Last September, when 16-year-old Greta Thunberg was delivering an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, I watched the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated climate activist’s moving entreaty to world leaders during my lunchbreak, over a container of takeaway ramen. Inspired, I vowed to do my little bit to live sustainably and combat the climate crisis: first step, abolish single-use plastics from my everyday life, I thought, looking at my plastic spoon with distaste.

But in my bid to live sustainably, I had completely disregarded factoring in the very fuel of life – food. 

[Emirates Bio Farm's organic produce: from harvest to your local market in 24 hours]

This realisation dawned upon me three months later during Veganuary – the UK-based initiative that urges people around the world to adopt a vegan diet for January. Sustainability was the driving force behind 400,000 people worldwide joining the eight-year-old campaign and trying the eat conscientiously by adopting a flexitarian diet and reducing their meat and dairy consumption.

In the UAE, the movement received unprecedented attention. Emirates Airline added vegan meals to their flights for the month; brands like Marks & Spencer rolled out extensive campaigns promoting their ready-to-eat vegan range, and meat-free burgers took centrestage on the menus of burger joints. In an era of climate crisis awareness, where every consumer industry, from fashion to automobiles, is eyeing sustainable alternatives, the food industry wasn’t one to be left behind.

Incorporating sustainable practices in the way we eat has been an important conversation in the UAE, coming under the limelight in various guises. Take a look around and you will see most large supermarket chains’ produce section has a corner dedicated to locally grown veggies, proudly demarcated by a UAE flag sticker.

Boca has won sustainability awards and landed a spot on the Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery guidebook, which features restaurants that focus on ethical and sustainable dining
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Once a novelty, organic farmers’ markets in the UAE are now a norm: in fact, according to the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA), there’s been a 53 per cent increase in the number of organic farms in the UAE.

On a different note of sustainability, food delivery apps now offer users the option to opt-out of plastic cutlery.

And as for food, you know a concept has found mainstream acceptance when restaurants – the guiding compass of our food habits as a community – sit up and take notice, from 2017’s #stopsucking campaign by Freedom Pizza that saw all of their outlets ban plastic straws and cutlery, snowballing into plastic-free July the following year, to the sudden swell in the number of restaurants offering vegetarian and plant-based dishes and advertising their sustainable ethos.

Christian Abell, vice-president of food and beverage, Marriott International Middle East and Africa, makes no bones about the fact that the interest in sustainability started off as a marketing gimmick for a lot of restaurants. ‘Currently the region is in a transitional stage [but] sustainability is going to become a way of life. People have started paying attention to what they’re eating. That’s why sustainability has become mainstream.’

Omar Shihab, general manager at DIFC-based Mediterranean restaurant Boca, whose central ethos is sustainability, concurs that diners are increasingly demanding ingredient transparency – to know where their food is coming from – kicked off by conversations about GMO and hormones in meat a few years ago.

Elena Kinane, owner of Greenheart Organic Farms, has seen a steady increase in her supply to restaurants and is constantly fielding enquiries from customers at her shop about which eateries she supplies to because, ‘they want to eat the same quality ingredients they’re used to at home when they dine out.’

Boca has made sustainability its prime focus by having local produce on its menu
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It comes as no surprise then that one of the leading food trends for 2020, according to the International Food Information Council, is sustainability, and if the findings of the National Restaurant Association What’s Hot 2020 culinary forecast are to be believed, it dwells on the minds of professional chefs across the US too.

There’s no similar study that tracks the UAE’s taste buds but bearing in mind that Dubai has more restaurants per capita than New York, London or Singapore (according to a 2018 F&B report by KPMG), it’s fair to say that the emirate’s F&B narrative has enough culinary clout to elevate a fad to a trend. 

To understand if sustainability is a flash in the pan or a defining thread of our gastronomic fabric, we spoke to heads of hospitality giants, Michelin-starred chefs, founders of award-winning homegrown restaurants and local organic farms. The unanimous consensus is that sustainability as a food trend in the UAE is here for the long haul.

But with so many varied practices falling under the umbrella term ‘sustainability’, it’s often a nebulous concept that eludes definition.

The European Commission’s website attempts to distil it into simple terms stating, ‘sustainability implies the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them. For food, a sustainable system might be seen as encompassing a range of issues such as security of the supply of food, health, safety, affordability, quality, a strong food industry in terms of jobs and growth and, at the same time, environmental sustainability, in terms of issues such as climate change, biodiversity, water and soil quality.’

What it essentially boils down to for restaurants in the region is opting for produce, seafood and livestock that have been farmed organically/raised ethically, are free of harmful chemicals and pesticides and most importantly finding innovative new methods of reducing food waste.

Want Not Waste Not

A huge part of waving the flag of sustainability involves not turning a blind eye to food waste, points out Marriott’s Christian. A third of all food produced globally – 1.3 billion tonnes per year – ends up as waste, which, says the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, makes the food industry one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions. 

‘It’s a huge concern especially in the Middle East where large amounts of food are a sign of generous hospitality, but it’s also a huge problem because we tend to over-cater during weddings and festivities.’ Not to mention the all-you-can-eat excesses of brunches.

