A calm oasis off a busy main road, Native, a restaurant near London Bridge, is beautiful. Its bright dining room with exposed brick walls is made warm and welcoming with green foliage scattered about and shaggy blankets thrown over window seats. It’s the kind of place with trendy ceramics and a daily-changing menu with refined, elegant dishes like a pearl barley cracker with pickled corn or venison bao.
But Native co-owners Ivan Tisdall-Downes and Imogen Davis don’t run the restaurant like most. The tables are made out of recycled materials from the theatre industry; the coffee cups are made from waste coffee beans and other biomaterials like seaweed; that pearl barley cracker dish came about after a chef burnt the grains; and old menus printed on recycled paper can be spotted on tables, repurposed as taco holders.
“I think it’s special for customers to have menus with the date printed on but we’re always thinking about ways to use the old ones,” says Davis. “We might start making papier-mâché plates to serve snacks or hold receipts.”
Davis and Tisdall-Downes are two of the chefs and restaurateurs leading the charge to make the restaurant industry more sustainable. According to waste research company WRAP, the total amount of waste, including food, packaging and other non-food waste, produced each year by the food service and hospitality sector is 2.87 million tonnes, of which 46 per cent is recycled.
In my view, sustainability is no longer a choice but a necessity.
Gaurav Chawla, a senior lecturer in sustainable hospitality at the University of South Wales, says restaurants need to clean up their act now: “In my view, sustainability is no longer a choice but a necessity. We are already concerned about global food security. Unsustainable business practices also have severe environmental impacts.
“At the end of the day, it’s about balancing operational efficiency, profitability and sustainability, and I am confident that this can be achieved. Also, the reality is that the small, independent businesses simply cannot afford to be wasteful as it severely impacts the bottom line.”
Tisdall-Downes, also chef at Native, echoes this sentiment. He says, “We always wanted sustainability to be at the core of what we do but it’s also just an effective way to run a business. It costs us to get rubbish collected so we’ll give cardboard boxes back to the drivers as much as we can. It makes sense to use every part of the animal or the vegetable to make as much money as we can out of it. Diners will get the perfect portion of fish as a main course but they might have had the skin fried as a little cracker to start the meal. No part of the fish will go in the bin.”
To put it into perspective, Davis adds, “We have one small bin a week. Some restaurants have two collections a day.”
As part of its menu, Native also offers a selection of ‘wasting snacks’ like compost heap pakoras made from vegetable peelings and offcuts, fish trim croquettes with windfall apple béarnaise sauce, and ‘marrowmel’, made with a white chocolate ganache using bone marrow instead of butter.
It’s worked in our favour that everyone’s talking about sustainability nowadays so we can talk about what we’re doing,
“Most importantly, it’s got to be delicious. You’ve got to tick that box first,” says Davis. “It’s worked in our favour that everyone’s talking about sustainability nowadays so we can talk about what we’re doing, as well as delivering great food and a fun experience. We make the point of calling them ‘wasting snacks’ because we also want pass something on to the customer.”
There’s no doubt that sustainability is more of a hot topic than ever across the restaurant industry. In 2010, the Sustainable Restaurant Association was launched, encouraging best practice and rating restaurants on their eco credentials. Eateries like zero-waste Silo in Brighton have made a name for themselves with aerobic digesters (which turn waste into compost) as important as ovens.
This year also saw the official launch of A Meeting Place, bringing together female figures in the industry to discuss sustainability, and the UK branch of the Chef’s Manifesto. It’s a global framework devised by chefs, for chefs, about how the restaurant industry can help contribute to tackling the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Target areas include sourcing ingredients, packaging, food waste and waste disposal.
Merlin Labron-Johnson, executive chef at members’ club The Conduit, was one of the people involved. He sources directly from local suppliers and uses whole animals, but he’s also keen to shine a light on a more dirty subject: rubbish.
“Waste disposal is a less glamorous topic than organic farming but it’s a huge issue,” says Labron-Johnson. “At The Conduit, we give back packaging to suppliers and we’ve banned single-use plastic from the kitchen entirely. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. We don’t use cling film or do any vacuum pack cooking like sous vide. We have lids for containers or use recyclable greaseproof paper to store produce.”
It’s a bit like having a kitchen with different equipment. You adapt your menu to suit the environment you’re in and create dishes that don’t require plastic.
And when it comes to food waste, Labron-Johnson has a simple solution too.
“People talk about reducing food waste but how about we don’t make any in the first place?” he says. “Be clever about designing menus. If one dish has a by-product, have another dish that uses that by-product up. If there’s food waste that’s inedible, it could be turned into compost so it can be used to grow vegetables that are then sold back to the restaurant.”
Sustainability lecturer Chawla acknowledges that chain operators must also step up their sustainability efforts: “The impact of chain restaurants is greater, they are also able to invest into technological and human resources, so one may argue that greater responsibility lies with them. Their visibility is greater and they can get the message out there more easily.”
A sentiment that the chefs also share, Chawla adds, “I think it’s also educating people (employees and customers alike) that sustainable practices are likely to have a long-term impact.”
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Davis of Native is hopeful that restaurants can influence diners’ habits and in turn make them more demanding customers when it comes to sustainability: “People tag us on Instagram to show that they’ve made something with cauliflower leaves after trying a dish here. Then customers will come in and ask questions about ingredients. It’s an industry that can be responsible for some terrible things but can do some amazing things too.”