On World Food Day, one of the UK’s top food critics, Guy Dimond, dusts off his anarchist cookbook to see how today’s ‘sustainable’ restaurants compare with his own favourite soup kitchen of the 1980s.
The Caff was a student anarchist’s wet dream, and it’s what drew me to London. Set up by a group of like-minded food-lovers, it was an unlicensed restaurant operating in a squatted, long-vacant corner shop. The Caff was there to provide meals and a meeting place for the hundreds of squatters around Bonnington Square in Vauxhall. Ironically in the neighbourhood that’s now home to the MI6 building and the new US Embassy, it operated illegally below the radar of the authorities.
Before the word ‘freegan’ was even coined, supporters of The Caff acquired trays and boxes of damaged or imperfect fruit and vegetables from nearby New Covent Garden Market; much of the time, that’s where nearly all The Caff’s food came from. When a forklift truck crushed a corner of a box, the contents became unsalable. The whole box went into the skip. We went into the skip after it. And the security guards, when they spotted us, went after us.
Life seemed simpler then. There was no CCTV on every street corner, and our community was tight-knit, barely breathing a word about The Caff to outsiders. So tight that The Caff operated like this for years before the council cottoned on, and it had to go legit. (The Bonnington Café is still there now, but in a legal and sanitised form.)
The expressions weren’t used back in the 1980s, but for those of us who were true believers in The Caff, it ticked every box: food waste utilised, meat-free, local and community focussed, low carbon, and so cheap that even the unemployed could afford to eat there every day. It was the very model of a sustainable restaurant – yet this unregulated model couldn’t be sustained, not least because it stuck it to The Man.
Thirty years on, and sustainability has become a trendy phrase with a much broader appeal. We pay double for our organic veg in Waitrose; we drive in our SUVs to the farmers’ market. There are even really swanky restaurants that strive towards sustainability. I’ve eaten at a fair few of them, from the excellent Spiseloppen restaurant at the Christiania squatter community in Copenhagen, to the low-carbon Commune 246 food stalls in Tokyo.
Some have been brilliant; there’s only been the occasional rogue. Some are hair shirt, quite a few aren’t. While some recycle everything, even the toilet waste on the premises, there are a few that think they can buy their way into ‘carbon neutral’ status. Having ingredients flown in by intercontinental flight, then planting some trees to make up for it does not make any restaurant ‘carbon neutral’ in my books.
Sustainable restaurants often have slightly different focal points. For example, at the Silo restaurant in in Brighton, which celebrated its first birthday yesterday, the emphasis is on zero-waste, and recycles as if the planet depended on it.
At the other end of the scale is Noma in Copenhagen. Noma has been described as the ‘world’s best restaurant’, for four years – admittedly by a panel containing many of Redzepi’s chums, but even so, that’s still quite an achievement. The chef/proprietor of Noma, René Redzepi, is a very personable, media-friendly man. He’s like a barometer of What’s Cool Right Now. (New Nordic cooking? He virtually invented it.) That Noma is considering relocating and being at the centre of an ‘urban farm’ is very telling. He reads the mood of the food press, and his particular bucket list clientele, very well. The fact that his particular diners will often be flying to Copenhagen especially for the experience doesn’t seem to dent the restaurant’s green aspirations.
The best places I’ve eaten at that put sustainability high on their agenda tend to be the ones that don’t use their aspirations as a marketing tool. You can find many of the best in the British Isles via the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) new website, which they launched in September 2015: foodmadegood. Admittedly, the burger chains and fried chicken joints on the list might not feature on your own hit-list of places that are doing the planet some good (or indeed on mine), but there are many gems there too.
Among my favourites are Ethos, near London’s Oxford Circus; The Pig, in rural Hampshire; and Café St Honoré in Edinburgh. All these are so good you’d never guess they also come with impeccable sustainable credentials. The SRA’s list isn’t fully comprehensive, as not everywhere has signed up to the SRA; the excellent Riverford Field Kitchen, for example, is conspicuous by its absence.
I’ve accompanied one of the SRA’s inspectors during an audit on a restaurant, and it was impressively thorough. The kitchen that falsifies its claims, that can’t provide receipts proving its fish are line-caught, its vegetables are organic, or that its fuel really is from clean sources won’t make the grade. The SRA do terrific and much-needed work, helping struggling restaurants stay on track. I don’t think the SRA encourage foraging for ingredients in skips. But the SRA is helping the dream come true, by helping sustainable restaurants to sustain themselves long-term, and not just during the initial flurry of press interest.