Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable practices?

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As you wait for more Japanese Cooking 101 lessons, here’s something a bit different to ponder: How important is sustainability to you, especially when eating out?

There’s a UK based non-profit organization called the Sustainable Restaurant Organization (SRA) ; that is interested in making restaurants more well, sustainable. Their mission is to help restaurans “to source more responsibly, minimise their impact on the environment and engage with their communities”, as well as help diners find restaurants that fit their criteria. Their president is Raymond Blanc, a famous UK based chef/restauranteur. This is their mission statement:

We help restaurants source food more sustainably, manage resources more efficiently and work more closely with their community. And we help diners identify those restaurants doing the right thing. So, whether a diner’s sustainability concerns are about Sourcing, the Environment or Society, the SRA and its members are committed to a change for the better.

Up until now they have been primarily focused on the UK market but now they are branching out. Yesterday (April 29th) they launched their Global Rating System for sustainable restaurants, and also announced the winners of the international Sustainable Restaurant Awards. The prize winner was Narisawa, a Michelin 2-star French restaurant in Aoyama, Tokyo; runners up where the famed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen and 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA, an Italian restaurant with locations in Hong Kong and Shanghai. You can check out their ratings for various restaurants (mostly UK ones at this point) here

Over in the U.S., there’s another non-profit organization that seems to have similar goals called the Green Restaurant Organization. The approaches of the organizations are quite different though. While the SRA has a much slicker looking website, and seems to be aiming straight at the high end of the restaurant business, the Green Restaurant Organization seems to be more low-key. A quick look through their restaurant database reveals a lot of casual eateries and restaurants with crunchy names like Organic something - the usual type that you’d expect to be environmentally-aware.

Turnips

In either case though the restaurants and suppliers have to submit their establishments for review. This is opposite to the regular restaurant review system, although it might be necessary since I don’t know how you can judge the sustainable practices of a place from the outside.

‘Sustainable’ is different from ‘organic’ by the way, although the two get confused and there’s quite a bit of overlap. Sustainable eating means to avoid eating species that are in danger of going extinct such as various kinds of fish, as well as avoiding produce that is grown with the use of potentially harmful chemicals, conserving water usage, and a whole lot more. This article where the SRA is interviewed has a checklist of criteria. I guess you could call it a more altruistic take on the whole ‘eat organic whole foods’ movement as well as one with a higher level of needed commitment.

Anyway, the question is: Would you go to a restaurant, especially a high-end “special occasion” one, based whether it’s ‘certified’ as making sustainability a priority? And do you care about that kind of thing for everyday eating out? Should your local pizza place or Chinese takeout be ‘sustainable’ too?

The idea of sustainable cooking is quite fascinating to me, so I may come back to address it again down the line, especially for home cooks.

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Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

It comes to how one defines "seek out": I would preferentially select such a restaurant among categories of cuisine and price level, but I would be unlikely preferentially select for sustainable over "I want paella" if the "sustainable" list only has American-style choices on it. Here (central US) there's very little overlap between new foodie qualifiers (sustainable, "localvore", etc) and any other distinguishing characteristic. Seldom ever does a place cook local brook trout Veracruzano style in a Mexican restaurant, or bothers to locally source sustainable veal for a tagliatelle al ragù in an even high-end Italian place.

Peter H. Coffin | 30 April, 2013 - 21:16

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Hi there,

yes, I certainly would. I stopped eating meat and milk-products because I do worry not only about the moral issue (raising animals just to kill them), but because it does waste too much of the worlds natural resources. To burn seven times the energy-value (and water) just because one prefers the taste of meat to that of plant-based food, just does not sit right with me anymore. Most people know that there are millions of people in this world who can't afford their daily bread because the harvest gets sold to feed the livestock - but hardly anyone thinks about it when buying the next steak for dinner (I used to be one of them).

If we can't even feed this generation, how about the next?

By the way, that is one of the reasons for my interest in japanese food. It works perfectly without meat and milkproducts and with a little twist you can incorporate your local market products (or grow your komatzuna yourself). I am not buddhist, but their philospophy about nature and mindfulness concerning food seems right to me.

hibou | 30 April, 2013 - 23:44

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Think I would. It's totally a responsible thing to do!

Nicola | 1 May, 2013 - 00:17

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Yes, I would. I am very upset about the overfishing situation (esp. with the recent starving sea lion situation in California). I don't want to eat fish anymore.

Lily Winter | 1 May, 2013 - 01:39

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Yes!! this would be an important consideration for me.
The destruction of our environment in the last few decades must be addressed quickly. Our precious oceans and all the inhabitants of them , the overfishing, the loss of many of our fish, clams,scallops, shrimp, oysters just in our short lifetime has been so great and so tragic....the mercury contamination of the larger species of our beautiful fish is heart breaking!!!

the horrible damage done with pesticides , various chemicals and oil spills all over the world have endangered oceans, rivers and lakes that provided much of our seafood. Mountain top removal to obtain coal, has caused environmental destuction all over America contaminating streams, rivers and lakes as mud and chemicals now pour down maountainsides that no longer have tops and trees to hold the soil........

