To the untrained palate, carrot leaf pesto registers the merest of blip. Making it almost indistinguishable from the basil-saturated de rigueur iteration is that same vegetal taste. But to the guys behind RE- in Australia, it signifies a paradigm shift in the way they seek to put out food and drink on offer. And to us diners — who order without a clue about the provenance, leave alone sustainability of the food we consume.
As the world’s first permanent “waste-free” regenerative cocktail bar and restaurant, which opened in 2021 in Inner West Sydney’s hottest new precinct in South Eveleigh, RE- walks the talk in more ways than one. Not only is it housed in an erstwhile century-old locomotive workshop, but when I visit it earlier this year, I find even its upcycled decor elements pay homage at the altar of sustainability. Read: the terrazzo bar, table tops and even the staircase are made from recycled milk bottles. The banquettes are upholstered with the pineapple-fibre ‘leather’, and the overhanging light fixtures are grown, not made, from mushroom mycelium.
But it is the cocktails and food that are the true raison d’etre of this bar, which was awarded the Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award in 2021 at The World’s 50 Best Bars. “We started the ‘Never Wasted’ program at RE- to make people a bit more confident about sharing their [food] waste,” founder-owner Matt Whiley shared in a recent podcast interview with Australian F&B industry insider Dirty Linen. “For example, there’s so much of the strawberry still on the [discarded] tops, that we make a strawberry water and serve that in a fig leaf gin and rhubarb aperitif called Ruby.”
Imaginative upcycling comes to the fore with their coffee liquor made from recycled coffee grounds, waste wine vermouth and Martini caviar, and other libations such as the Old Fashioned that is sent off with a sweet syrup made from discarded banana skins. While savoury dishes such as the aforementioned carrot leaf pesto accompanies a roasted carrot hummus. Both products of supermarket-rejected “imperfect” produce that would have otherwise found their calling rotting in a landfill.
Green stars and zero waste
Did you know that it takes 25 years for a single head of lettuce to decompose when tossed in a landfill? As opposed to a mere two weeks if composted correctly. Irrefutable facts such as this, along with the shocker that as much as a third of all food goes to waste without a human ever touching it, made the food world cognoscenti sit up and take note recently. And it took a raging pandemic to put things into perspective.
First revealed in 2020, the Michelin Green Star was introduced into several of the 2021 editions of the Michelin Guide across the world. According to the website, this was initiated as an annual award which “highlights restaurants at the forefront of the industry when it comes to their sustainable practices”.
To that end, we’ve seen other sustainability-led restaurants around the world such as the all-vegan Frea in Berlin, Germany with its on-site composter machine — where the composted matter is sent back to farmers growing vegetables for the restaurant — win the green star recently. Another recipient, Rest in Oslo, Norway, is famous for curating menus that feature blemished or misshapen vegetables that are typically rejected by most fine dine chefs.
Internationally, other initiatives such as the B Corp and zero waste certifications make it easy for travellers to choose where to eat and drink sustainably. While the former is a private certification of companies’ social and environmental performance, the latter requires that a business or organisation achieves at least 90% diversion of non-hazardous solid waste from landfill, incineration, and the environment.
Keeping this at the forefront is Pisticci in New York, U.S.A. The Italian trattoria, which opened its doors last year, is a B Corp certified inner-city restaurant that is not just low-waste, energy efficient, and carbon neutral, but also practises its own organic farming and composts its organic waste. “We are closing the cycle: regenerating land rather than contributing to land fill and climate change,” say co-owner Vivian Forte. “We compost the organic matter reclaimed from our restaurant and take it up to our farm where it feeds the seedlings that, when mature, will make it back to your plate. Then the process starts again.”
Across the pond, managing production waste effectively is the London restaurant aptly named Silo. It has its own flour mill, churns its own butter, as well as employs the au courant nose-to-tail philosophy. This means that every part of the animal is used. Much like RE-, Silo also features dining furniture made from upcycled materials and crockery from crushed wine bottles. Most recently, they announced plans to collaborate with a local brewery to make sour beer from Japanese Knotweed, the invasive plant in Britain, and a six-course dinner featuring ingredients from British environmentalists’ most wanted list.
India is taking small steps
Back home, we may not have dedicated regenerative restaurants yet, but a few are taking steps in the right direction. Goa’s Edible Archives is a forerunner in India’s sustainable dining game — trying their hand at everything from using local sticky rice in lieu of imported sushi rice to liaising with local farmers for fresh vegetables and other produce, to composting the wet waste in their on-site garden composting pit. “Changes like these are essential because we need to realise that climate change and the future of food are interlinked. If we don’t think of sustainability and join the dots now, then it might be too late,” says chef and founder Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar, who started the restaurant in 2019.
Further down south, The Ibnii resort in Coorg has an interesting policy: it places the burden of mindful consumption firmly on the shoulders of the diner. After every meal, the food waste generated by each table at their restaurants is weighed. The cost of the waste weight is then charged to the diner (around ₹100 per 10 grams) and this amount goes into a kitty that is later donated orphanages in Coorg. A truly weighty attempt at a solution to a major problem. And we need more of these in the country.
The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.