For a restaurant’s longevity, and the planet’s, a culinary shift is needed. Additionally, what is being served to diners now and what will be served in the future will by necessity need to evolve. ECHELON spoke to four chefs and one sustainability expert, to learn more.
Frequently, and increasingly, cited by chefs as a necessary first step towards longevity is sustainability. It is, according to many, the evolutionary stage the premium restaurant industry has entered. However, is it truly possible or even enough?
For environmental advocate, Darren MacLean, it is not enough. MacLean is an acclaimed Canadian chef, owner of three restaurants, a fast-casual takeaway concept, and globally known for being a competitor on Netflix’s The Final Table.
The problem, MacLean says, is that sustainability is merely trying to preserve. Instead, he believes that chefs need to look beyond sustainability to recovery or a reclamation of what has been lost.
“It’s easy to become sarcastic hearing ‘sustainability’ all the time but the truth is, sustainability, is the bare minimum needed. The future needs to be based in recovery and reclamation. We have a duty to learn about local seasonal ingredients, meet local suppliers and to think about what we serve guests.”
Adding, “So the question now becomes, how as a chef can you help create more soil, help grow ocean habitats and waste less? In real terms for a restaurant, sustainability is a function of willpower and customer tolerance for higher prices.”
MacLean’s fellow The Final Table competitor, chef Shane Osborn, founder of Hong Kong’s The Arcane Collective, says it is, for now, unachievable. “Sustainability is a goal we must all aim for, but operating in a completely sustainable manner is not possible currently, especially in a city like Hong Kong, that lacks the supportive infrastructure.”
Meanwhile, British chef Nurdin Topham says achieving sustainability depends on location. “In Hong Kong, where many restaurants are investment backed, profit priority makes sustainability tricky, but a recent consulting project I did in England led to a restaurant that is fully sustainable and ethical.”
Topham, previously based in Hong Kong, now resides in Malmö, Sweden, researching the region’s edible geography. Passionate about nourishing gastronomy he is working towards a MSc in Food Innovation and Health.
Sweden comes with its own challenges, although this is not putting him off his goal. “I aim to open a restaurant in Malmö, working with scientists and suppliers that facilitate greater human nourishment and alleviate the food supply issue.” He also wants to create a collaborative think-tank food lab designed to support a sustainable and ethical future for the industry globally.
Like the others, Richard Ekkebus, culinary director of Landmark Mandarin Oriental, is taking a proactive approach. One that has been globally recognised. “At Amber, we focus on minimising harm to our planet, and on environmental, social, and governance performance where Amber has a social, material and environmental impact.”
For Janice Leung-Hayes, founder of sustainability consultancy, Honestly Green, the sustainability equation is deeply complex. Take meat and the focus on carbon footprint for example.
“It's not that simple.” She then raises almost 20 questions ranging from whether the animal was raised in a factory farm to the source of animal feed, or from natural the ecosystem management to the impact on the native people. “These questions are just scratching the surface and that's just for meat!”
Overall, MacLean believes if recovery is achieved, “The positive effects on community health and local economies will be immense.”
See also: Passion on a Plate: Aphrodisiacs
WHAT’S ON THE MENU?
If sustainability is the minimum and recovery a necessity, what will we be eating in restaurants in the next few years?
“Diners in the future will have more of what they are already demanding now. Plant-based and sustainable food sources, in both finer dining establishments and fast casual. Instead of trying to replicate ‘meat’ from plants we will celebrate the real flavours of the variety of plants themselves,” says MacLean.
A sentiment echoed by the other three chefs, with Osborn pointing to a diner’s supporting role. "People are starting to understand that our current food system is broken. Diners have the power to effect change. Ordering a plant-based dish in preference to a meat dish will influence chefs’ menu writing.”
MacLean, who once found requests for vegan food “frankly annoying” now sources all his summer vegetables from his own farm, and raises his own animals. At his Japanese restaurant Nupo, which he predicts will become fully plant-based from the current 50% he serves a 20-course vegan omakase menu.
“In another 5 years I would like to have a fully integrated farm that supplies all of my animal protein and vegetables year-round, with my chickens feeding on insects that in turn feed on compost from my restaurants. I want to inspire and prove that it can be done in any climate and be profitable.”
Like MacLean, Ekkebus, is moving towards a plant-predominate future, with an aim to become 80% plant based. “Our direction towards a plant richer diet makes sense in many ways.”
When it comes to animal protein, diners can expect to be paying more. Topham says, “Instead of eradicating it, as chefs we need to ensure that the animal proteins we source are from farms that treat and process animals with the utmost respect.”
While it is a hard no from the interviewees to use processed meat substitutes (you know the ones), Topham is undecided about lab-grown proteins. “I am open to meats and seafood grown from stem cells provided there is no risk to human health. Although I think it is always better to opt for real food.”
MacLean says it could play a role replacing the meat used in fast food. “It would reduce the land needed and associated pollution. I am also for it if used to end the horrible treatment of fast food animals.”
Again Leung-Hayes points to complexity. “I don't feel that the debate of meat versus no meat, lab versus natural, is a useful one. It's oversimplified. It doesn't challenge the fundamentals of our food system, which critically, to name only some, includes problems such as funding, interest rate apartheids of small-holder farmers versus Silicon Valley giants, land rights, and ecosystems.”
She does agree that technology can be a force for good but would prefer a more equitable future. “If we spent as much time and resources on getting to know local ecosystems and knowledge passed down from the elders of the land, as we did on technological R&D, we might have a chance.”
See also: Eat Your Vegetables