Published on 3 October 2019
Restaurants have traditionally been places of excessive consumption and waste.
They’ve been places where apart from the celebration of certain star ingredients, there’s been very little interest in the sustainability of important resources. Even today, if you walk along any back alley or lane in any capital city around the world where restaurants have their delivery entries and waste facilities you’ll notice most of the bins overflowing with items that could easily be recycled or full of green waste that could be easily returned to nature via composting systems rather than added to landfill. Inside these same restaurants you’ll find excessive amounts of water running down the drains and fossil fuel-based electricity being used like it grows on trees.
The produce being served will have potentially travelled thousands of kilometres after being grown using harmful pesticides. The food you eat in these restaurants could potentially have no affinity with the current season or locality its being cooked in and the staff, those cooking and serving, may also be feel no real connection to their place of employment and their guests thanks to poor management culture and poorly managed human resources in the restaurant.
We’re living and working at a time right now that is widely understood to be critical for the future of our planet.
As citizens of a global restaurant community, working within a medium that generates high volumes of waste and one that relies on high volumes of inputs in terms of electricity, water and also human resources, we have a responsibility to address and change the way we approach our work and operate our businesses.
We need to transition from places of excess to places of example.
We are very fortunate to have a great opportunity at this moment to become leaders in addressing workplace environmental and sustainability issues and to become socially engaged within our communities. More than ever, chefs are getting a voice in all kinds of media – people are genuinely interested in what we say and do. With the rise of this interest in our work and in food, cooking and restaurant culture in general across the world, we need to take this opportunity to not only lead by example through innovation within our cuisines but also within our businesses and with our environmental practices.
But how do we do this? Those of us working in restaurants, chefs, servers and restaurateurs, already have intense jobs and work in an industry that takes up most of our time day to day and perhaps it feels like things are out of our control. Many of us feel that as an industry we already have a pre-determined or prescribed way in which we all must work.
So what is it exactly that we can contribute to the wider definition of the sustainability discussion?
How do we foster change within our own restaurants, our cuisines and our broader industry and what environmental and social strategies benefit our communities, our staff and our businesses while allowing us to maintain sustainable, creative and independent identities?
I want to share a few basic ideas that I think are important for all of us working in restaurants today and ones that I believe can assist us, particularly cooks and restaurant owners, to work in a way that can facilitate positive environmental and social change.
It’s really important that the food we serve is our own and speaks of our identity and of place.
It doesn’t really matter what that identity is, but it needs to be authentic and reflect not only who we are as individuals but also our cultural identity and location including the products, producers, history and potential new directions or future evolution of that place. It doesn’t have to mean cooking traditionally or classically but it does mean being aware of our surroundings.
Cooking and working in this way enables our guests to connect to the taste of our place – it gives substance to our cuisines and enriches our local communities and economies. When we really focus on our locations we not only discover new ingredients and producers but we give them an economic reason to be. Working this way means our food will always be in season and it won’t travel great distances. We’ll reduce the excessive use of transportation and storage and we ending caring much more about each product as we personally know and understand the back story, the farmer or the producer.
There’s a lot of merit in cooking your own story – it’s the most unique and authentic story any of us can tell.
All traditional and regional cuisines have developed reflecting the people and place where they’re from – and it’s the continual evolution and development of tradition that’s so interesting. In some parts of the world, like here in Australia, we’re not bound by stiff cultural traditions. We work with an inquisitive freedom that’s in constant evolution and our story or our cultural and geographical DNA is an important base for the many cuisines that exist here in Australia right now and that are developing for the future.
Today’s diners are inquisitive and we add value to their experience by enquiring, researching and bringing all the varied aspects of our location, our nations’ people and our own evolution into their experience. This breeds great pride in your team as they enrich your guests with the unique stories of the people and produce of your place.
Respect and understanding of first nations people, their knowledge and ingredients plus multiculturalism could equal a blueprint for Australian cuisine.
We’re very privileged in Australia to live alongside ancient indigenous cultures and are fortunate to have access to their deep knowledge of place and season along with a vast range of endemic ingredients found nowhere else in the world. The food that we are able to source and cook with is distinct from all other places on earth and has a flavour profile all of its own.
This, blended with several generations of immigration and the resulting multiculturalism, has given us, as cooks, and those interested in exploring the definition of an Australian cuisine an amazing opportunity to build something very unique and independent.
This is certainly one of the luxuries of working in Australia and one of our specific points of difference, but for an internationally recognizable Australian cuisine to develop and one that’s sustainable within a warming and drying climate, we must pay more attention to the possibilities of our indigenous ingredients.
Don’t import ingredients or ideas. It’s up to us, as cooks, to find our own uniqueness and develop it.
