A quiet and consequential revolution is happening in the culinary world of London and I’m not talking about Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant ‘Dinner’, local farmers’ markets or the whole organic craze. Well, not quite. I am talking about something much more important. Certain businesses and restaurants are now taking the bold and significant steps in being truly sustainable and carbon neutral. This is not merely a fashionable trend in order to feel good about oneself but in fact a life or death decision. With much anger at the inadequacies and failings of the yearly G8 summits, small businesses are now taking the matter into their own hands and in due process, proving all those politicians wrong.
I’m no tree-hugger but I do pride myself in the fact that I walk to work, recycle refuse, switch off lights and gadgets that are not being used, take re-useable bags to the supermarket and have a ‘sinkerator’ in the kitchen to break down food matter. But many believe, however, that this is not enough. For if what the Stern Report says about global warming is true, everything will soon become nothing, and all that has been said and done will have been to no consequence. For there is nothing more wasteful in our world than packaging and the amount of fuel that is wasted in getting the food to our fridges. There is also the disassociation factor that we have with food. We buy it, we cook it, and we eat it. End of story. We don’t even think of the process of how vegetables are grown and harvested, how animals are reared and slaughtered or how responsible farming has a huge impact on our environment. I take a look at four different enterprises in our sprawling Capital that have taken the brave measures to address these issues.
THE WATERHOUSE RESTAURANT
It is the brilliant vision of Arthur Pots Dawson that opened in the spring of 2008. Waterhouse is the sister restaurant of the highly applauded Acorn House and carries the same ethos. What started off as a regeneration project for the Shoreditch Trust in partnership with the Blue Marble Trust it offers training opportunities to locals and is now a thriving collective and positive influence within the area. Built from organic and recycled materials it sits inside an inter-linked community of residential flats and offices alongside the Regent’s Canal. All kitchen equipment is designed to reduce waste, – electric hobs use induction, (so it only uses power when a pan is placed on it) the dishwasher uses ozone (which kills microorganisms in air and water sources to the same effect as bleach) rather than damaging chemicals, electricity is hydroelectric and the fridges are energy efficient. Food is all sourced locally or responsibly, delivered without packaging, never air freighted and is organic and Fairtrade as much as it can. Water is purified on site for consumption. The heating and cooling of the restaurant is controlled in the pipes beneath the floor from the water of the canal through a ‘thermal ambient cooling system’. As for refuse, glass is crushed in a compactor while all biodegradable scraps are thrown into a masserator, reduced to particle size and then composted. They even utilize the entrance for growing herbs. Project and restaurant Manager, Andy Gold, goes on to say that re-cycling is a last resort, “where no other alternative exists”. He stresses that any waste is seen as failure, which is why they ask suppliers to deliver in re-usable containers and refuse items that are sent in packaging. With the lessons learned from Acorn House, Andy claims that Waterhouse has been a smoother learning curve. The restaurant is able to concentrate on churning out delicious food that is, by the way, not half bad, showing you that Waterhouse is by no means a compromise.
ST. MARY’S SECRET GARDEN
This little oasis sits quietly just off the busy Kingsland Road in Hackney. It’s not quite an acre but St. Mary’s Secret Garden is big enough to home a natural woodland, a food growing area, a herbaceous border and a sensory garden. It is an asset to the whole community offering horticultural education, reparative sessions, work experience and voluntary work. In conjunction with Boris Johnson’s ‘Capital Bee scheme’, the space also allows ‘The Golden Co.’ to work with youth offending groups in beekeeping classes. These youths are not only taught how to keep bees but also how to manage the hives on a year-to-year basis. They are then made to complete the process by harvesting, bottling up the honey, labelling and then selling it in Borough Market. It gives them not only a sense of pride and purpose but shows them responsibility and awareness of their environment. Golden Co. founder, Zoe Palmer reiterates that she has had to instil in her pupils a sense of responsibility, as you can’t just put a beehive on every street corner, for this would saturate the bee populace. (There needs to be a steady flow of bees around the whole country and not just in isolated areas, as pollination from the activity of bees needs to happen everywhere.) “We teach our students that beekeeping is all about liability and balance”. As much as possible they try and avoid using chemical treatments. For example, to help get rid of disease-carrying mites they sprinkle the hives with icing sugar so that the bees may brush themselves and the mites off. Zoe says that this does not, however, always work, – “you can’t always think that organic ways will always be helpful in keeping the bees alive. Again you need to be flexible and keep a fine balance.” The garden does not yet make enough money from the produce grown to make it self-sufficient. It relies on funding but just goes to reconfirm that this project is not about the money but essentially about preserving the morale and good team spirit within the neighbourhood of Hackney.
