Greener Food: Sustainable Restaurants Pop Up Across North America, Europe

When most people go to a restaurant, they aren’t worried about what will happen to the chicken bones left on their plate. Or how that gourmet chicken was raised. They don’t ask themselves if it treated humanely or if fields cleared to grow feed. They don’t wonder how much fuel was burned transporting it. To be fair, restaurants don’t usually offer this information without prodding. Still, with the birth of sustainable restaurants, all that may soon change.

leslie west 400x267 Greener Food: Sustainable Restaurants Pop Up Across North America, Europe
Chef Leslie West of Boulder, Colorado’s Zeal Restaurant.

Sustainable restaurants are all about maintaining three main pillars: sourcing, environment and society. By locally producing food and minimize waste, while promoting healthy eating and fair treatment of animals, they hope to keep these pillars balances and prominent in their kitchens.

Sustainable restaurants are popping up all over the world. Restaurants like ABC Kitchen in New York City and Zacapa is Azurmendi in Spain are attempting to serve more sustainable food.

Other restaurants have become completely sustainable. The Black Cat Farm Table Bistro in Boulder, Colorado sources almost 100% of its food from a farm nearby run by the restaurant’s owners and chefs.

Zeal Restaurant, also in Boulder, also uses almost all sustainable food. Since Zeal does not have its own farm, the kitchen tries to buy food that is transported in the most environmentally friendly ways. This often means local food with minimal plastic packaging. Leslie White, Zeal’s executive chef, says, “there’s so many little things and little factors to look into [to serve sustainable food]. First we try to stay local.”

White explains that he tries to buy as much as he can from within the Boulder area. Having products sourced from a nearby farm allows him to not only be as sustainable as possible but to also have a close relationship with his providers. He has a particularly strong relationship with Boulder Lamb Farm, his pig provider. “I go over a once a week…with my son and we play on [the] farm. They have a trampoline and a little lake, we’ll go on a canoe. I see the whole process of what’s happening …I’m 100% certain I couldn’t get better grass-fed, just free-range animals.”

He explains that he tries to check in with the farms that are not local as well. Although he imports salmon from Canada, White makes sure that they are raised well by keeping in good contact with his fisherman. “It’s another one of just having one of those good relationships where I can say ‘hey. I want a picture of the salmon you’re about to send me’ and he’ll just take a picture and send it to me,” said White.

Zeal also stays sustainable by composting waste, limiting unnecessary water usage, and using recyclable takeout containers. White is even careful to make sure that the shipping methods his providers use are not irresponsible. He switched peanut butter vendors because his original vendor was shipping in “these weird plastic bags”.

As more people become aware of the environmentally detrimental aspects of food production, the demand for sustainable food grows. Hopefully, supply will as well.

To read the transcription of our full interview with Chef Leslie White see below:

EarthTalk: When did you start working at Zeal?

Leslie White: I started working here about a year, a little more than year and a half ago.

EarthTalk: Had you cooked with all sustainable food before?

LW: Nope. Never. Nothing. This is a completely different, new style of food for me. I’d trained more in the classical French-American type stuff so I was definitely cooking more with butter and milk and heavy cream and everything that’s not good for you—tons of sugar and all that good stuff— my whole life.

EarthTalk: What drew you to cook food here?

LW: Just at home, once we moved to Colorado, we just started. My family and I started just slowly making healthier choices with our food and just life in generally with things we were doing and I’d already started making the transition at home just with cleaner food, more local. It just felt right. It just felt natural to come to a place that reflected those values.

EarthTalk: Do you think that healthy food and sustainable food go hand in hand?

LW: I think they can. I don’t think they have to but they definitely can go hand in hand for sure.

EarthTalk: How do you incorporate sustainability into different aspects of the food? Do you only use local food? If not local, do you investigate transportation methods?

LW: There’s so many little things and little factors to look into but we try to stay local. First, obviously, in the off-season it’s a little more difficult to get certain things so we try to stay within the U.S. Sometimes we do have to source things, avocados, you know, we eventually have to get them from Mexico. But then you also have to look at other things as far as what they’re shipped in. I’ve had to change we order. We had an organic peanut butter that they were shipping in these weird plastic bags so we switched that to something a little more sustainable. So even the packaging that some of the dry goods come in, you know, We try to take into consideration.All of our to go food, when people order their food to go, all of our to-go stuff is compostable and definitely recyclable. We try to get as much recyclable stuff as we can.

EarthTalk: Do you guys have a compost in here?

LW: So we compost a lot of our waste and we also take all of the compost from when we juice,so all of the fibers and everything. We actually send that to our pig farmer that we order our pigs from and he feeds the pigs and they absolutely love it. He says it’s, like, their most favorite time of the week is when they get all that compost.

EarthTalk: Where is your pig farmer?