Rather than simply importing ingredients from out of season from across the planet just because you’ve seen them on Instagram or taking and using ideas and aesthetics developed in places far away from your own, take time to discover and understand your own place and create your own identity.
Again, by focusing inwards rather than looking out, you actively participate in a system that encourages your local food communities and agriculturalists to exist and improve – to look for new ways of doing things, to expand their skill base and the products they cultivate. By your presence and interest you’ll encourage them to grow new ingredients or perhaps reevaluate those they’ve spent generations invested in. They’ll discover what works and what doesn’t work within your climate zone and opportunities to work with ingredients and products that you didn’t know existed or in ways that are new and revolutionary will occur. Indigenous knowledge is useful in this sense to, to discover and understand the wild foods of cultural, medicinal and culinary importance of your place.
Keeping farmers engaged and by championing local/regional and seasonal cuisines not only reduces a dependence on a global, multinational-owned food system that is environmentally damaging through its reliance on transportation and fossil fuels but you help to stimulate good will and regional pride within your community and also contribute to assisting the growth of your local economy.
There’s a lot of talk today about sustainability and in general is about the sustainability of our environment but sustainability should be about people too.
I’m referring to the sustainability of small towns in regional and rural areas. In keeping independent farming families on the land and supporting indigenous communities with business opportunities to use their ancestral knowledge of ingredients and place. Basically, where possible, the aim should be to keep money circulating within small communities so they can thrive and grow.
At Brae we grow a lot of the vegetables and plants that we serve in the restaurant but in no way do we make any claims to be self-sufficient – and why would we? Apart from it being almost impossible to grow all the food required by a restaurant I think it’s important when you live in a small town that you show economic support to others. There are farmers in my region who have been farming for a couple of generations and they’re experts. There’s also people who have come to agriculture later in life and specialize in unusual or non-traditional ingredients that grow very well in our region – these ingredients are very interesting to a restaurant like ours. It’s very beneficial to me that these people exist in my community and so by ensuring that I purchase things from them – and pay them on time – I’m helping them to have a reason to be.
A further benefit is that the people that I support through being their customer might then spend their money in my restaurant – becoming my customer. Farmers have special occasions in their lives just like everyone else and want to celebrate from time to time. The pride they feel when they see their produce being used in a restaurant like ours is special.
This chance to see the results of their work, in this light, often encourages them to do better and grow better quality foods and in this way we close the loop a little and help to keep a smaller economies functioning.
Don’t pursue elitist cuisines
On one hand here I’m referring to the management and operational culture or attitude within the restaurant industry but I’m also referring to unnecessary waste too.
Hopefully we’re well past the time where restaurants and dining rooms could be places of intimidation. If you didn’t know or understand something written on the menu then you didn’t belong there as a guest. In this scenario servers and sommeliers would look down on you if you couldn’t pronounce the name of a wine producer or an ingredient correctly – and in the kitchen only the primal or A-grade cuts of fish and meat get used with the rest considered waste while products like white truffles, as an example, get flown across the world to appear on menus in countries where there’s no cultural or climatic relevance to them. For what?
Perceived luxury or at least the new luxuries don’t have to follow some prescribed set of rules or tradition. What’s considered a luxury in some cultures may not be applicable to ours. It’s certainly time for more egalitarian spaces where the best ingredients from any of our regions, handled with care, knowledge and innovation have just as much value as those ingredients our northern cousins have traditionally revered.
The concepts of comfort, peace and quiet, space and time, one-to-one human interaction are all increasingly rare concepts for most of us now in our busy lives and they’re certainly disappearing from our restaurants.
Organic vegetables that have never been stored or refrigerated served soon after harvest. Animals raised purely on grass, locally, without chemicals and pesticides and given a chance to grow to maturity. Wild ingredients, not commonly understood, hand harvested during their short seasons.
Places where your local farmers or younger guests experiencing a restaurant for the first time feel as equally comfortable and respected in the dining room as the seasoned gastronome flying in from an international city and the food prepared and served resonates equally to all through its acute sense of place and through the skill and understanding needed to produce it.
These values can lead guests to unique and unfamiliar but memorable experiences and that is part of what dining in restaurants of origin and personality should be about – tell your guests something new, something they don’t know about your place – invite them in and bridge the gap between their day-to-day and the experience of being at your restaurant.
Be an active environmentalist
Most of the points I’ve raised up until now have been focused closer to social change and cultural values rather than straight up environmentalism. Having said that, working within your region, cooking foods in season rather than relying on importing ingredient and understanding the need for sustainable local economies all have positive environmental outcomes.
I mentioned that restaurants by their nature are consumerist and involve large amounts of inputs that rely heavily on exploiting the environment; by our very existence as chefs and restaurateurs we are caught up in the concept of environmentalism.
