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How Sustainable Is Your Restaurant?

By J. S. MARCUS | The Wall Street Journal

Heston Blumenthal

"The sustainability issue is the biggest topic in food at the moment," says chef Heston Blumenthal, the owner and imaginative force behind The Fat Duck, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Bray, a Berkshire village about 45 kilometers west of London.

Although celebrated for playful creations like bacon-and-egg ice cream and snail porridge, Mr. Blumenthal is also a firm practitioner of sustainable principles -- with some qualifications.

"All of our seafood comes from sustainable sources," says Mr. Blumenthal, who gets his restaurant's fish from day boats, or, as he likes to put it, "a bloke with a fishing line." In addition, "every single bit of meat will be free-range, from free-range farms.

"In the last year," he says, "we have made a more concerted effort on the seasonality issue." But, he says, "we're not 100% seasonal with our fruit and veg," which he attributes to "the problem we have in the U.K. with our very famous weather." Although he relies on a network of local farmers for his produce, he still insists on looking abroad for certain ingredients, like tropical fruit. "I just keep finding reasons why" seasonality is "too restrictive."

Marcus Wareing

"As much as I want to champion British produce," says London chef Marcus Wareing, "the only thing we can really grow are carrots, potatoes, onions and turnips."

Baked egg custard tart, cranberry jelly and strawberry mivi ice cream at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley.
The Berkeley

Baked egg custard tart, cranberry jelly and strawberry mivi ice cream at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley.

While London's sustainable chefs revel in the chance to seek out small farmers and suppliers in remote corners of southern England, Mr. Wareing -- whose London restaurant, Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, was recently awarded two Michelin stars -- revels in the freedom from having to do just that. "I'm slap bang in Knightsbridge," Mr. Wareing says. "My time is valuable inside my kitchen, not sitting in a car trying to pick up some carrots."

Many London restaurant owners say diners want to see evidence of growing environmental awareness at their favorite restaurants, but Mr. Wareing believes his clientele is looking for something else. "When people come to a fine dining restaurant," he says, "they come to indulge. It's about being spoiled with food." The English asparagus season only lasts six weeks, he notes, but he keeps imported asparagus on his menu for several months.

Ruth Rogers

If a single establishment could embody London's culinary revolution, it would be the River Café, a seasonal Italian restaurant in southwest London, opened by self-taught chefs Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. Initially planned as a canteen for the architectural offices of Ms. Rogers's husband, Richard Rogers, the River Café gradually perfected a combination of Italian home cooking, seasonal ingredients, a casual atmosphere and high prices that has made it the standard by which many Londoners still judge any new restaurant. Jamie Oliver got his start at the River Café, along with Sam and Sam Clark, the husband-and-wife chefs behind Moro.

The River Cafe
The River Cafe

"When I first came here, London food was a joke," says Ruth Rogers, looking back to the early 1970s. A native of upstate New York, Ms. Rogers, a graphic designer, first discovered the joy of food a few years later after she went to live in Paris, where her husband was working on the design of the Centre Pompidou. At the same time, she recalls, Ms. Gray was having a similar awakening in Lucca, Italy. By the mid-1980s, she says, "I wanted to do something different," and Ms. Gray, who had just returned to London from New York, joined her in setting up the restaurant. The two were influenced by the passionate seasonality of California chef Alice Waters and by the open kitchen and lack of pretense of Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck.

"We were one of the first restaurants to recycle all our glass bottles," says Ossie Gray, Ms. Gray's son and the River Café's general manager. Later the restaurant managed to reduce its waste by almost half, pioneering the recycling of everything from cardboard to cooking oil, which the restaurant converts into biofuel.

Fergus Henderson

Before London had sustainable restaurants, it had St. John, the central London institution that has helped to make British cuisine fashionable since it opened 15 years ago. Known for its "nose to tail" approach, featuring ignored cuts of meat that many diners had never previously tasted or even heard of, St. John insisted from the beginning on sourcing locally as well as seasonally.

The result is a radically inventive menu that changes twice a day, featuring ingredients from sources the restaurant often knows personally. Other restaurants -- especially in St. John's Clerkenwell neighborhood, which the restaurant helped to put on the map -- call this sustainable. Not St. John's chef and co-owner, Fergus Henderson.

"No," is his answer, when asked if the buzzword applies to him. "And we're not organic either," adds Mr. Henderson's business partner, Trevor Gulliver. "The way I cook," Mr. Henderson says, is "just common sense." Nature, he says, "is doing all the work for you."

"St. John has been one of Britain's most influential restaurants," says Oliver Rowe, owner and head chef of Konstam.

St. John is known as a carnivore's paradise -- its signature dish is roast bone marrow, served with a parsley salad -- but Mr. Rowe says the restaurant's insistence on British cuisine has resulted in widespread use of local fruits and vegetables.

Oliver Peyton

"Don't start me on all that," says Oliver Peyton, when asked about the Fair Trade movement, which seeks to promote economic opportunity and sustainable agricultural methods in developing countries. A cornerstone of London's sustainable restaurants, which often use the movement to find sources of imported goods like coffee and spices, Fair Trade may have admirable goals, says Mr. Peyton, but it can't follow through on them. Mr. Peyton, who presides over a growing London restaurant empire specializing in high-quality British cuisine, goes to Central America regularly, he says, "and those coffee farmer's haven't benefited from anything."

A native of County Mayo in the west of Ireland, Mr. Peyton got his start in London as a nightclub owner in the 1990s. His two flagship restaurants, Inn The Park, near St. James's Park, and the National Dining Rooms, in London's National Gallery, have reclaimed touristy sites for discriminating Londoners and international foodies. Mr. Peyton stresses local food sourcing -- a dish recently on his menu at the National Dining Rooms features honey from Hackney, in the heart of London's East End -- and will only serve fish from sustainable stocks.

Though Mr. Peyton includes many sustainable principles in his approach to managing his restaurants, he shies away from the term itself. "I try to avoid going along with the latest fad," he explains. "Words are an enticement. I'm more interested in deeds."


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