How do you eat an elephant?

As part of our series examining the life cycle of a sustainable restaurant, Liz Campbell considers the challenges and benefits of using fresh, locally sourced ingredients

Students faking ID cards – there’s nothing unusual about that. But when they’re doing it to access a dining hall, there must be something significant happening.

There was.

Ten years ago, John Turenne, FCSI, was charged with changing the food program at America’s venerable Yale University to focus on sustainability, using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. He started with one dining room in Berkeley Hall.

Despite reducing the number of options on the menu, Berkeley Dining Hall found it was having to turn students away.  “Fake IDs usually have more to do with beverages than food,” laughs Turenne. “But the food was freshly prepared and the quality was there. They loved it and they all wanted it.”

Traditionally, he explains, when students complained about food, the knee-jerk response was to offer more choices. But as this never included more staff, the food was usually frozen and often pre-prepared. The change at Yale was one from quantity to quality, and getting students to buy in proved easy. It turned out that fresh food trumped extra choices.

But what about the staff?

Turenne had to fire the enthusiasm of 75 cooks and 200 workers. They had to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of what had to be achieved to make the operation sustainable. And they had to buy into it.

The ‘how’ proved easier. How do we understand seasonality and build the menus? How do we source it, handle it, and store it? This was a matter of instruction and process.

The ‘why’ was the bigger challenge. Why do we want to do this? Why is it important that we do this?

“That’s when you make things stick,” Turenne emphasises. “When I learned the ‘why’, that’s when the ‘Aha! moment’ hit. That’s when you start asking the questions. What impact does food have on our environment, on local communities and economies, on social concerns like animal rights, and on the health and wellbeing of the people eating it?”

Turenne acknowledges the next step can be overwhelming for a restaurateur, even one that sets out to build and operate a green restaurant. But he adds, “When professionals get this, they realise they have a tremendous responsibility beyond just being someone who grinds out food.”

At Billy Kwong in Surry Hills, Australia, chef/owner Kylie Kwong is eloquent about their move to sustainably sourced, local biodynamic produce in 2005. “What followed was a tremendous learning experience: because the flavour and texture of such produce is so true and intense, discipline is needed to let the natural ingredients speak for themselves, and restraint is required to avoid overwhelming the ingredients with gloopy sauces or inappropriate cooking methods. Offering the healthiest, most life-giving, sustainable food is the best possible way my staff and I can serve the community; it is our contribution.”

Making the decision to buy local, sustainable ingredients usually entails moving beyond a large menu composed of mostly frozen food, often purchased ready prepared and portioned to save labour costs. It undoubtedly involves forging alliances with local farmers and producers to obtain products. And this can necessitate additional prep staff to clean and prepare fresh ingredients, often to bottle, freeze or preserve the summer’s bounty for the winter menu.

At Forage in Vancouver, Canada, created as a model sustainable restaurant (see Part 2), a separate receiving area was created simply to bring in, prepare and process the fresh ingredients without interfering with the normal operation of the restaurant. While not every restaurant has this luxury, there will be a need to rethink the space and determine best practice.

And there’s a cost involved – in purchasing local ingredients which aren’t grown by huge agribusiness conglomerates; in delivery from individual farmers or purveyors rather than from large distributors; in staff to process, clean, cut, and handle fresh ingredients.

Bryan Webb, chef owner of Tyddyn Llan Restaurant with Rooms, a boutique hotel in Lllandrillo, Wales, agrees the costs are higher but sees the benefits of supporting local producers. But for the Michelin starred chef, it comes down to the same thing that attracted the Yale students to Berkeley Dining Hall – the taste. He puts it simply, “We’re in the business of serving the best food we can, and that comes from local suppliers.”

Communicating sustainability

Communicating sustainability can be very effective. At the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver, Canada, which is aiming to be the first zero waste hotel in the country. Executive Chef Dana Hauser sources locally, grows her own herbs and smokes her own meats and as far as possible, everything is made in house. These clearly articulated policies have resulted in a couple of surprising benefits. “We’re finding that organisations with sustainability values built into their own operational practices are choosing our hotel for their meetings and conferences,” general manager, Ian Pullan explains.

