January 31, 2019

In the past year, there has been an increasing number of restaurants promoting their farm-to-table concept. While some might consider it a passing trend (like observing darkness at Earth Hour), sustainability is quickly becoming an integral part of today’s restaurant business. And localisation is just the tip of the iceberg.

To lay the foundation, restaurants are sustainable when they reduce their waste streams and minimise their impact on the environment. Evidently, for larger business models, incorporating such practices in both the front and back of the house can have a remarkable impact on the environment. For example, McDonald’s move to ditch plastic straws reduces the usage of 1.8 million straws a day in the UK. However, the reality is that for smaller, one-location type operations, the motivation to maintain corporate social responsibility wanes indubitably, because attempts have a significantly less weighty impact. Buying and sourcing local produce, and implementing processes to reduce wastage, more often than not, doesn’t align with the prosperity of the business. People, profit and planet bear an inherent contradiction. And when making ends meet is of paramount worry, sustainability often takes a back seat as restaurants are not geared towards making the best ecological decisions.

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to witness a few restaurant owners who are committed to this noble cause. In the interim, the ugly truth surfaces with certain businesses dropping keywords like ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘seasonal’ with reckless abandon in hopes of drawing positive press. It works—only for a while before investors retract those statements when bottom lines are not met. What’s worse is that restaurants would sell a ‘sustainable’ menu to disillusioned diners without so much as an ounce of care for the cause. Greenwashing, as they call it.

It’s a simple concept really that starts with restaurant owners and chefs who are motivated to implement a ‘sustainable menu’ and then selling it to diners who are aware of their decision to choose a more ethical way of sustainable dining. In this day and age, when subscribing to environmentally friendly ways is considered trendy, millennials are proving to be a promising audience.

The problem here lies in the supply chain. It all boils down to chefs who feel a social responsibility. This exists in many facets: direct involvement with communities supporting the business, reducing carbon footprint, reducing food wastage and in some instances, “commitment to feeding our guests the best of food, through good execution and clever sourcing,” remarks Chef LG Han of one-Michelin-starred Labyrinth. His restaurant touts a new expression of Singapore cuisine, and over the last three years, has championed local produce that celebrates the Singapore terrior. While it makes sense to incorporate local produce as part of the restaurant’s DNA, Chef Han’s fervent enthusiasm about raising the awareness of passion projects by the local farmers is infectious. He states that going local, “should not be a novelty, but made a norm.”

While putting local produce on a pedestal poses many challenges in Singapore, in other countries where sourcing and foraging are commonplace, a different set of obstacles exists. “How do you give enough incentive to the farmers to ensure that they respect sustainable practices in their workplace?” Kristian Baumann of Copenhagen’s Restaurant 108 laments after explaining his whole stance of going local as the by-product of a long-standing relationship between the local producers and farmers and the restaurant. True enough, a slight tilt in demand may cause a slip in integrity, but more often than not, we play to the good of the world.

For some, being industry leaders in the culinary scene allow them to be walking billboards of their cause. Bo Songvisava of Bo.Lan asserts, “Since all our food comes from nature, if we don’t take care of our earth and the environment, we will have nothing left.” Never bite the hand that feeds you. That makes perfect sense. “Sure, zero carbon footprint is a terminology used to capture people’s attention but the underlying fact is that we must act on it via our cooking and eating activities.” She says. At Bo.Lan, old frying oil is recycled and made into soap as parting gifts and bee’s wax linen replaces plastic wrap in the kitchen. Leading by example is the order of the day, and in a world where young minds wait to be influenced, Bo is quick to evangelise the merits of sustainability in her restaurant.

Sure, trends may come and go, but a shift towards observing sustainable practices in the restaurant is here to stay. Consumers are gradually becoming more environmentally conscious (speaking of which, have you heard of the Flexitarian diet?), and with their preference firmly in the market driver’s seat, more restaurants are forced to change the way they do business. “It’s a ripple effect, once you’ve made an impact, the rings in the water keep getting bigger and bigger,” chimes Kristian. He explains that instead of enforcing a fixed set of processes in the restaurants, it’s important to educate the staff and teach them how to care for the world around them such that the mindset sticks even when they’ve moved on to a different workplace.

Considerations such as ‘What do you really care about?’, ‘Could we be doing something different?’ and ‘Who do you serve?’—should be the drivers of sustainability, not just profits or surface-level marketing gimmicks. To any food entrepreneur or chef-owner, the real question is: What does cooking mean to you as a person? It’s a personal journey, and so is finding a commitment towards observing social responsibility. We must respect the riches of nature. We must redefine comfort and convenience within the balance of profitability. And we should use our intellect to push for positive change and improve the dire state of our climate. Now is the time.