Sustainable dining is a word that's thrown around like confetti at a Taylor Swift concert and, like the pop star's current world tour, people have been clamouring to get a seat at some of the hottest sustainable restaurants in the world.
When a restaurant reaches such a level, it often looks to spread its name and influence beyond its shores. But when it has made its name by sourcing locally, how does it do this while retaining its sustainable credentials?
Est, a one-Michelin-star French restaurant in Tokyo, sources its ingredients locally in Japan, buying 95 per cent of its ingredients from independent farmers, fishermen and foragers.
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Chef de cuisine Guillaume Bracaval was in Hong Kong in May to give the city's diners the Est experience during a four-hands dinner with Nicolas Boutin of Ami, in Hong Kong's Central business district.
Doing so meant shipping and sourcing ingredients from Japan. But air transport is a large contributor to climate change, releasing CO2 emissions and triggering chemical reactions in the atmosphere that heat the planet.
"It's difficult because to source locally and come up with dishes just for the guest shift would mean more time and extra visits to try the ingredients before the event," Bracaval says.
Roganic Hong Kong, holder of a Michelin Green Star for sustainability, went one step further when it decided to fly in chefs from other restaurants in Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore for an upcoming collaboration dinner.
But Ashley Salmon, head chef of Roganic, believes the trade-off is a beneficial one.
"I believe this is an issue which we cannot avoid due to the transportation and logistics including the delivery of ingredients," he says.
"No restaurant in the world can claim or be 100 per cent fully sustainable in this sense," he says. "However, by inviting our guest chefs, who are all sustainability champions voted by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants [each chef's restaurant is a past winner of the list's sustainable restaurant award], we as a restaurant want to continuously raise the level of awareness and exposure of eating local and supporting our local farms, which is the same ethos shared by our guest chefs in their own respective countries."
Emmanuel Renaut, chef of Flocons de Sel in Megeve, France, who was part of a collaboration event at Petrus in Hong Kong in May, makes a similar point about time constraints as Bracaval. He did, though, have a little time to try some local ingredients, such as fresh fish, crustaceans and vegetables, and even managed to incorporate some fresh market peas into the dinner menu.
"My approach about ingredients is finding all ingredients around my restaurant such as vegetables, local meat, fish from the lakes and picking herbs, mushrooms, roots, depending on the season," he says.
"If I had more time, I would like to come and create a menu with ingredients from all local farmers."
Time was one thing on David Toutain's side. The chef and owner of the eponymous two-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris, who is renowned for seasonal produce sourced from independent and environmentally friendly producers in France, partnered with Hong Kong-based ZS Hospitality to open Feuille in the city in May, in Central.
"We started in 2022 and I visited Hong Kong twice. I came for a few weeks to scout farms, the fish markets and meat producers to decide whether it was possible to open a presence here in Hong Kong," Toutain says.
"It was very challenging, but I liked the challenge. I was happy to go to the markets, buy produce and come back to kitchens and experiment."
Toutain's restaurant in Paris has four tasting menus that are constantly changing. None are ever listed online or presented to diners upon arrival, and each comprises between 20 to 25 courses.
"Our focus is French products and produce and then we play with different combinations of flavours and textures," Toutain says.
He explains that he didn't want a "copy-and-paste restaurant" in Hong Kong.
"We wanted to work with local produce in Hong Kong and not bring anything in from France. I wanted to maintain the spirit of my restaurant that it is about flavours, technique and textures."
This was on display with the menu items at our hosted lunch. The starter, simply named Sweet Potato-Thyme, was an example of how simple ingredients could be elevated through Toutain's style of preparation.
The fried sweet potato skins were crispy, stuffed with fluffy sweet potato puree seasoned with cinnamon and thyme, resulting in a contrast of textures alongside familiar, earthy flavours.
Another course, named Cumin-Sweet Corn, was a Hong Kong version of one of Toutain's signature dishes using locally sourced baby corn to create the egg custard, which was topped with a cumin caramel, and served with a flaky breadstick.
The Roganic event is leaving it up to their guest chefs to recreate their signature dishes using local ingredients.
"The chefs will limit their carbon footprint by using Hong Kong's bounty of seasonal local produce for the collaborative 12-course menu," Salmon says.
"Some examples include Mume's 'zero-waste' fish course, which will employ fin-to-gill cooking techniques on locally caught fish, while Toyo Eatery will present local chicken with moringa and tapuy, a type of Philippine glutinous rice wine."
Chef Vicky Lau, whose Hong Kong soy-themed restaurant Mora was awarded a Michelin Green Star this year, believes that the challenge in scaling up a sustainable restaurant lies in many aspects of sourcing and being able to maintain good business.
"A sustainable restaurant concept can certainly be scalable, provided that the source of their ingredients and practices remains sustainable, such as attaining ingredients in sufficient quantity, finding and maintaining relationships with reliable suppliers, navigating government policies and regulations related to waste management, and balancing sustainability practices with profitability," she says.
Bracaval worries about the future he will leave his daughter and has taken steps to reduce the carbon footprint of his menu at Est.
"I felt I needed to set an example. I needed to reduce waste and reduce the amount of animal parts and by-products in the kitchen."
Raising livestock for human consumption accounts for around 15 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to estimates by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, which is about the same as the combined emissions from the world's transport sector.
It also uses nearly 70 per cent of agricultural land, which leads to it being the biggest contributor to deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution.
"I still use butter, but for bread, I make a soy mousse or do something with tofu," Bracaval says. "There is no meat on the lunch menu, just seafood and vegetables, and we only have one meat dish in our 10-course omakase menu."
Scaling a sustainable restaurant, just like sustainability itself, is a challenge, but for Toutain it was one that he was more than happy to take up.
"It took a lot of work [to open Feuille], but we had to persevere in my vision of transforming the locally sourced ingredients into something interesting. I hope I have."
Transporting ingredients around the world to replicate signature dishes is the antithesis of sustainable dining.
Restaurant operators need to allocate resources and time for chefs to establish environmentally sound menus and logistics, and chefs need to be creative.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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