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  • Writer's pictureIrish Food Writing Awards

“Don’t talk about it; just show them”

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Irish restaurants won three green stars from Michelin but is sustainability in kitchens happening fast enough? Jess Murphy and Conor Spacey on changing mindsets, and how staff are part of sustainability too.

This past year has been a difficult one for the hospitality industry with restaurants and hotels are still suffering badly because of pandemic closures. One positive came in January’s Michelin Stars announcement; no Irish restaurant lost their stars and Dede in Cork won a well-deserved new star. Four new Bib Gourmand were also announced for Ireland; awarded to Volpe Nera and Spitalfields in Dublin, Table 41 in Gorey and Goldie in Cork.

Further good news came with the announcement of three new green stars for Irish restaurants with sustainable practices. All three went to Galway; Kai and Loam in the city and Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites on the Aran Islands. This is a new scheme by Michelin and chimes with the drive towards sustainability across all businesses, not just food.

Chef Enda McEvoy, owner of one of the green star recipients Loam, spent time working at Noma and the practices that Noma and the Scandanavian food movement espouses can be seen in Michelin’s aims with the Green Star awards.

Michelin describe the purpose of the scheme as “to highlight restaurants at the forefront of the industry when it comes to sustainable practices and who act as role models for us all. Many work directly with growers, farmers and fishermen; forage in hedgerows and woodlands; grow plants and rear animals; and use regenerative methods such as no-dig vegetable gardens and successful cover crop growing. They also often go beyond environmental considerations to address the quality of life of their staff, as well as contributing to local, national or global charity and education projects”

This idea of green practices extending to staff is something Jess Murphy of Kai feels strongly about “When I opened Kai with David (her husband), we wanted to do our utmost to respect the people who work for us. We pay them by the hour, so every hour they are in the building they are being paid. They also choose their own hours, tips get spilt evenly and we sit down as a family and eat dinner together. If they want to progress in food I teach them everything I know, and I also encourage them to train for qualifications with GMIT.”

What about restaurant owners who say that staffing costs are too high as it is in Ireland and that going the extra mile just isn’t an option? “Look it’s simple, we treat our employees like we want to be treated and anyone who thinks its unsustainable to do that isn’t doing good business. We don’t have issues ever with constantly replacing staff, we’ve been in business for ten years and have huge loyalty from everyone who works here. That’s more efficient and sustainable by far in the long run.”

Kai also goes the extra mile with the quantifiable things – the restaurant weighs it’s food waste, plastic containers are washed, dried and sent back to the supplier be re-used. Eco-friendly cleaning products are used including toilet paper and soap, coffee grains go to their greens grower and other green waste goes to a local composting system.

“I’m from New Zealand where water and resources are precious. So here it’s natural to source food locally. It’s more expensive, but many of our customers eat with us three times a week – they are highly intelligent and know the difference. Buying cheap food just isn’t who I am. We do it because the restaurant is our passion, yes we would make more money by sourcing very differently but it’s just not how we do things”.

Chef Conor Spacey sees the Michelin green stars as a move in the right direction but that change in the food sector is not happening rapidly enough. His company Food Space has won sustainability awards in catering and food service; being green is the core of what they do.

“It’s great to see the three Irish restaurants being recognised for their great work on sustainability but sadly, they are in the minority. We are not moving fast enough to meet goals from the UN SDG’s and the Paris agreement, and our planet, food systems and climate are paying the price”

There’s no getting away from it, the facts are pretty stark. Most scientists agree that if we don’t accelerate change within the next ten years, then we will go beyond the point of repair. “There are great chefs, restaurants, hotels etc. doing brilliant work across the globe on implementing changes that can contribute to a better food system. This just needs to become the majority - so that every food business reduces their carbon footprint and is active improving biodiversity, is sourcing local seasonal food and reducing food miles.”

But is being more sustainable in terms of food sourcing, using renewable power, changing kitchen practices regarding food waste etc something that is seen as more expensive or troublesome by many chefs?

“Yes I think so” says Spacey. “I spend a lot of time teaching and demonstrating how chefs can implement changes into their kitchens. Initially when we mention sustainability a lot of chefs respond with – oh we need more staff or more money to make these changes. That’s because what they really need to change is their mind-set and how they approach food.”

“In some cases, chefs that work for large companies, chains etc. have their hands tied because of procurement systems in place where they don’t have a choice in what or how they can purchase and change is difficult for them.”

Being greener is often about doing small things differently, even in our kitchens and at home, but what’s the best way to reach people – especially chefs without coming across as lecturing them?

“I personally find the best way for chefs to open their minds to change is to show them rather than talk about it. Go into their kitchens with a hands-on approach where they can see the practical results. This always encourages them to implement change and learn more. It’s also in our nature as chefs to be competitive and secretive around recipes etc. and I think to really make change and encourage chefs to get involved then we need to share our work more in terms of sustainability, zero waste etc.”

Maybe next year Ireland will win more green stars, or better still the practices awarded by the scheme will become common in restaurant kitchens.

If you’d like to hear more from Jess and Conor; their fermentation, food waste practices and of course outstanding cooking, follow them at @kaigalway and @spaceychef on twitter, and @kai_galway and @spacey_chef on Instagram

- Paul O’Connor and Suzanne Campbell

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