Yes indeed we might all pay close attention to sustainable eating and farming practices from now on...
thanks for your attention to this matter Maki.....

Twanya | 1 May, 2013 - 03:31

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

I live in Louisiana, and folks around here are VERY serious about the local part of sustainability. Actually, the "local" part is more often about supporting local restaurants over chains (several Starbucks actually closed because people preferred the local spots!)

Personally, restaurants that feature sustainable food may be the extra star that makes me choose them over others. DH and I will celebrate our anniversary this weekend, and out of several very good restaurants to choose from, we are going to one that features produce from the local farmer's market.

Laura | 1 May, 2013 - 03:31

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

To be perfectly honest, probably not. If there were two restaurants side-by-side, and they were of similar quality, cost amd offered the same type of food, but one used sustainable practices and the other didn't, then I would choose the sustainable one.

I do like to buy local produce, but it's often significantly more expensive and takes a lot more effort than going to the supermarket, and I therefore usually fail. I'm not proud of that, but I thought I'd be honest...

sushidushi | 1 May, 2013 - 05:27

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Sustainability matters to me, but right now we don't dine out - 1 income, 3 kids, and 4 of us with 'food issues' of varying degrees. Our choices are made on the basis of whether or not we can all eat there. However, on our limited budget I do make an effort to know where and how my food comes to the table and grow as much as I can. I make the best choices that I can with the resources that I have.

anon. | 1 May, 2013 - 05:32

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Regardless of the number of "the sky is falling" types who mouth holier-than-thou platitudes whether scientifically correct or not, I would not seek out a "sustainable" restaurant.

California is not the "sustainable" land its inhabitants like to think -- not when they sacrificed part of the state's breadbasket lands to zero water because of a tiny so-called endangered fish. Or its "unsustainable" debt. Remember the Alar scare? That Alar was poisoning children (claimed a famous movie star without a chemistry degree)? Even though Alar was not a pesticide but a harmless coating sprayed on apples to extend their storage life?

The statistcs about the amount of water to grow cattle are pure hokum and do not consider rainfall. And corn is now too expensive for cattle feed since the greenies insisted on ethanol added to gasoline -- even though it takes more energy to produce than it provides as a fuel. Think about it.

So the latest buzz is "sustainable." I don't buy it.

Sylvia S. B. S | 1 May, 2013 - 05:57

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Your argument contains a contradiction. You state that the bread basket areas (I assume the Central Valley?) are "sacrificed" to zero water. That would imply that agriculture of any type is unsustainable without additional water. Yet when it comes to cattle, you claim that the amount of water needed is "hokum" as there is sufficient rainfall to offset a significant amount.

You cannot have a situation where there is enough rainfall to sustain cattle, but not enough to sustain vegetation. And don't tell me there aren't cattle in the Central Valley. Anyone who's driven along the 5 knows Harris Ranch. There is also plenty of agriculture to be seen.

It also does not address the question. I don't know how it is in other places, but from what I have seen many of the restaurants in our state focus on locally sourced ingredients (going back to Chez Panisse in the 70's). Of course, this is only the independent places - who knows where the food at Applebee's or The Olive Garden comes from?

Dorothy | 3 May, 2013 - 18:38

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

The Harris Ranch is a gigantic feedlot which you can smell from miles away traveling on I-5. Thousands of cattle are brought there for final "fattening up" after being transported from cattle-raising areas in the midwest and west (not California). They are not standing in rain-fed grassland where threy grew up but packed together on dirt darkened by their urine and feces, with the dirt periodically scraped. Somewhere nearby must be the Harris Ranch slaughterhouse since they market their own label of beef.

The water which "sustains" not only Harris Ranch but all of Los Angeles and the Central Valley comes from Northern California via aquaducts. The Owens Valley, once so lush that fruit trees grew there abundantly, was drained for Los Angeles, leaving a very small remnant of the former lake there, turning it into a dust bowl, wth the mineral-laden white powder blown north into Nevada and elsewhere by the prevailing winds. Look up the history of Mulholland and the great theft of water from the north for confirmation.

There is no contradiction. Parts of the irrigation used to grow food in the larger Arvin area of the Central Valley were cut off, turning the area into a collection of ghost towns and barren land. They never depended on rainfall. That was your food that was sacrificed -- and the jobs of thousands of farmworkers who lived there.

The food at the Applebee's and Olive Garden restaurant chains comes from the same places that supply your local supermarkets: the vast farmlands and ranchlands in the various states that feed the entire country, with enough left over to export. You should travel more and see the vast foodbasket which is a blessing of our USA.

P.S. I lived in Northern California for 30 years and now live in a cattle-raising area of Northern Nevada.

Sylvia S. B. S | 4 May, 2013 - 21:34

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

I would definately choose a sustainable restaurant. I prefer shopping at local farmer's markets, and since I've been living in Japan for the past year and a half I have been visiting my neighborhood yaoya (produce stand) on a regular basis.
The other side of this is the option to stay away from (boycott) restaurants that flaunt the fact that they do not care about environmental issues. I still can't believe that Massachusett's (U.S.)Legal Seafood chain has actually SUED the Monterey Bay Aquarium for distributing it's endangered seafood list!!! They claim it has caused people to stay away from certain fish dishes! Which shows that it's working!! I definately won't be eating at Legal Seafood again and will encourage others to stay away as well.

