Issues facing restaurants are becoming more defined as a greater understanding develops with customers and suppliers. For me, it is clear that as more people understand about issues that relate to the environment in general they are beginning to look closer to home as to what they can do to help. Many councils offer recycling schemes which have started to focus attention on waste and exactly what we do with it. By adopting habits of segregating refuse into recyclable and organic waste people are becoming more aware of what goes into landfill, or is incinerated, or even what can be reused in some form or another. By starting at the root of the issue the message about sustainability, provenance and seasonality is being more readily absorbed and passed on through society and business in general. I have adopted measures to use and promote local produce for many years in my restaurants and recently I have noticed a huge uptake of awareness both at a business level and with customers, especially in the last two years. There is an influencing factor though which I think has made people reflect on food miles, local produce and seasonality and it is the recession. Recent surveys have shown an increase in people beginning to grow their own fruit and vegetables, this in itself is a good thing as it will broaden knowledge of not only of when produce is available but also the effort required to grow it.
The environment is going to be a contentious issue for decades and its true that we may spend as much time deciding what to do only to be too late to actually react. One thing that is certain though is that when countries expand and wealth is created, whether that is new wealth or in established countries growth increases pressure on the environment. Which takes me back to the recession, although it is not in any sense something we wish to sustain, there are arguments which may make environmentalists look at curbing rapid recovery. For instance, a recently published report has linked a reduction in car miles with the high price of fuel. This in turn has had a linked but unqualified reduction on car crashes. By looking at how we consume we can have a positive impact in other areas. People have a tendency to preserve and reduce consumption during times of crisis.
Ironically the health of the nation improved during the Second World War, this was down to scarcity of the luxurious good which are generally higher in saturated fats and processed sugars. Much of the population was forced to use every bit of garden or space to grow their own produce to make up for the rationing of food. Other factors such as a lack of personal transport, apart from bicycles and walking, lead to more cardiovascular exercise; this coupled with home grown produce rich in vitamin and flavour saw a decrease in heart disease.
I am not putting forward an argument for a return to austerity as I feel that would be excessive to say the least, but there are clearly signs we should be taking note of. If we do not learn by history then we are apt to keep repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum. We cannot live in a world of excess without having to pay the piper at some point.
The key word here is excess. I am not talking about enjoying Pâté de Foie Gras or a fine bottle of French wine, or eating a Valrhona chocolate pavé, but being aware that there are equally tasty alternatives or that all of your meal does not have to be transported hundreds of miles to you plate. There are some items such as Pâté de Foie Gras which simply cannot be produced to the same high standard locally and therefore will be imported but it is equally important to realise that much of what we serve and eat can now be produced to the highest standards within our own shores.
The importance of raising those standards in farming have played a crucial factor in ensuring that restaurants can serve excellent, wholesome and flavoursome meat, fish and produce which have only travelled a few miles, and in the case of livestock has been fed the correctly balanced nutritional diet and saved from the stress of live transportation or inhumane slaughter. Awareness in eating balanced diets will also push the trend toward healthier home grown and seasonal products. Obesity, especially among more sedentary children is leading to an alarming rise in early onset type 1 diabetes. Up to half of obese young people could fall prey to the disease by their 30s. Not only will this put a huge strain on the NHS but it will render a large proportion of this generation disabled when they should be enjoying life.
Education in understanding food will provide a foundation to help combat many issues at a ground level. So much of the discussion with food, sustainability, provenance and the environment is political, and politics is not the comfort zone of chefs. Yet it is amazing how much impact chefs can have to generate awareness on these issues. There is an entire generation of adults who have not as much understanding on food because governments have decided to scrap cookery classes. Some of these decisions were based on trying to empower women, because domestic science as it was known was seen as female territory, while boys headed of to metal workshop. Stereotyped views I know, but there is a little truth behind them and the fact is that many people struggle with simple basic cooking, beyond throwing a heavily processed meal packed with sugars and salts, which young bodies cannot burn, into a microwave or opting for the easy alternative of feeding them junk from fast food outlets.
Somehow we have persuaded ourselves that preparing food is a chore and not a joy, this is a wholly wrong assumption. Food is fun, understanding it, knowing where it comes from, growing it, and eating it. What greater education could there be for children than for schools to adopt activities such as growing their own produce for school dinners. As children take ownership of the produce they grow they will also be more likely to eat it and embrace a pattern of behaviour which they can adopt and pass on. Maybe the tide is turning with a new wave of environmentally aware consumers.
I hope so.