Sustainable dining ain’t new. The modern movement can arguably be linked back to Californian chef Alice Waters and her Berkley restaurant, Chez Pannise, which opened in 1971. But the growing urgency of our fight against climate change, not to mention an increased consciousness of environmental problems such as deforestation, run-off and water availability, means the solution is by definition a collective one.
While political leaders continue to fish for consensus on how to tackle this existential threat, at the ground level, there’s change afoot. Likeminded people in the hospitality industry have connected to tackle sustainability concerns, making changes in their own community.
Restaurants, bars and cafes play a public-facing role in climate change mitigation. And many are rising to the occasion, instituting ethical farm-to-table sourcing practices, finding innovative new uses for waste, and improving energy consumption across the board. Hospitality is the interface between the land and our mouths, and so plays a critical role in tackling our environmental woes. Food has always been a conduit for connection, but for some businesses it’s also a way to mobilise communities towards a common goal.
Here’s five restaurants leading the way with sustainable innovation.
Head chef Dan Hunter made headlines for rocketing up the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in the last few years. Less commonly known is the fine diner in Birregurra, Victoria, was a near-winner of the Sustainable Restaurant Award, coming in just behind Septime in Paris and Relae in Copenhagen as part of the international poll.
Brae’s waste-management techniques are top class. It uses a solar array of 48 panels strong and accommodation on the site is completely carbon neutral; a 4000-litre worm farm breaks down waste and redistributes it across the paddocks for fertilisation; and rainwater is harvested for drinking (and washing).
By using an intensive composting process – and feeding the resident chickens – Brae produces only six wheelie bins worth of rubbish each week. Many of the ingredients are grown on the farm itself, making Brae at least partly a closed-loop of food production.
As far back as 2007, Kylie Kwong’s Potts Point restaurant, Billy Kwong, has been totally carbon neutral – the first of its kind in New South Wales. Since then the Sydney chef has built a web of hyperlocal suppliers around the city, providing the restaurant with produce, taking wild weeds from the Woolloomooloo Community Garden and honey from the Wayside Chapel’s urban beehive.
Kwong has an unusual delivery schedule to service this, ordering ingredients on a daily basis rather than weekly, to reduce waste. Many of these sustainable strategies are now best practice in the restaurant industry – but Kwong has been green since 2004, making her a true innovator in Australian ecological hospitality.
When going green, it’s the little things that make a difference. Al Yazbek and Rebecca Yazbek at Nomad in Surry Hills have adopted a suite of measures that, together, begin to add up.
These include using a Vestal water system that chills, filters and carbonates tapwater on site and ten per cent of all water sales go to the Whole World Water Fund. Nomad also uses a Bottlecycler system, which crushes all glass used on premises and compacts it, saving 33 kilograms of carbon emissions per bin.
It doesn’t stop there. The restaurant is working with Pingala energy to become a host site for rooftop solar generation that produces renewable energy, while allowing the local community to invest in it for a solid return. All restaurant-generated waste is separated into its constituent parts, reducing landfill by 80 per cent; polystyrene boxes are returned to the supplier; used cooking oil is turned into biodiesel fuel; and wood used in the restaurant comes from an Australian company that sources firewood locally from forestry management and hazard reduction.
Few chefs are as ambitious as Jock Zonfrillo. The cook behind Orana in Adelaide not only wants to change the way we think about ingredients, but to disrupt the Australian food-industrial complex as a whole.
Zonfillo was a pioneer among chefs engaging with Indigenous Australians and researching native ingredients way before anyone else had broken open a Kakadu plum. These days, he employs full-time foragers to source Australian bush tucker for the restaurant, one in South Australia and another in the top end, while also connecting with a network of First Nations people who supply seasonal produce year-round.
In partnership with the University of Adelaide, Zonfrillo established the Orana Foundation, which seeks to understand the wealth of traditional Australian ingredients, learn how they can be cultivated, and research their potential for commercialisation. Working together with the South Australian Museum and Botanic Gardens of South Australia, the foundation is currently building a database of native food, drawing on the knowledge of the people who have lived – and cooked – here for tens of thousands of years.
Plenty of chefs have reached celebrity status. Few use their profile with such clear intent as Matt Stone, who has made sustainability synonymous with his name.
Early in his career, Stone worked closely with Joost Bakker at Greenhouse in Perth and Brothl in Melbourne – one of the country’s leading lights in sustainability. Now at Oakridge Estate in the Yarra Valley, Stone and Jo Barrett have built their excellent menu around a zero-waste philosophy, growing much of their produce on-premises and sourcing what remains from local farmers.
You won’t find any ocean fish at Oakridge – they use only river fish such as trout, caviar, eel and Murray cod. An eWater system allows the restaurant to operate without using chemicals, which sterilises kitchen equipment, cleans food and is used to wipe down tables and mop floors.
Suppliers deliver everything in re-usable packaging, mostly crates that are returned to the farm after ingredients are dropped off. Practising nose-to-tail dining, Barrett and Stone break down whole animals and design menus around every part of the beast. What little produce isn’t used in the kitchen goes into a closed-loop composting system, which breaks down organic waste by 90 per cent in just 24 hours.
Oakridge’s commitment to ethical and environmental produce isn’t purely atavistic, though: Stone believes sourcing food this way makes it taste better.
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