THE DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE PUB
Forerunners in the organic niche, the Duke of Cambridge is surprisingly the first and only gastro pub in the whole of the U.K. to be awarded the Soil Association certified stamp. It’s founder, Geetie Singh, was fed up with the restaurant industry’s lack of ethics towards food, waste and staff. She also reasoned that it was important for the respect and trust of her customers not to cut corners and maintain their organic ‘promise’, something that still stands today. Where nothing is air freighted, the fish is obtained from sustainable supplies, beer is supplied by local organic brewers Freedom Brewery and Pitfield Brewery, bottled water is never served, spirits and soft drinks are all organic, tea, coffee and sugar are all Fairtrade and there is a wide selection of surprisingly good English wines. (On research Geetie found that shipping wine from South Africa was more environmentally friendly than driving it from France.) There are no packaged bar snacks and even the candles on the tables are made from organic soy. The menu is, naturally, seasonal and locally sourced. This not only teaches the chefs to be flexible with the ingredients they use but also for the customer it shows us just how spoiled we’ve become to the ever-available worldly ingredients on display in our supermarkets. Waste is kept to a minimum and Good Energy supplies their electricity. (From renewable wind and solar sources) As a way of involving the staff, there are regular visits to suppliers so that they all have first-hand knowledge of the ingredients they are serving. Even the kitchen porters are included. It’s doors have been open since 1998 proving that despite the expensive levy of being certified as organic, you can still make a sustainable business work and be profitable at the same time.
FOOD FROM THE SKY
Food from the Sky is the world’s first permaculture and biodynamic roof garden. It’s motif is “to grow life, food and community” as it doubles up not only as a supplier for the Thornton’s Budgens supermarket of Crouch End (to which it also sits upon), but also as an educational strategy for the supermarket’s team, local schools as well as other local organisations. To start with, Andrew Thornton set up this Budgens to create ‘the people’s supermarket’ where not only could you find locally sourced products but also popular foreign goods to include the palate for the community as a whole. He listened to his customers, and indeed to Azul-Valerie Thome when she managed to persuade him to let her use the roof for this pioneering project. The idea is that children and elders are able to come and actively learn how to grow and harvest fruit, herbs and vegetables and gain a consciousness of our precious and valiant ecosystem in its annual development. Attention to detail is rife, from everything about insulating the walls to make the best of our blessed English climate to the right type of containers for each plant. Filled with sparkle and optimism, Azul-Valerie says that “tiny kids learn how to plant, grow, harvest, package and put it on the shelves for selling…and then they tell their parents to come and buy it, which is great.” Awareness in how food comes to being on our plates is an essential insight and also promotes healthy eating habits. It not only elevates and augments the lives of these local children, but also the 200-strong Budgens team and the local residents as a whole. Azul-Valerie says that working on the roof can decrease your stress levels and increase your productivity. She often finds the Budgens staff singing while harvesting the produce on the roof and has noticed that they integrate and also learn about other people’s cultures through bonding. It seems that this roof terrace is not just a space for growing plants but moreover a haven where human equality pervades and exalts in the wonders of Mother Nature.
These 4 different enterprises show that it can work and that each of us can make a difference. After years of up-hill struggles they all still offer a genuine passion and contagious positivity as true to the day they began. If you’re one of those right-wing non-believers who think it’s all part of a big con and that everything will sort itself out, then do think again. Just look at the freakish weather that is going on in our world today. We can make a difference, and don’t think that your small contribution is completely inconsequential to the grand scheme of things, because it’s not…especially if we all start thinking that we’re in this together, for the long run.
To be shown the unique insight of sustainable food enterprise in London and other inspirational guided visits, explore Insider Trends tours