You may imagine that Michelin-starred restaurants, our most cerebral hospitality environments, are pace-setters in sustainability. In fact, the holistic changes which Sat Bains has introduced at his restaurant-with-rooms remain rare.
Sat made headlines in 2015 when he reduced his staff’s working hours to four days-a-week, while continuing to pay them the same salary. In an industry fighting over a small pool of talented chefs, Sat wanted to make this two-Michelin-starred property a more attractive place to work. But it was also about rewarding his team. “We took a massive [financial] risk for their future,” says Sat, who talks about demonstrating, by example, how restaurants can treat staff in a fair, nurturing way: “It’s an obligation we have as restaurateurs.”
In recent years, Sat has overseen several other innovations that are, similarly, virtuous circles: moves which have made his restaurant leaner, greener and tastier. This journey started when the University of Nottingham asked Sat to help them create a solar-powered house. He showed the team how to cook his famous 62C duck egg, pea and ham dish in a low-temperature oven and, subsequently, a Ph.D student visited to analyse where Sat’s kitchen was wasting energy: “Our electricity bill was going through the roof, £40k- £50k-a-year, just ridiculous. It was a really good learning curve.”
The restaurant switched to LED lights, energy-efficient induction hobs and invested in a composting system, Closed Loop Organics, which processes the vast majority of Sat’s food waste. The composter both radically reduced the restaurant’s landfill disposal costs (“Bin liners full of wet vegetable waste are about 90% water. You’re paying to bin water!”), and produces a nutrient-rich compost which is used to grow everything from nasturtiums to tomatoes in the restaurant’s two recycled Victorian glasshouses and along a rainwater-fed living wall in the car-park.
“We do a kohlrabi tagliatelli cooked in a butter, nutmeg and parmesan rind stock, and then, at the table, we make a pesto from the beautiful greenhouse cresses. You can’t get fresher. We’re showing that in an urban environment, under pylons and a flyover, you can grow delicious stuff.” Menus from £95.
Now almost 20-years-old, this elegant basement fish restaurant is both a Glasgow institution and a sustainability pioneer. Inspired by the Slow Food movement and the crisis around dwindling fish stocks, chef-owner Derek Marshall took a stand in 2010: “Gamba’s got a reputation for being expensive and using the best cuts of fish but, ultimately, it wasn’t always sustainable. We had to change our ways.”
Derek stopped using any endangered species and started using cheaper fish that are in plentiful supply. This switch to using Sri Lankan yellow-tail tuna for Gamba’s sashimi, or sustainably-farmed sea bass has not necessarily been easy.
Staying across the latest advice on fish stocks globally is, a “bit of a nightmare”, says Derek, whose restaurant holds the top Sustainable Restaurant Association’s rating: three stars. For instance, after years of panic around cod, certain fishing grounds have recovered and Gamba is now serving Shetland cod roasted with creamed cabbage, pancetta and smoked haddock.
“I’m not saying I’m 100% sustainable, I don’t think any fish restaurant could be,” says Derek, “but hopefully we’re 99%.” How switched-on diners are to these issues is moot. Rather than focussing exclusively on perceived luxury ingredients, such as langoustines or (highly endangered) skate, the public has embraced workaday fish such as hake, mackerel and bream but, says Derek.
“Customers’ perceptions of fish are strange. I’ve only got one whole fish on because I know customers don’t like bones. We have the areas where the fish comes from on the menu, so, hopefully, we’re educating people. But you’ll get one customer a week that’ll comment on it. Sometimes I think we’re fighting a losing battle, but we’re not, because we’re doing what we think is right.” Starters from £7.50, mains from £19.50.
Poco, London E2 and Bristol
Self-styled eco chef Tom Hunt doesn’t do orthodox. This is a cook who learned his trade with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the early days of River Cottage (absorbing an ethos of ethical, strictly seasonal sourcing) and who, in 2011, cooked a food waste feast for 200 people on London’s Southwark Bridge. “That was the turning point,” says Tom, “where I decided to focus all my energy on sustainability and the message I want to convey through food.”
That Tom now owns a Hackney tapas restaurant where the kitchen practises “root-to-fruit” waste-minimal cooking and sources over 90% of its ingredients from within a 100-mile radius, should come as no surprise. Where most restaurateurs see London as an impenetrable urban sprawl that requires them to buy ingredients in from France or Cumbria, Tom (who owns a second Poco in Bristol) saw a city rich in produce.
“It is a misconception that there aren’t outstanding producers in and around London. There’s a huge urban gardening movement and interesting community projects growing outstanding organic produce. In Kent and lower Norfolk, there’s a massive amount of really good ingredients. For consuming high-quality, ethical, chemical-free produce, London is brilliant.”
