The virtuous circle

A new wave of Singapore restaurants is making a strong push towards sustainability.

Published Fri, Dec 4, 2015 · 09:50 PM

THE quest for sustainability is not new and in Singapore, it's near-impossible to find a restaurant that totally walks the talk. However, a wave of new restaurants has been making efforts to narrow that gap, whether by sourcing from international but environmentally-conscious farms, lowering carbon emissions by supporting local producers, or even reducing wastage by cooking with whole animals.

Taking the nose to tail approach is Jean-Philippe Patruno, whose new Spanish restaurant Dehesa - due to open on Dec 18 - will also serve locally sourced fish and use recycled material to make furniture.

Chef-owner Patruno's move to use the entire animal is "a responsibility, and it's common sense too", he says. "I've got kids and I want them to grow up in a good environment... and it'll be less expensive for the restaurant and for the customer also."

He adds that whole pigs cost about S$10 to S$12 per kilo while popular cuts like the tenderloin can cost up to S$32 per kilo.

Dehesa is one of a growing number of restaurants which are discovering the fish from Tiberias Harvest, a four-year-old farm just off Pulau Ubin. The family-owned farm is run by Raymond Sng, who employs environmentally friendly methods that are antibiotic and chemical-free. Singapore is seeing more of such individuals who are trying to improve local food production, and Mr Sng says he has noticed more restaurants understanding the benefits of going local versus importing fish from abroad. But, he feels, "it will be a while before demand exceeds supply".

On the other hand, Kuhlbarra, one of the pioneers in local sustainably-farmed fish, has noticed a "steady and encouraging climb in the demand from restaurants in Singapore". Some of their clients include celebrity restaurants like Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen, and local groups like the Tung Lok Group of restaurants.

"In fact our overall Kuhlbarra sales in Singapore has grown five times since January 2015," says director of sales and marketing Eva Lim. The company started in 2007, and now produces 500 tonnes of fish a year out of two farms with a combined size of about 25 football fields.

Ms Lim adds: "We believe there will be increasing pressure for restaurants to source and serve sustainable seafood, from the Corporate Social Responsibility front, and also from consumer demand. Somewhat like how we have seen less shark's fin soup being served at banquets here in the last few years. However, it might take some time for this to happen."

Chef Ivan Brehm of Bacchanalia on the other hand, is less optimistic, citing the example of cities like London and New York where the trend ends up failing because of the lack of "sustainable change". His restaurant has been pursuing sustainability since it opened three years ago, and is currently up to about 50 per cent.

The onus he believes, is on chefs themselves to embrace the discussion, because finding sustainable produce is the easy part; the hard part is changing the creative process as a chef.

He explains: "A chef who creates a dish in his head without paying attention to the seasons, or without having to toil with products that he's never worked with before, hasn't really understood what sustainability is about."

"Because that's where it gets exciting for a cook - if he embraces the fact that he will not have a consistent supply of any product that he wants, then he starts making the best of any products he can get at the moment. He will need to develop his skill, explore different cooking techniques, different properties...

"Quality product should be the starting point by default, not the talking point. What you do to it is what matters, and sustainability keeps you on your toes," says chef Brehm.

Doing the right thing

Artemis Grill CapitaGreen rooftop, 138 Market St Level 40 Tel 6635-8677 Open Mon to Fri, 11.30am-3pm; Mon to Sat, 6pm-10.30pm Closed on Sun

Contemporary Mediterranean restaurant Artemis Grill sits on the rooftop of one of Singapore's greenest buildings - the award-winning CapitaGreen, by Japanese architect Toyo Ito. So its focus on seasonal organic and sustainable dining is a logical one.

Says general manager Craig Hemmings: "We picked a grill and Mediterranean food concept because it's a very healthy way for us to present food... and we take some effort to find the cleanest products that we can, because it's the right thing to do."

Artemis Grill opened about two weeks ago serving a mix of cuisines from countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Greece, and is one of three restaurants owned by The Red Door Group, along with Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse and Soi 60 Thai.

Some highlights include a spicy Iberico pork presa (S$40) served with padron peppers and a tomato and bell pepper relish, a lemon-crusted Loch Fyne salmon (S$34) with baby fennel salad and roasted purple potatoes, and a chargrilled Spanish octopus (S$22) with confit cherry tomato, preserved lemon and pickled padron peppers.

According to head chef Fernando Arevalo, 100 per cent of the protein on the menu comes from sustainable sources, which means Artemis Grill specifically looks out for certifications like Friends of the Sea when it comes to seafood, or GLOBALG.A.P. Standard for meats.

It's "not only the fact that it's not harmful to the environment, but that the agricultural practices are also good for the animals. Basically making sure they're happy cows and happy pigs", explains the chef. He adds: "It's our job as chefs to make sure that we don't support people that do wrong to the animal or the environment. Basically what you have to do sometimes is just pay a little bit more, and then that will be reflected in the quality of your food."

The price difference can vary quite a lot too, says chef Arevalo. For instance, a regular tuna might cost about S$50 a kilo, while a high-grade sustainable tuna can go up to S$180 a kilo depending on the season. On the other hand, because their salmon supplier has a large farm, their fish only costs about S$3-4 more per kilo compared with regular salmon.

Artemis Grill carries a growing range of organic and biodynamic wines, and eventually intends to make their own sparkling water as well. They are also working with local farming community Edible Gardens to set up a microherb and herb garden at the Sky Forest next to the restaurant.

Supporting local produce

Portico Prime 10 Dempsey Road #01-20 Tel 6474-7427 Open Tues to Sun 11.30am-3pm Weekdays 6pm-10.30pm Weekends 6pm-11.30pm

Supporting local produce is a big deal at three-week-old restaurant Portico Prime in Dempsey. It's their way of contributing to Singapore's own farming ecosystem, and in turn building a more sustainable industry, says owner Chia Tek Yew.

