Food for thought: putting sustainability on the menu

As the world becomes increasingly alert to its finite resources, a raft of responsible restaurant businesses and entrepreneurs are rethinking the issue of food sustainability

Amidst the buzz of last year’s London Design Festival diners crowded into the fashionable setting of the Andaz hotel to sample some very special canapés. Under the banner of ‘food design’, the luxury hotel was offering gourmet with a twist: the dainty nibbles were made from recycled ingredients.

In addition to a striking art installation fashioned from egg shells that drew attention to the issue of food waste, designer Linda Monique’s Scrap Lab menu wooed London’s foodies with a series of gourmet meals made exclusively from “revamped by-products” (ie food that didn’t end up being used for meals) from the hotel’s five restaurants. 

Across the Atlantic in Chicago, Homestead on the Roof is also pushing the sustainability agenda. Conscious of issues surrounding the quantity of energy used in food production and transport, this East Village-based ‘farm-to-table’ restaurant has chosen to grow its own ingredients.

Homestead on the Roof features a 1,000sq ft organic food meadow and two vertical gardens. Herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables are harvested from a crop of 130-plus plants and 85 diners sit back in a charming patio adjacent to the garden to enjoy this innovative take on urban farming.

Sustainability in the restaurant sector is a complex issue that covers everything from the ethical and local sourcing of ingredients to water consumption, energy usage and recycling. 

One UAE-based business keen to show its commitment to the cause is taking those criteria on board but distilling them into one simple concept of encouraging diners to, quite simply, eat less.

Opening its doors to the clientele of Dubai’s Global Village, a cultural, entertainment and shopping complex, new eatery Gramo launched in December 2012. The restaurant, operated by Lootah Hotel Management, has put sustainability high on the menu by taking a pay-by-weight approach. In this way it prompts consumers to become more aware of the amount of food they put on their plate and avoid wastage towards the end of the meal.

“Lootah Hotel Management has always come up with initiatives keeping in mind various sustainable issues,” says Lootah CEO Nasser Saeed. “By introducing this unique concept of hospitality, we hope to strike a balance between offering an authentic taste of Arabic and international cuisine and a sustainable waste management solution.”

Elsewhere, Japanese non-profit Table For Two, which today operates in 17 countries, offers a new interpretation of the term ‘guilt-free eating’. Diners in TFT partner restaurants know that part of the price of their meal will contribute towards feeding someone less fortunate than themselves. While delivering calories to those who really need them, the inherently healthy composition of TFT meals encourage diners in richer countries to consume less fattening food.

Table For Two Co-founder Masa Kogure says the concept of serving low-calorie, nutritionally balanced TFT meals with donations to African charities built into the price, is a way of symbolically sitting at the table together.

“I think people know that there’s hunger on the other side of the planet but they probably don’t feel it’s their problem,” he says.

Partnering with a range of cafeterias and restaurants, it has delivered over 17m meals to African children in five years.

“Table For Two – in a more ingenious way than I’ve ever seen any organisation – actually figured out how to say it right,” says Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute. “Which is, ‘don’t eat everything on your plate, there are children who are hungry abroad’.”

Issues of global environmental and economic sustainability have prompted hospitality businesses and social entrepreneurs to sit down at the table and rethink the ways in which we engage with food. And with imagination and passion thrown into the mix, the offering is more than appetising.