Zeroing In

By Michael Harden

Repetition can be the enemy of a great idea. In the food industry, the mantra of “organic-regional-seasonal-sustainable” has been tossed around so many times that it’s in danger of entering eye-glazing marketing speak territory and becoming more about feel good than do good. But as several key players in this year’s Festival are proving, being sustainable is as vital, interesting and inspiring as it is worthy. Particularly when they’re talking global domination.

Anthony Myint, owner/chef at Mission Chinese in San Francisco and New York and San Francisco’s The Perennial and Chris Ying, US-based writer and creator of Lucky Peach, are coming to MFWF with a mission: to help save the world from climate change.

They formed their non-profit organisation Zero Foodprint in 2014 to tackle the food industry’s sustainability problem by helping restaurants reduce their carbon footprint in the easiest way possible.

The idea started after the men had attended Rene Redzepi’s MAD symposium in Copenhagen.

“I remember being in the airport with Anthony, feeling completely shocked and inspired by what we saw in a week of being surrounded by the best chefs in the world,” says Ying. “I remember both of us feeling like we could suddenly use food to achieve anything. We asked each other what our biggest concern was, and both of us immediately started talking about climate change. Our first step from there was to figure out exactly what kind of effect food – and restaurants, specifically – had on the climate, and how we could harness the good will and energy in the restaurant.”

Starting with noma and Mission Chinese Food as clients, Zero Foodprint implemented simple changes to make the restaurants carbon neutral. This included relatively easy measures such as changing to renewable energy companies, using ingredients with a lighter footprint (using chicken rather than beef, for example) or putting a small surcharge on restaurant diners that goes towards helping farmers maximise the carbon-capture of their soil by increasing the amount of organic matter they use.

“We've designed Zero Foodprint to very directly improve the food system and allow restaurants to take environmental responsibility and fight climate change, but without asking them to reinvent themselves or do anything impractical,” says Myint. “Turns out that this is possible for a few cents per customer. Few restaurants can afford to spend a few thousand dollars on sustainability measures, but almost every restaurant diner can afford an extra 0.4 per cent, like say 16 cents on a $40 meal.”

The idea is picking up speed with an increasing number of restaurants in the US and Europe hopping on board the Zero Foodprint train. And Ying and Myint will be pushing their cause at the MFWF in March, both during their Theatre of Ideas session on sustainability and by participating in a series of sustainable dinners at the Festival’s House of Food and Wine at the Lindrum Hotel.

Matt Stone and Jo Barrett from Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley will head up the Hotel’s food and drink for the 10 days of MFWF, implementing many of the sustainable practices that have made their restaurant close to waste-free.

By only sourcing ingredients from within Victoria, bringing whole beasts in to the kitchen, using vegetables that they’ve grown on their own farm, batching cocktails in reusable bottles for the in-room mini-bars and putting wine in kegs to save on bottle wastage, they’ll reduce the amount of packaging, food waste and food miles.

They’ll also have a good time doing it – from making hotel classics like the Club Sandwich sustainable and delicious to Jo Barrett pledging to make the breakfast buffet “the most lavish, extravagant continental breakfast display ever”.

Matt Stone’s been the poster boy of restaurant sustainability in Australia since early in his career when he was appointed head chef of Perth’s eco restaurant Greenhouse when he was only 22. He’s as fervent as ever on the sustainability front but experience has allowed him to see the bigger picture.

“You can’t change things overnight and it takes time to get people on board,” he says. “I used to be, not judgemental exactly, but short with people who would have excuses about why not to do these sort of practices.

“But after being at Oakridge and witnessing how long it’s taken to get it to a level of how we manage waste and so on that we’re happy with, I understand now it takes time. There’s still a lot more we can do on the journey but it’s really great to see now that one of the first things we discuss as chefs when we’re talking about restaurants or our industry is the whole idea of sustainability.”

Chris Ying is hopeful for what the restaurant industry can achieve too.

“First and foremost, we want people to understand the tremendous part that food plays in climate change, and the ability that it gives all of us to make a difference with the choices we make,” he says. “From there, it’s about enabling restaurants and diners to make the relatively non-invasive changes that will eliminate or mitigate their carbon emissions. One restaurant won’t make a huge difference, but imagine the cumulative effect of the entire industry deciding they care enough about this to do something."