Poco’s dishes such as bavette steak with oyster mushrooms and pearl barley, or rabbit consommé with oatmeal arancini make use of, for instance, cheeses from Bill Oglethorpe’s Bermondsey dairy, Kappacasein, and organic salad leaves from Hackney’s Patchwork Farm. Almost nothing is thrown away. Organic lemons, one of Poco’s few imported ingredients, are juiced but the rinds are retained to make limoncello and preserved lemons.
Poco has served mackerel fillet with its own deep-fried skeleton (“Crunchy and delicious,” insists Tom) and, when it opened in 2015, it was using trout home-smoked with wood shavings left-over after the carpenters had built Poco’s furniture. “It’s about being creative. Looking at the ingredient, what’s edible, using in its whole sense and breaking down the norms of what wouldn’t be used,” says Tom. Read Tom’s guide to reducing food waste here. Dishes £2 – £10.
Barnaby Hibbert’s bar-restaurant, the Gallery, has been the SRA’s Food Made Good Welsh restaurant of the year for three consecutive years. But he stresses: “I’m not one of the hair-shirt hippy brigade.” Instead, he’s a self-taught chef who is showing that it’s possible to create a high-quality, popular bar-restaurant, which, in 101 discreet ways, operates responsibly.
It’s painstaking work that began at the planning stage: Barnaby’s background is in environmental building design and, naturally, the Gallery has a green cross-ventilation system, LED lights and grey (aka used) water is collected to hydrate its herb garden. Barnaby also uses eco-friendly cleaning products and a coffee supplier, Welsh Coffee Company, which buys direct from producers.
In sourcing, says Barney: “Quality is the first concern.” But, where possible, he prioritises local and Welsh ingredients. It’s a process which, he admits, involves certain “compromises”. For instance, the Gallery’s beers, beef and vegetables are hyper-local and all its mainline spirits (like Penderyn whisky) and mixers (Llanllyr Source) are Welsh: “If you have a gin and tonic, other than lemon, it’s all Welsh.” But due to difficulties in accessing consistent local supply chains, the Gallery sources most of its fish – outside of seasonal mackerel or Swansea Bay mussels – from a national, SRA-approved company, M&J Seafood.
It’s something Barnaby tries to balance out, not least in the way he allows seasonality to drive his modern European dishes, such as belly pork, pig’s cheek, sauerkraut, colcannon and cider sauce, or butternut squash risotto with Perl Las (a blue cheese) bon bons and rocket pesto. “I always look at veg, not as a garnish, but as the cornerstone of a dish. I hope most chefs start from that now.” Dinner from £27.50.
Staff canteens are not known for being at the forefront of sustainable practice, but then, from its epic views from the Mendips out across Blagdon Lake, to its use of strictly local, seasonal ingredients, Yeo Valley’s is no ordinary canteen.
The company’s owners, the Mead family, have been farming in Somerset for generations and the canteen (opened to the public in 2015; breakfast/lunch), is, like Yeo Valley’s yogurts, a manifestation of the values which the Meads adhere to at their nearby, organic Holt Farm. In everything from the canteen’s accessible pricing to the company’s use of solar energy, the Yeo Valley businesses offer a living example of alternative, ethical food production. “When talking about sustainability, it’s not just about the final dish. It’s the whole back story,” says executive chef, Paul Collins.
Having conceived the canteen with owner Sarah Mead, Paul spent six months identifying a network of local suppliers who share their ethos. The canteen sources almost all its dairy and meat from Holt Farm. Allied to some clever nose-to-tail cooking, that enables the kitchen to serve organic rib of beef on Wednesdays for just £14. But the menu is, fundamentally, driven by what vegetables are arriving from suppliers such as The Community Farm or Strode Valley. Nature constantly intervenes: “We get texts saying there are no salad leaves this week because the deer have eaten them or they’re frozen, and we go, ‘okay, let’s go to plan B’. The menu changes in an instant,” says Paul.
By flexibly supporting these local suppliers, Paul is rewarded with superb ingredients such as 12-day hung chickens from Piper’s Farm or Blagdon Lake trout. The Canteen menu is short and relatively simple. It might typically include a burger, kedgeree, squash risotto, bubble ‘n’ squeak with kale and dill hollandaise. Paul wants to show that, when using incredible fresh produce, such humble dishes can shine: “That’s one of our goals, so that people go away saying, ‘it was just a tart or salad but it was amazing’.” Light lunches from £4.50, meals from £9.
The Gallivant’s owner, Harry Cragoe, doesn’t come from a hospitality background. Refreshingly, therefore, he has no preconceived ideas about how things should be done. For instance, where other owners might freak at the cost or logistics of it, Harry loves that the Gallivant’s accomplished chef, Oliver Joyce, sources 95% of his fresh ingredients from within 10 miles of this beachside restaurant-with-rooms.
Likewise, in tribute to the flourishing UK wine industry, Harry delisted champagne and now serves 30 British sparkling wines. “I’m totally in favour of reinvesting the money we receive from guests in the local community and, guess what? Our guests really like it,” says Harry, whose property holds a top three-star Sustainable Restaurant Association rating.
