Over the last few months, I’ve been discussing the ins and outs of sustainability with those that know the London restaurant scene intimately. I’ve had illuminating conversations with Dean Parker, former Head Chef at The Manor (now Head Chef at the recently opened Sorella) in Clapham, Geetie Singh-Watson, founder of the Duke of Cambridge in Islington, and Laura Christie, who recently opened Linden Stores in Canonbury. We spoke in depth about what sustainability means to them, and why restaurants meet such challenges in operating sustainably.
DEAN PARKER – Head Chef at Sorella
Photo credit Kristen Wells
Dean Parker, a South African who came to London at 19, has trained in restaurants such as Lamberts, Paternoster Chop House, Sauterelle, and with Tom Aikens. Dean was part of the team to open The Dairy, where he was Head Chef, and later became Head Chef of their sister restaurant, The Manor. I spoke to Dean in the last few days before The Manor team transitioned from contemporary British to Italian, with their newest restaurant, Sorella.
As soon as we begin our conversation it is clear that Dean is fascinated by the origins of the products he’s using. He likes supporting small farmers , and is well aware that the quality of the produce they grow impacts what he can create each day in his kitchen. He notes the challenge of using what is available from the farm , sometimes a lot of one thing, and not always what you’d expect. As food sustainability continues to become more mainstream, with numerous restaurants making claims (some truthful, some dubious) about the origins of their products and their supply chain , one has to stop for a minute and ask:
What does it really mean to be sustainable and to imbed the values of sustainability in every aspect of what you do?
From Dean’s perspective, sustainability is about minimizing your impact, working hard to experiment and set up new systems, and making sure that you’re aligned with the local environment. Sustainability means operating with a more complex bottom line, and Dean seems to be happy to be creative while acknowledging that it can be more work. When I ask him about the challenges of the English climate he responds,
‘I think we need to work with the English climate, we don’t need to change what we grow, [this] climate is what we have...’
He is particularly enthusiastic about the ways you can preserve and craft food. For instance, in a place like the UK where the growing season is short, fermentation is a key element to sustainable cooking. For him it is a cornerstone, and it coincides with the restaurant’s ‘nose to tail’ approach to food. He also runs workshops on fermentation — covering topics such as sourdough bread, kimchi, miso and kombucha.
Dean reels off a list of farmers and producers that they work with directly to source their food, from a father/son fishing team to a farm growing heritage grains. Some chefs see working directly with a farmer as a chance to learn and understand the challenges and opportunities that farmers are dealing with. Others are happy to work solely through a middle person. I asked Dean whether he minds investing more time in these relationships rather than relying on a few suppliers:
‘I don’t really mind that time input. Actually, I strongly believe in relationship building and working with someone … getting the best out of them, and them getting the best out of me, in a sense. You put in the time, you get it back.’
Dean works with a small company called Indie Ecology, founded in 2011, that picks up all of their food waste, composts it for them, and then uses the compost to grow vegetables for the restaurant on their farm in West Sussex. The collaboration is fairly new, so after their first year with Indie Ecology they reviewed what worked well for the restaurant and what produce they got the most out of, and were then able to make changes for the next season.
While hearing about their composting and veg plan, I ask Dean what could be done to support restaurants’ efforts to tackle sustainability. Rubbish collection was top of the list (not having to pay more to have separated waste picked up) and he also raises the issue of packaging–specifically the endless stream of single-use packaging that food is delivered in. He ponders whether a citywide system of reusable containers could start to replace the polystyrene and cardboard addiction London has.
In London, despite the appalling practices around food waste and general lack of infrastructure for dealing with it, waste is starting to garner attention. Yet today, as a restaurant, you have to seek out alternative collections, and often the more sustainable you want to be the more you have to pay. Dean notes,
‘I think that London itself hasn’t really thought about what we need to be doing with food waste. Scotland has laws, if you put food waste in your bins you get charged, and actually supports collections.’
Dean is hopeful though, particularly about the awareness of the people working with him. He notes that he doesn’t have to persuade his team to care about sustainability; they’re already educated on the issues. When I ask him if he finds it challenging to minimize the waste the restaurant produces, he responds ,
‘I grew up in South Africa, and my grandparents grew a lot of their vegetables and they had a small hotel — that was always drummed into me, always looking at the wastage point of view quite consciously. Maybe that’s why people do come to work here because of the way that we work with [food].’
Stay tuned for upcoming interviews with Geetie Singh-Watson and Laura Christie.