bubbly, such as Nyetimber, Chapel Down or Ridgeview Estate. Don’t laugh – it’s good stuff. Nyetimber’s even on the list at two-Michelin-starred Pétrus.
Big, fat, juicy grapes – what’s not to like? Well, if they’re air-freighted over from Latin America, quite a lot actually. They don’t even offer a significant nutritional benefit in the way that tropical fruit does (which also has the advantage of being shipped over).
The guilt-free order: Support beleaguered British apple growers and make a Ribston Pippin or a Grenadier part of your five a day, instead.
Delicately pale and superbly tender, there’s no escaping the horribly cruel way veal is produced (in Europe, that is – the methods are now banned in the UK) before being transported to Britain by road.
The guilt-free order: British rose veal – blush pink, a wonderful flavour and with none of the animal cruelty issues. And there’s the much reduced food-mile total to boot.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2007