We often talk about the pristine nature of the food we serve, the purity of ingredients, the story of the fisher, producer or forager but do we approach our own businesses and work practices with as much care and detail as we expect from our suppliers? Are we leaving dirty environmental footprints? What are the things we must consider in our day to day operations given we all have a responsibility to deal with the environmental crisis.
How it works at Brae
Brae is located about an hour and a half west of Melbourne. We’re on the outskirts of a town called Birregurra in an area known as the Otway Ranges. We’re close to the ocean and the famous Great Ocean Road. It’s a very natural and beautiful part of Australia rich in biodiversity and home to many types of agriculture. Brae isn’t your typical ‘buy food and serve it’ restaurant business. We’re also an organic farm involved in growing vegetables, fruit and berries, olives and olive oil, wheat and grain, honey and eggs and indigenous Australian foods. All of these are used daily in the restaurant.
Brae is guided by the principles of sustainability, locality and seasonality. We grow our own food organically and what can’t be grown onsite, we next source from local, ethical suppliers, always organic where possible. We aim to reconnect our visitors to their food and the place it comes from and to achieve this we maintain a close connection to our region and our land and offer guests an immersive experience where they can learn how the food they eat is grown and spend time on the land it comes from. We practice chemical-free production, use regenerative farming techniques to restore and replenish the land and aim to give back more to the land we occupy than we take from it.
All other aspects of the Brae experience – quality service, creativity and exceptional food are built around these core principles, so the guest experience is always considered within this framework.
I’m mentioning this because I think it’s important that all of us working with food and natural resources start to take seriously the changes we can make within our own restaurants and businesses. Positive changes that assist in reducing waste and environmental damage whilst engaging your staff, farmers, growers and producers and your guests in a dialogue about the environment and sustainability
Some of the key environmental and social strategies we’ve implemented and work with daily at Brae are:
Organic food production
Brae is a 23-acre farm. It’s 100 per cent organic, and produces up to 90 per cent of vegetables and plants in a good seasons. Growing the food on site also provides the kitchen with the opportunity to use different parts of the plants we grow, and choose when and how to pick them.
We collect 190,000 litres across four large tanks. It’s UV-filtered and carbonated to be served in the restaurant and in our accommodation. We also use this rainwater in the kitchen for stocks. Apart from offering a very pure taste of place, it reduces the need for transport, glass, storage, refrigeration, bottle and plastic.
Compost and a closed-loop waste cycle
Green waste from the kitchen goes into compost or is fed to our chickens, saving 100kg per day from landfill.
Biodiversity and land regeneration
We’ve planted over a thousand native trees over the last five years and improved the bee colony and provided habitat for tree frogs, birds, beneficial insects. Organic systems require diversity.
When we built our accommodation, we invested in solar energy, covering the roof in panels. This captures around 17 megawatt hours annually for use throughout the restaurant and guest suites, reducing reliance on the power grid and offsetting an average of 1.34 tonnes of carbon (or about 34 trees) per month.
Edible native plant program
Brae works with local nurseries Special Effects Nursery and Otway Greening specialising in native plants and indigenous food plants, assisting to save some endangered plant species on the brink of extinction – the yam daisy among them. Other ingredients grown include muntries, lilly pilly, finger limes, lemon and aniseed myrtles, Geraldton wax, ruby saltbush, river mint, mountain pepper, an old bunya pine and younger species of Illawarra plum and lemon aspen,
We support local community arts and education organizations with donations of money and sponsorships, and we work closely with local artisans and craftspeople to provide some of the tactile elements to the Brae experience – including ceramics made from clay dug from our own dam.
Sustainable business practices
Some of the small things we practice include:
- A plant-focused menu, reducing reliance on large pieces of meat.
- Choosing only ethical and sustainable producers, always as local as possible. We opt for grass-fed over grain, indigenous species and poultry, selecting native meats and plants, and animals are use nose-to-tail, giving value to all parts of product.
- Brae only serves ethical seafood – no species that are overfished or endangered, with a focus on the local fisherman’s co-op and the use of by-products.
- No plastic straws or takeaway cups.
- Menu paper is recycled into notebooks for accommodation. We use biodegradable bin liners for our accommodation. In the mini bar we use refillable small bottles for cocktails, and large soap dispensers rather than small soaps.
- Waste water is purified through a worm-farm treatment plant and directed onto our trees, eliminating the need for a chemical septic system.
- An eWater system – a chemical-free environmentally friendly electrolysis solution – is used for all cleaning and sanitising throughout the restaurant and accommodation. eWater is produced by applying an electrical charge to a mixture of ordinary tap water and salt. This process splits the water mixture into positive and negative ions, creating two highly effective and safe solutions on opposing ends of the pH scale: alkaline for cleaning and acidic for antimicrobial sanitising.
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