That's why the restaurant not only uses local suppliers for its main ingredients like fish from local fish farm Tiberias Harvest, and quail from Uncle William, but also from the lesser-known players like Pollen Nation which gives them honey to use in drinks and desserts, as well as Kin Yan Agrotech for their mushrooms.

"It's not to make one farm successful, but to make them so successful that other competitors will come in," explains Mr Chia.

"The plus point is that it's sustainable farming, so these are all people who practise the right farming methodology. Our culinary teams can actually go down to the farms and kelongs to look at how they do it. And because it's local, our carbon emissions are also low," he adds.

Executive chef Nixon Low highlights that it makes more sense as well because the produce is then easier to transport over, takes less time, is fresher, and also cheaper.

"There's this barramundi from France that ranges from S$26 to S$35 per kilo, but my local sea bass can go as low as S$13 per kilo. And it's fresher. It only takes two hours to get here from the farm in Pulau Ubin," he says.

In other words, if you were to order the pan-seared Pulau Ubin barramundi (S$38) served with roasted potatoes and carrot ginger puree off their menu, chances are you might be eating a fish that was just harvested and delivered that very day itself.

Vegetables are a little harder to get in Singapore however, so chef Low gets some of them from a mix of sources such as local organic farms like Quan Fa, and Cameron Highlands - still close enough to leave a low carbon footprint.

Down the road, they are working on a garden of their own to grow things like garnish for salads and mint leaves for cocktails, while keeping a look out for more local produce to add to their inventory.

Says Mr Chia: "It's up to the farming community to scale up, but we're always here to support them. Just like the fish farm - everything they've introduced we've taken on. If tomorrow they introduce prawns, we'll probably take prawns from them. So we grow with them. We're not big enough to take all their supply, but we're always there."

Ahead of the game

Dehesa 12 North Canal Road Tel 9655-8092 Open Mon to Fri, 11.30am-2.30pm, Mon to Sat, 5.30pm-1am Opens Dec 18

In Jean-Philippe Patruno's hands, one pig's head can be turned into five or six dishes in his new restaurant Dehesa.

The chef, who previously helmed Bomba and Una, says that his new place, which opens Dec 18, is unlike most existing Spanish restaurants here in Singapore, as its main focus will be on nose-to-tail eating.

That means "we will use whole pigs or whole lambs, or any animals that we have we will use all of their parts to create the menu", says the chef.

"It's more sustainable because you're keeping the wastage to a minimum, and the cost to a minimum. The only thing on a pig you cannot eat is actually the toe nail. Everything else you should be able to use, and once you know how to debone one animal, they're all the same."

So instead of serving the usual Spanish fare like paella and croquettes, he intends to order whole pigs, butcher them, and make things like terrine with the kidney and liver, and fresh sausages with the shoulders.

"It's about being clever about how you use the animal, and there's so much more you can do with the whole pig than if you just buy the tenderloin... And you respect the produce a bit more because you debone it yourself," he says.

According to chef Patruno, his love for alternative cuts came from his time as head chef at the sustainable restaurant Quo Vadis in London, and it has stuck with him through the years until he finally had the chance to open his own establishment.

So while he acknowledges it is too complicated to be fully sustainable, he is careful to keep his carbon footprint as low as possible by sourcing ingredients from around the region, and using fish from a local farm. He also adds that even his furniture is made of recycled wood in an effort to help save the environment.

"Yes, it's a bit more work, because you have to be careful where you order from, what you order, and what you do. But at the end of the day, you have to realise that those measures also help you save money, so they are good for your restaurant," he says.

Going local

Kite 53 Craig Road Tel 9729-7988 | Open Tues to Sun, noon-2.30pm, 6pm-1am. Closed on Mon

From the folks behind the popular brunch spot SPRMRKT, comes a new dining establishment on Craig Road named Kite. While the month-old restaurant offers what they call "modern comfort food" in small plates, it also focuses a lot on sustainability and local produce - a move driven by head chef Dannel Krishnan.

"It reflects on our character as a restaurant," explains the 27-year-old chef. "We can't have everything sustainable, because some things come from really far away so there's more carbon footprint. But whenever we can, and if quality is good, we will take what we can from somewhere nearby."

That's why the Ubin Sea Bass (S$14) dish with lotus root, sunflower seeds, and sprouts, uses fish from the farm Tiberas Harvest in Pulau Ubin, while Uncle William's Quail (S$16) with barley, mushrooms and spiced jus features quail from a farm in Lim Chu Kang. As for their vegetables, chef Krishnan estimates that about 30 to 40 per cent come from Fireflies - an organic farm also located in Lim Chu Kang, while most of the rest would come from farms in Malaysia.

Chef Krishnan attributes his focus on sustainability to his training and philosophy, which was a personal interest that "bloomed" while working at the modern European restaurant Bacchanalia.

"I used to run Bacchanalia's garden project when Ivan (Brehm) and Mark (Ebbels) started the garden. I was the one on the ground, helping put in the plants, and taking care of them. We don't have much of a budget here but we try to grow as much as we can," he says, referring to his small but growing garden at Kite.

There, he grows spearmint, lemon balm, and curry leaves, and hopes to expand it to include other commonly used ingredients like basil and mint.

While he is still working towards adding more sustainable produce to his kitchen, chef Krishnan says: "I'm very careful about saying we're sustainable, because to me no restaurant is truly that unless they grow their own things and they serve it all the time - which is really really difficult in Singapore. But whatever we can, we do, and to me that's most important."

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