Phil Howard says being sustainable "does not need to have any financial impact" on your business

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

How easy is it for restaurants to be sustainable? 

One of the most common points made by chefs when broaching the subject of sustainability is the financial cost it incurs: from plastic alternatives to ethically-sourced meat, respect for the environment can be pricey.

But it doesn't have to be expensive, and little steps can go a long way, argue the owners of Church Road, Elystan Street and Kitchen W8, chef Phil Howard and Rebecca Mascarenhas. 

"You have to accept that change requires effort but it really is not difficult to make incremental ones which, in time, lead to significant change," said Phil. 

"You have to commit, communicate to your team what the goals are, get everyone involved and share the responsibility.  It is too daunting otherwise."

Is operating sustainably always more expensive?

Though it means more thought is required, implementing good practice doesn't have to cost more; sometimes, it can even cost less, as demonstrated by Church Road's 'Little Sprouts' menu, which only uses so-called 'ugly' vegetables that would have otherwise gone to waste. 

"In some cases it does come at a financial cost, but it’s a popular misconception that operating sustainably is always more expensive.  It’s just about learning a new modus operandi," Rebecca explained.

As for how to avoid rising prices (and running the risk of losing footfall), she explained, "we manage our costs meticulously." 

Church Street,
Phil Howard and Rebecca Mascarenhas' 
New restaurant in Barnes, London

What happens when you make sustainability a priority from the get-go? 

After closing Sonny's and as they were set to open Church Road, the pair decided to that their business should reflect their environmental concerns. They did so by looking at their food supply, but at the building structure and how they redecorated the interior. 

"We recycled as much as we could from the old restaurant, Sonny’s – for example, the table in our Common Room has been made out of the old wood panelling from the walls.  Our wine storage has been made from an old shelving system that has been resprayed.  We’ve installed LED lighting," said Rebecca.

How can chefs be more sustainable?

At Church Road, heating and air con aren't used unless necessary; deliveries have been cut down to a minimum, burners aren't switched on in the kitchen until they need to be, all food waste is composted, cleaning products are selected based on their environmental impact, endangered species are avoided and suppliers who use excessive and non-recyclable packaging are given the boot.

And, if you want more tips from the chefs pioneering good practice, Phil advised that "social media is a great way to get in touch with people who are making great strides.

"I doubt any chef or restaurateur would ignore a request for advice from someone who’s keen to get on board so that, as an industry, we’re all treading lightly on the planet."

Should chefs lead the way when it comes to sustainability? 

While chefs undeniably have a role to play, is it fair to expect them to impact significant change to the world's food systems? 

Both Phil and Rebecca agree that it's not quite so straightforward. Even in restaurants, the kitchen can only do so much. 

"Front of house are equally responsible with controlling aircon and heating, using environmentally friendly cleaning products etc," said Phil. 

But chefs can also be advocates and spokespeople for change, he added, as they have "more kudos with the general public than they had before, thanks to the intervention of TV and the celebrity chef, so they should use those voices – like Jamie and Hugh – to further these vital changes."

"We need restaurants to be part of the solution, not the global warming problem." 

Are we fighting a losing battle?

Though they are doubling down at Church Street and rolling out measures that work at their other restaurants, the chef explained that wouldn't be fair for the burden of reducing the environmental impact of food to rest solely on restaurants.

"The relationship between supermarkets and the public is also critical – as long as foreign and out of season produce sits on the shelves and is packaged in plastic, what we do in restaurants is really only the tip of the iceberg."

Rebecca agreed, stating that for change to happen, "the supermarkets have to come on board.  Right now, they’re feeding the demand for asparagus in December, avocados all year round and summer fruits in the autumn and winter.  We need to be more rigorous about seasonality, like they are in mainland Europe.  I don’t think the onus is solely on restaurants… the supermarkets need to accept their share of responsibility and take action."

Note: Part of the content for this feature was collected during an evening at the V&A dedicated to sustainability and the future of food, sponsored by HW Fisher.

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 15th November 2019

Phil Howard says being sustainable "does not need to have any financial impact" on your business