Who’s doing what, and what it takes to be truly sustainable.
Talks about sustainability in the restaurant industry used to be centred on sustainable sourcing—sourcing for meats and seafood that are wild-caught or farmed through ecologically sustainable means. Subsequently, the farm-to-table movement went full swing, shifting the spotlight on reducing food miles and sourcing locally. In recent years, as climate change hits mainstream consciousness, the sustainability discussion has again gathered momentum to encompass zero-waste cooking and reducing plastic waste.
The restaurants leading the charge
One of the most prominent restaurants in the sustainability narrative is Locavore in Bali, which was named Sustainable Restaurant 2019 by the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants committee. Funnily enough, sustainability wasn’t their goal when co-founding chefs Eelke Plasmeijer and and Ray Adriansyah first opened Locavore. Their razor-sharp focus—on using only locally available ingredients to present their modern European cuisine—was actually prompted by the realisation that diners were looking for authentic, original experiences and that there was no point in importing ingredients that international guests have access to at better quality back home. That mindset shift kickstarted their journey and everything else started to fall into place.
At Locavore, sustainability is about “the way things get farmed, handled, shipped, used and discarded.” 95 per cent of ingredients are sourced from local producers and artisans. Locavore even has their own butchery, Local Parts, to support nose-to-tail cooking. Consider Crispy Sparrow, done bebek goreng style—pressured cooked and deep-fried such that guests can literally eat everything, beak and feet all. Thinking out of the box not only helped them find practical use for sparrows (pests to farmers), but also new ways of doing nose-to-tail.
Sustainability is integrated into operations too. Kitchen waste is either fed to pigs or composted. The team works with suppliers to reduce packaging waste by providing them with baskets and reusable containers. Solar panels have halved electricity consumption.
Another restaurant paying keen attention to the less glamorous minutiae is Lighthouse, a modern Mediterranean nook in Brooklyn. For sister-and-brother duo Naama and Assaf Tamir, sustainability is ingrained in them, having grown in up an agricultural town called Rehovot in Israel. But reading William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book, Cradle to Cradle, had them looking hard at upcycling. Naama Tamir shares, “Assaf and I wanted to change the paradigm of a restaurant in an urban environment, and to show that you can be environmentally and socially responsible, as well as turn a profit.”
Lighthouse operates a finely tuned waste management system. Among others: oyster shells are set aside for reef rehabilitation initiatives; onion skins and avocado pits are sent to a local partner who processes them into natural dyes; glass bottles are cut and sanded down for glasses and jars. “It’s about closing the loop—making holistic changes that truly solve a problem rather than green washing or coming up with partial solutions,” Naama continues.
Closer to home, Maximal Concepts, a leading hospitality group from Hong Kong known for trendy, contemporary Chinese establishments, is a sustainability pioneer within the Chinese restaurant sector—not surprising, considering that co-founder Malcolm Wood is a long-time advocate for environmental causes.
John Anthony, a Cantonese grill and dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong, is their most ambitious project to date. Sustainability is factored into numerous facets: using eco-paint; verifying ethical farming practices of suppliers; eliminating single-use plastics; and even launching a zero-waste cocktail menu. The Group is nearly plastic-free for the front-of-house and they’ve also been exerting influence over their business partners. For instance, they’ve convinced the landlord for John Anthony to provide umbrella drying stations, instead of plastic bags, throughout the development. Naturally, Mott 32 Singapore, slated to open in early 2020 at the Marina Bay Sands, shares this ethos; there’s also talk of introducing zero-waste cocktails subsequently.
“Sustainability has historically not been a part of the question when it comes to Chinese restaurants, and we are proud to pioneer it. There are lots of dishes and ingredients that we could add to the menu and charge good money for, but we chose not to go down that route as we want to be ethical,” Wood puts it matter-of-factly.
For chef-owner Drew Nocente of modern Aussie restaurant Salted & Hung, sustainability calls for “changing the way we look at ingredients, where we get them from, and how we use them.” He makes a point to look for farms that have a proven track record for good farming practices. Fish bones are first steeped for ‘fish sauce’, then roasted and pulverised into seasoning; pickling liquid is churned into sorbet to perk up salads. To cut down disposables, the team has also minimised sous-vide cooking in favour of braising and confit-cooking. For Nocente, the biggest challenge is getting his chefs to change their perception. “When people have been trained their whole career to do things a certain way, it takes time to get everyone on board. You need to help them understand the philosophy behind it,” he adds.
A Singapore trailblazer
Grand Hyatt Singapore is perhaps the city’s most comprehensive case study. Its achievements are staggering.
The restaurants serve only cage-free eggs and free-range chickens; 80 per cent of seafood is certified sustainable; their Mottainai lamb is purported to be just slightly above Beyond Meat in terms of carbon emissions. The hotel was the first in Singapore to install a food waste-to-fertiliser digestor, eliminating 55,000 trash bags a year. There’s no lack of plant-based alternatives—Beyond Burger and Sausage, Just Egg, Omnipork, and soon, Heura (plant-based chicken); Beyond Burgers have outsold meat-based burgers three-to-one.
“We believe the hotel industry has a huge part to play to protect the planet for future generations, especially given the huge amounts of food we serve on a daily basis,” Lucas Glanville, Director of Culinary Operations, Food & Beverage emphasises.
From conservation to restoration
Supporting the industry’s sustainability efforts is Zero Foodprint, an organisation co-founded by Chris Ying of Lucky Peach fame and chef-restaurateur Anthony Myint of Mission Chinese Food to help restaurants assess and address their climate impact. Noma, Atelier Crenn, and Amass are just some of the restaurants that are now carbon-zero.
Ultimately, Myint believes that the most impactful measure is to promote carbon farming and healthy soil. The underlying concept: To sequester carbon emissions into agricultural land (i.e. carbon farming) through good old photosynthesis. Good farming practices that cultivate healthy soil are key to that—which is why beef from a ranch with pastures (read: carbon sinks) is much more climate-beneficial than beef from a feedlot farm.
Myint believes in collective action, but he’s realistic too. Which is why his Perennial Farming Initiative has worked with the California state to launch a healthy soils programme—a network of zero-carbon eateries that will introduce a 1 per cent charge that will fund farmers and ranchers to transition to climate-friendly practices such as cover cropping and composting.
Myint explains, “At the beginning, we had the same mindset as everyone—that we should reduce our impact. But over the last couple of years our focus has shifted from conservation to restoration, from reducing impact to accelerating solutions. Good farming can solve global warming—restaurants and chefs must be part of the cultural shift. Ten celebrity chefs could start a big movement in one year.”
This article was first published in the Sep/Oct 2019 Celebrating Singapore’s Top Restaurants issue of Wine & Dine.