For the conscientious chef, sustainability is more than just a fashionable catch phrase, as our columnist explains, it is both a moral obligation and our best chance for the future. STACEY TEO
I am not a professional writer, I’m a chef, but I do know that when writing an article it is good to grab the readers attention right away. How’s this for an attention grabber? According to the World Wildlife Fund, over 73 million sharks are killed each year just to feed consumer’s demand for sharks fin soup. That’s not a typo. 73…million. It’s a shocking number and the saddest part is that in most cases the shark is pulled from the water, its fin is hacked off and the rest of the majestic animal is unceremoniously dumped back into the sea.
More numbers? According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 85% of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited, over exploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. It’s no wonder. Singapore alone consumes an average of 100,000 tons of seafood each year and the global seafood market is expected to grow another 50 million tons by 2025. On land things aren’t much better. Millions of tons of food go to waste each year. It is estimated that in the US, 14% of food purchased at the grocery store is thrown away. This is an incredible waste of resources – not just to produce the food but also to ship, process and store it, all for nothing.
Something needs to be done and as chefs I believe that we are part of the problem but hopefully, we’re also part of the solution. For too long we have been abusing our resources and it is now time we start thinking about how we can stop destroying the raw materials we need to run our businesses. We have to set the example for our clients to follow. Yes, we face difficult questions and tough steps will need to be taken, but I am confident that if professionals and clients work together, we will not only sustain but actually begin to replenish.
This is the goal towards which we have already taken some important steps at our newly opened Montigo Resort, Nongsa. Before we opened our doors we began reaching out to area farmers to purchase as much locally produced food as possible. On the property itself we use organic fertiliser and we are planning to create our own gardens where we will grow vegetables, herbs and fruits to use in our restaurant.
We do not have items like cod and instead of industrially caught tuna we serve a locally caught variety. Salmon is occasionally served but we have replaced it on the menu with similar types of fish as often as possible.
Finally we do our very best to only buy what we will be using. Many restaurants over-buy which is not only environmentally wasteful but also bad for the bottom line. We ask our suppliers to deliver our products in minimal packaging without compromising on freshness and sanitation. Aubergine really does not need to be individually wrapped the way it is in the supermarket.
When planning the menus I thought long and hard about how to make each dish sustainable. To be truly sustainable you need to do more than just strike an item like shark fin soup from the menu. Buying locally sounds great but the reality is that not everyone starts out on an equal playing field. In Batam the main agricultural product is cassava leaves. That doesn’t give you a lot of menu options. Limited local crop variety means chefs have to become much more creative to develop a menu that offers a bit of variety but there is only so much one can do. Relying on local, seasonal harvests also means certain products are not available during certain times in the year. In consequence dishes need to be changed more often leads to more menus printed which adds to the restaurant’s overall costs and increases the carbon footprint.
It’s also difficult for a chef to select the right local farmers. Not many use organic compost these days and it’s difficult to keep track of who is using what in their growing cycles. To be sure a chef has to keep a list of farmers who support sustainable initiatives but how many of us have time to check-up on these things.
One thing we can control is the education of our staff. At Montigo, having everyone on the same page and fully understanding the reasons behind our initiatives is key. We are hopeful that some may start coming up with their own ways to help the cause and that it will carry over to their home lives and they will help spread the message if they ever decide to change jobs. Our guests also need to be aware that the future depends in great part on what they order when they are out and what they cook at home. As industry professionals, we are just the tip of the ice berg. We need to lead by example but it is up to our clients to follow. Ultimately our goal is not only to sustain but regain.
Want to help? There are a number of things you can do. First take a stand against unsustainable fishing by pledging to buy MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified seafood. It is still not readily available everywhere so if you can’t find seafood with the MSC label in your local store, please ask for them because businesses do listen to their customers. Next, inform yourself. You can find a lot of great information on the WWF website. There are sites for every area in the world. I love the Singapore site. It has useful information on what you can do to help preserve the area’s waters, from taking a Save the Sharks Pledge, to seeing what restaurants are shark-fin free and best of all, you can download an easy to carry guide to sustainable seafood shopping. I also like to check in at the Marine Stewardship Council’s website where apart from a lot of useful info on sustainable fishing there are some tasty recipes. Stacey Teo, Executive Chef at KOP Hospitality