LW: He’s in Longmont [right outside of Boulder]. Boulder lamb,they’re called. Lamb is their number one market for what they do but they started pigs also and they might do a little beef now. Really just an super awesome family, super nice family.

EarthTalk: By using a pig farmer like that that’s more sustainable do you know the hogs are being treated right and it has lower emissions?

LW: Oh yeah, it’s super close. Just by trying to stay super close by and stay local, what’s nice too is that you get a relationship. I don’t have a super-perfect awesome relationship with all my farmers but with this one I go over a once a week and grab eggs for my family. I go over with my son and we play on his farm. You know what I mean? They have a trampoline and a little lake, we’ll go on a canoe. I see the whole process of what’s happening there. That one is one of the ones where I’m 100% certain i couldn’t get better grass-fed, just free range animals. That’s one I really have seen firsthand and you know I try to do that everywhere I go. All the farms we order from i try to visit and just take a look and make sure you know that their practices are good that they’re not hiding pesticide secretly or whatever. Just to do a little checkup.

EarthTalk: Does buying ingredients like this hike the price of the food up?

LW: It definitely does. without a doubt. You know one of the things that really surprised me switching over was the price difference. When I was working at a fine dining restaurant we would set out epismos, which is like the filet steak, which is supposed to be one of nicest. People pay a premium for that. But, when we were buying that it would cost us between $9-12 a pound of what was considered the nicest cut of meat and now that’s what I’m paying for like the chuck roast, the cheapest part I get in… It’s a really big difference for sure. It’s hard to transition that over to keep prices down and reasonable because we’re not a fine dining establishment.

EarthTalk: How do you recommend for people without as much money to try to keep environmental down in the food they eat?

LW: I think CSAs are pretty reasonable and affordable. That’s probably the easiest thing they can do is go and do programs like that with nearby farms. That

EarthTalk: I’ve been hearing a lot about cutting down on meat. What do you think?

LW: I haven’t done enough personal research to make a really valid response to that but I’ve read here and there and there’s definitely two sides to every story and choosing better raised… I think avoiding factory farms would definitely be a huge benefit to the earth and Mother Nature. I think probably restricting how much meat would be a big factor also. That’s something we do without plate we try to have more vegetables and less protein—just a 4/5 oz portion—- I don’t think the meat should be the main thing on the dish. It should be just the accent. The vegetables and the sauce should be the forefront. Yeah, I think if everyone did that and just ate a little less meat that would be a really big way of helping!

EarthTalk: When you have sustainably caught fish do you go farm or wild?

LW: So that’s another one where it’s been a back-and-forth for me. From what I’ve looked into, it seems like there are some farms that really do things right and really keep things sustainable and really keep things clean and I’ve heard about some farms where there’s shrimp just sitting in its own nasty water. So that’s a really hard one. We try to go right now and this one place where we get our salmon from. It’s actually in Canada, but I did meet the fisherman personally and it’s another one of just having one of those good relationships where I can say ‘hey. I want a picture of the salmon you’re about to send me’ and he’ll just take a picture and send it to me. To have that connection, just really talk about what his production is and how he farms, you know fish from the ocean and rivers. And you know, being line caught is definitely a big bonus for only catching exactly what you need and you know if they bring something in that’s not what they’re looking for, it goes back. Yeah that’s a hard one for sure because you know a lot of that stuff is monitored but not monitored closely enough for what people are catching. But, you know, we do purchase things from farms and things that are wild-caught as well.

EarthTalk: So its all about striking the right balance?

LW: Yeah striking the right balance and we try to do some research into where it’s coming from. The Colorado ocean coalition (funny we’re in Colorado and there’s no ocean nearby) but there’s a pretty big movement from them. A lot of scuba divers and things like that. I talked with her for a bit and she’s talking about a lot of pretty clean practices. They’re doing farm fishery out in the oceans and things like that. So that’s just more to look into. I now think farm fishing is really, really broad range.

EarthTalk: Do you have any ways you minimize waste in your kitchen?

LW: Nothing super in particular. You know some people came in and put special nozzles and spray nozzles over things for cleaning and washing, but I can’t think of anything in particular except we try not to use more water than you need to for anything.

EarthTalk: Do you know any restaurants like this in Boulder? Outside of boulder? Do you think this is movement that’s going to grow?

LW: I definitely think it’s a movement that’s going to grow more. Eventually, all over most of the country but I think we seeing more and more little restaurants open up in Boulder. I feel like Denver now is really becoming a mecca for sustainable, clean, organic food. Whenever I google to look for a restaurant that’s organice, I feel like Denver is showing a lot of promise for that. I feel like it’s one of those things, you know. I feel like information is power and once people realize that, you know, being organic, non-GMO is going to be better for you and more and more realize that and more and more people are going to want it, so it’s going to keep expanding the market place for it.