His most radical departure, however, has been to ban tips and service charges and, instead, put all staff on at least £9-an-hour (far higher than the National Living Wage and even Living Wage Foundation rates). He also pays staff further performance-related and profit-share bonuses.
Harry dislikes the restaurant industry’s minimum wage culture and could not understand how the tips system (which often favours senior, long-serving staff) was fair: “In my business a housekeeper could be as valuable as someone waiting-on, so that was potentially unfair. And I didn’t think star performers should be paid the same as people going through the motions. It’s a weird way of incentivising people.”
The Gallivant’s new wage bill is “terrifying”, but Harry feels that improvements in pay, along with staff perks such as subsidised gym membership or company-funded training in wine or butchery, are essential if the restaurant industry is to attract talented, passionate staff. “Hospitality is a tough business: you work long, anti-social hours and it’s pretty stressful. If you want to retain good people and you want your staff to deliver a great customer experience, you need to pay them fairly.” Starters from £6.50, mains from £16.50.
All of the above is written by Tony Naylor
‘We weren’t necessarily tree-huggers when we came here,’ concedes Battlesteads’ owner, Richard Slade, ‘but we quickly realised that if we wanted to create something unique, we had to work with nature and the environment.’
For the past 10 years, the Slades (Richard and Dee) have done precisely that. They have created a beautiful inn by embracing the benefits of going green. In everything from cultivating the gardens to attract new bird life; forging links with local suppliers; or installing a carbon-neutral heating system. This engagement with Northumberland goes beyond infrastructure, too. Battlesteads provides meals for the village school; serves a three-course OAPs lunch on Mondays, for £5.50; and hosts an annual charitable beer festival. Rural businesses, says Richard: ‘have to be involved in the community…’
Click here to read even more about Battlesteads in Northumberland
‘Honestly, I’d never boiled an egg,’ says Jim Cowie, as he recalls his decision, aged 52, to open his own restaurant. Thirteen years on, the Captain’s Galley in the Highland port of Scrabster, is one of the UK’s most revered seafood restaurants. Jim, it turned out, is a natural.
Not that he was starting entirely from scratch. Prior to reinventing himself as a chef, Jim worked as a fish trader, a job that took him to some of the world’s best restaurants. Moreover, Scrabster’s day-boat fishermen are lifelong friends of his. Each day, Jim visits the quay, buys his fish and writes a new menu. ‘I’ve no problem getting brilliant fish but, more than that, I know the fishing areas and what is in and out of season.’
Click here to read even more about Captain’s Galley in Scotland
The public is gradually beginning to value green dining, but, says Café ODE owner, Tim Bouget, plates remain a sticking point. ODE serves up to 400 meals-a-day in compostable cardboard trays and: ‘It really annoys some of the older generation.’
Those numbers suggest that Tim is winning the argument, and his cafe above Ness Cove in Shaldon (‘They call it a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem.’), is certainly built to last. Every detail of this stable block conversion – sedum roof sewn with wild flowers; solar thermal heating; lambs’ wool wall insulation – was chosen for its green credentials. ‘It’s the right thing to do and good business sense,’ says Tim, who also runs Shaldon’s ODE Dining restaurant. ‘Why would we buy tables from a factory when we can get them made here and support local suppliers?’
Click here to read even more about Café Ode in Devon
Amid the cut ‘n’ thrust of London’s restaurant scene, sustainability is often low on the agenda. At the Truscott Arms, however, a smartly renovated Victorian corner pub, owners Andrew and Mary-Jane Fishwick are determined to take a stand. It is a matter of principle and enlightened self-interest. ‘It’s our own business and we want to do things properly, because we can,’ says Andrew. ‘But we also want to create something excellent, and sourcing ingredients properly, seasonality, knowing your supply chain, is how you achieve that.’
In one significant break with the norm – ‘The hospitality industry is notorious for low-pay’ – all staff are paid at least the London Living Wage. Andrews reasoning is simple: ‘The guy behind the bar or your waiter are the people you associate with the Truscott Arms, so it’s vital that they feel valued.’
Click here to read even more about The Truscott Arms in London
Andy Hilton refuses to make any grand statements about Arbor’s sustainability practises. As head chef, he is committed to green cooking, but for his brigade, this is just what they do every day, it’s normal. Be it working with low-energy induction hobs or diligently minimising kitchen waste: ‘Week-to-week, it doesn’t affect us. We don’t talk about it a lot. It’s just the way we work.’
Click here to read even more about Arbor Restaurant in Bournemouth
About Food Made Good
Food Made Good, run by The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), celebrates and rewards those establishments that are committed to sustainability. Head to foodmadegood.org for the latest star ratings (from one to three) to find out more.
Photographs: John Arandhara-Blackwell, Thomas Bowles, Jake Eastham