The second benefit was even more unexpected. “Colleague engagement,” says Pullan. “Sustainability is an important piece for young people selecting employers. They want to work with a company they believe is doing the right things.”

It’s important to get the message out effectively. “The biggest challenge we have is explaining what we do. You don’t want to preach or take the moral high ground, but if you empower your staff to tell the story, it really works,” says Tim Bouget, chef/owner of ODE True Food Cafe, winner of the last Sustainable Restaurant of the Year award from UK’s Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). “We have maps on the wall to show where our ingredients come from. Our customers get it.”

In fact, customers are getting it around the globe. Giles Coren, the restaurant reviewer for The Times, has helped to spread the message. The first reviewer to look at sustainability practices of the restaurants he visits, Coren began doing this 10 years ago and has helped to bring sustainability to the forefront.

“At first, it was just about local and organic sourcing of meat (and a very successful campaign against bottled water), which I scored myself, based on what I saw and the odd question I asked. Back then, restaurants were hostile. I asked one waiter to ask the chef if the salmon on the menu was wild or farmed and if farmed, whether sustainably. He came back with the answer, ‘The chef says ‘f**k off!’” he laughs. “Things have changed since then. All restaurants seem to claim some level of social and economic responsibility so I leave it to the Sustainable Restaurant Association to do a brief audit of every restaurant I review.”

Coren is spot on. The growing demand for authenticity and confidence in their food supply has even large chains like Starbucks scurrying for ethically sourced coffee beans, and fast food giants like McDonald’s and YUM Brands seeking out recyclable containers and sustainable waste management systems. Both Burger King and McDonald’s have built showcase LEED certified buildings. They want to demonstrate their green credentials.

This isn’t surprising. The fast food industry has been astounded at the success of chains like US-based Chipotle and Panera Bread, both of whom have maintained consistent sales growth by offering customers healthier food and showing them they use sustainable business practices. For example, Chipotle sources half of their beans from organic farms and they have a buy local policy. More importantly, both companies continuously evaluate practices to determine the next step. This success connecting with the environmentally conscious millennial generation has enabled Chipotle to triple sales since 2006.

For smaller restaurants, it may seem a tall order, but like these companies, Turenne sees sustainability as being a non-stop process which begins with simple steps like light bulbs and better food sourcing, moving on to the bigger issues like equipment, and waste and water management. The key, he adds, is not to stop. “You have to move on from baby steps, to toddler steps, to teen steps. It’s tempting to stop after the first success.”

To illustrate the point, he’s fond of asking, “How do you eat an elephant?”

The answer is of course, “One bite at a time.”

Process of sustainability

John Turenne, FCSI, uses the spokes of a bicycle wheel to explain the process of sustainability. “A bicycle won’t function efficiently if one spoke is damaged or broken,” he says. “But if all five are strong, it can’t fail.”

  • Food: Is it seasonal, local, organic, cooked from scratch?
  • Facility: Does the infrastructure support the menu? How can you create a new menu if you don’t have the right equipment. You might have to change the facility to receive, process and serve your new menu.
  • Community: All the stakeholders involved in the food program – staff, management, administration, customers, suppliers, farms, in the case of schools it might be parents as well – all have to be in the loop and understand what is being done.
  • Communication: The teaching, training and mentoring needed to get the message out to the customer. If you’re going to all this trouble to change the menu and train staff, you better get your customers up to speed so you can sell the product. It also includes marketing and merchandising.
  • Fiscal Responsibility: Grandiose plans may require sober second thought in order to meet budget constraints. In some locations such as schools or hospitals, menu pricing may be fixed. The goals can be achieved but measurement and monitoring have to be put in place to ensure fiscal responsibility.

Liz Campbell

Read part two in this series, Green House effect, for analysis of the issues surrounding the construction of a sustainable restaurant

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