Chris Ying zeroes in on sustainable restaurants

Waste not: Joost Bakker established Australia's first zero-waste restaurant.
Waste not: Joost Bakker established Australia's first zero-waste restaurant. Photo: Luis Ascui

While climate change looks unlikely to be front and centre at Brisbane’s G20 meetings this month, it’s heartening to know that at least one group is taking matters into its own hands: restaurateurs.

At MAD4 – a chef-driven food ideas talkfest held in Denmark in August – Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying launched ZeroFoodprint, a non-profit consultancy designed to establish a publicly available set of best practices for restaurants set on reducing their carbon footprint.

On that day, Ying argued that because 30 per cent of greenhouse gasses were caused by the food system, not to mention that eating food was a daily and direct way we interacted with the environment, restaurateurs had a stake in reducing carbon dioxide levels. He and business partner Peter Freed measured and compared the environmental impact of steak dishes cooked at Ying’s home, at Rene Redzepi’s Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, and at Prime Meats, a New York steakhouse.

Chris Ying says sometimes it just takes a few tweaks to be greener.
Chris Ying says sometimes it just takes a few tweaks to be greener. Photo: Supplied

The results were revealing: foraging turned out to be an emission-heavy practice if you didn’t drive a Prius (a petrol-guzzling van accounted for 7 per cent of Noma’s total emissions); the emissions cost for steak was uniformly through the roof; and finally, several simple ways emerged to quickly cut down on your emissions, starting with switching to a renewable energy company and installing LED lighting.

While cooking at home was still the most carbon-efficient (at 7.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions), Prime Meats weighed in close at 8.5 kilograms; Noma’s meal registered 24.7 kilograms of emissions but it’s worth noting that fixing yourself a steak at home is a different proposition to dining at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ No.1.

Noma became the first restaurant Ying and ZeroFoodprint worked with but in coming months they plan to do more, starting with Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco.

‘‘We’re a small team right now, and still ironing out the details,’’ says San Francisco-based Ying. ‘‘But the idea is to create a system that is easy and helpful to restaurants. We want to demonstrate that it doesn’t take much to achieve a zero foodprint – in some cases, a few smart tweaks to operations and a single charity dinner will offset a restaurant for multiple years.’’

Ying says he hopes soon to work with friends such as Ben Shewry from Melbourne’s Attica. Meanwhile, some Australian organisations have already gone down the certification path, such as Restaurant and Catering’s Green Table initiative. But most of the work is being done by individual restaurants and chefs. Joost Bakker delivered the country’s first zero-waste restaurant in Silo (now called Brothl) in 2012. (His former chef and current collaborator Douglas McMaster opened the United Kingdom’s first zero-waste restaurant – Silo, in Brighton last month.)

And in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane, basement Italian restaurant Cecconi’s took out last year’s Banksia Sustainability Award, helped by partners Closed Loop, which provided a composting machine that turns all of the restaurant’s organic waste, except large beef bones, into compost. Every Monday, Don Bennett and Maria Bortolotto harvest 140 kilograms of the rich fertiliser, which they take to their farm near Lorne and dig into the vegie patch.

‘‘On a personal level, I think everybody has a responsibility to change their habits,’’  Bortolotto says. ‘‘We can start at home. Why are we still putting food in the rubbish bin? I don’t understand that.’’