Elisa Gray | 1 May, 2013 - 08:38

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Thanks for sharing Maki! So glad to hear such good feedback from our community on this subject!

I have been cooking my daily meals with a CSA (community supported agriculture) box for over a year now. Certain crops grow at certain times of the year. Our restaurant industry should reflect this.

Only serving meat from local farms would cut down drastically on the problems associated with meat consumption. Serving local veggies helps the environment and our economies.

I choose sustainable agriculture over mass produced any day.

bubbles897 | 1 May, 2013 - 09:57

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

I will be brutally honest here: I don't give a damn. If anything, I tend to avoid such place because it seems that being "sustainable" somehow justifies them doubling the proces...

Silvia | 1 May, 2013 - 11:10

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Hmm, my honest answer isn't as good as I would like really.

Recently I've cooked (or packed) usually 5 lunches and dinners per week, using food mostly from our local grocery co-op, which is predominatly local/ organic. Our 2 favorite special occasion restaurants are about locally sourced food, but they are pretty pricey so we dont go there often. So yes, especially for a special occasion I do seek out a sustainable restaurant.

But the rest of the time we usually eat something pretty cheap, out. Noodles/ mexican etc (it's hard to go past a taco truck, right?) Sometimes at chains, sometimes small independants. Who knows where these places source their produce? I imagine if they were using free range/ organic/ pasture raised meat and veg it'd be written all over the menu though.

While it would be great to know which restaurants are the better sustainable choice, I don't know if I could afford to eat at them all the time. On the other hand, I feel pretty guilty about this, for all the reasons people have stated above. I will check out the green restaurant organisation link though, and see if there are some local places at the lower price end. I read somewhere (sorry, can't remember to properly quote) that we vote with our purchases. So if I claim to want sustainable food, I shouldn't be 'voting' for the factory farmed stuff.

EnaKate | 1 May, 2013 - 21:08

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

It wouldn't make or break my decision, but it would be a nice bonus.

The Elf | 2 May, 2013 - 03:52

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

There is too much bad science behind many 'sustainability' claims.
There is also too much 'Big Brother knows what is good for you'.
I will make my own choices without input from bigots or nanny substitutes.

Trisha | 2 May, 2013 - 05:14

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

I also think that as soon as something becomes a big organization, there is reason to doubt. Anything "green" or "sustainable" is a market for making money like any other. I believe that real sustainability lies in small businesses and trust.

littlesun | 2 May, 2013 - 08:20

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

I find that sustainability ratings are still in infancy but it's good that there is a start somewhere.

http://www.ted.com/talks/catherine_mohr_builds_green.html

Catherine Mohr's video is the current yardstick I'm looking at energy efficiency and it affects all the areas that is mention in the 14 key areas.

But I think the true test of sustainability would be great restaurants located in such remote areas that they have no choice but to watch wastages. My current interest are indigenous cooking and traditional cooking although what's happening today may not be so traditionally after all.

Wena | 2 May, 2013 - 11:55

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Honestly? I wouldn't. I don't have the money to be that picky about a restaurant, and we go so little that getting the food we crave and choosing a restaurant with food everyone likes is paramount. If there's a sustainable restaurant of comparable price/quality? Sure. It's not a large factor though.

anon. | 2 May, 2013 - 18:52

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

I would and do, but here in Olympia WA we have many choices from the highest-end restaurants to the cheapest diners that offer this since the entire town has a pretty strong sustainable/locavore ethic, and a very active farming and fishing community to provide the food. We also have CSAs that deliver and cheap neighborhood coops that color-code their veggies by how far they had to travel to get here. All of this makes it easy and inexpensive enough for anyone to contribute to eating sustainably and support local businesses, from farmers to restaurants. I could afford it regardless but am glad to see a community making efforts to make it available to all.

Teresa | 2 May, 2013 - 20:20

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Greetings,

I make a point of supporting restaurants and shops that focus on being sustainable. Whether they are the higher end of the spectrum or something more everyday and cheaper. This is not just because I feel strongly about the environment or my own personal safety. It is important for me to assist in increasing the quality of life for as many beings as possible. Sustainability seems like a logical step towards that goal. Certainly I understand that I myself cannot force anyone to agree with me or do as I do, however I can be the change I want to see in the world.

Thank you, Maki for bringing up this thought provoking subject. :)

Ti. Valeria Celeris | 3 May, 2013 - 10:09

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

No. I tend to believe the labels organic, sustainable, and "locally grown" have more to do with marketing aimed at the upper and middle classes than being actually healthier or "better for the planet" food.

There are exceptions, like tomatoes, which is why I like having a few tomato plants.

Owlish | 4 May, 2013 - 00:12

Re: Would you seek out a restaurant for its sustainable ...

Absolutely, yes. Only by shrinking the market for industrialised money-over-health-and-environment foods are we ever going to see any change. Vote with your feet!

fligdizz | 4 May, 2013 - 22:48

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