Christian and his team have taken to technology to combat the issue, using camera-fitted digital trash cans from Winnow. Based off the data, chefs are expected to cook for the same number of guests but reduce wastage. ‘It’s forced us to scale down on portion sizes and the chefs have to work harder because food [in a buffet set-up] finishes quicker but that means customers get fresh food.’ Clearly, a win-win situation for all.

Technologically advanced trash cans have found their way into Boca too. Omar, however, prefers to look at waste holistically beyond food, including elements such as food packaging and even reassessing guest service by discarding the use of single-use wet wipes and napkins. These moves have paid off – Boca bagged a clutch of sustainability awards and landed a coveted spot on the Truth, Love & Clean Cutlery guidebook (featuring restaurants that focus on ethical and sustainable dining).

Gates Hospitality, which manages an array of F&B concepts across the UAE, Oman and the UK, looks into recycling consumable waste into compost. It also authorises e-certified buyers to collect spent oil, says founder and chief executive Naim Madaad. These are nascent initiatives but with meticulous planning they will soon become an integral part of how restaurants function, he explains. 

The zero-waste principle of sustainability is hard to implement but chefs across the board are finding innovative methods to do so. Root-to-stem cooking when it comes to vegetables and a nose-to-tail approach when cooking meat are major pillars of zero-waste cooking. ‘Cuts like beef shanks weren’t options in the past but now they can be used for osso bucco and are cheaper than veal, which is traditionally used in the dish,’ explains chef Michael White, head chef of Altamarea Group and Marea New York and Marea Dubai.

Yannick Alleno is another Michelin-starred chef whole-heartedly backing this optimisation of ingredients. The culinary advisor at One&Only The Palm ensures offal, bones, skin all make it to a dish worthy of fine-dining.

To minimise food waste, Michelin-star chef Yannick Alleno ensures his restaurants follow the nose-to-tail approach to cooking
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Folly, the Souk Madinat Jumeirah restaurant by chefs Nick Alvis and Scott Price, get their money’s worth from an entire Guinea fowl. ‘The leg meat is used for stuffing, the carcass’ fat is used to poach the breast and the bones are used in sauces,’ explains Scott. ‘Nothing really goes in the bin.’

At Abu Dhabi’s Sanderson’s, the independent venture by Sergio Lopez (half of the former duo Tom & Serg), chef Troy Payne turns vegetable scraps into juices and purees, natural food colours or dehydrated wraps. Leftovers from bread baked in-house goes into stuffings, puddings and ice cream.

For the café, the zero-waste approach extends to not buying pre-packaged items such as nut milks wherever possible but making them in-house to steer clear of unwanted packaging and leftovers.

Local means beyond farm to table

A cornerstone of food sustainability is opting for produce that has been grown locally and hasn’t spent hours in a cargo unit or burned tonnes of fuel flying in from hundreds of miles away to find space on our plates. Carbon footprint aside, bonus sustainability points if the produce is grown free of insecticides and chemicals that not just harm our bodies but also affect the integrity of the soil and biodiversity – key tenets of food sustainability.

However, these are well-known practices that the farm-to-table movement popularised in the last three to four years and are now part of how a lot of restaurants function. Understanding the benefits of farm-fresh veggies means reaping benefits in terms of improved quality and flavour and reduced costs, explain the experts. Increasingly, restaurants are raising their own organic gardens. For instance, Maison Mathis in the Arabian Ranches has its own vertical farm units and Folly by Nick and Scott has its own herb gardens and are looking to set up a hydroponic system to grow more of their food.

Effort needs to be put into sourcing other ingredients, whether dairy, condiments, meat or even seafood ethically because while the future of food sustainability is heavily guided by a plant-based diet, it doesn’t mean it has to go hand-in-hand with a dietary lifestyle such as veganism or vegetarianism.

It is in this aspect that homegrown restaurants such as Baker and Spice and Boca become trendsetters and lead the way.

Since their launch in 2008, Baker and Spice has been leading the way for Dubai when it comes to sustainable dining and has only been using local seafood for the last 10 years, says co-owner and regional director of operations Andre Gerschel. ‘Baker and Spice’s decade-long farmers market initiative sees 26 plus farmers and local food artisans participate.’

Boca’s motto, Omar says, is to focus on lesser known variety of fish and ensuring most of their seafood is sourced locally. ‘We have access to more than a 1,000 kilometres of coast line and there’s an abundance of fish and seafood coming from here. Sometimes, the quality can’t rival the wild seafood coming from the Mediterranean but there’s a lot you can do with what you get,’ explains Omar. Poultry is taken under their menu’s hyper-local wing too by favouring varied sources of protein such as quail sourced from Al Ain-based Al Semman Farms.

Supporting local artisans is another way forward towards sustainability that both Omar and Christian agree on. For example, Boca supports DIP-based coffee roastery Boon, which sources its beans ethically from family-run Ethiopian plantations. The UAE is full of up-and-coming small businesses that help cut back on food miles, or where that isn’t possible in the case of crops that can’t be grown locally (such as coffee), at least ensure they’re sourced ethically, says Omar.

‘There are fantastic chocolate companies here that we’re looking to support and we’re also looking into locally made burrata cheese,’ Christian points out.

The taste test

Focusing on local ingredients doesn’t strip a dish off its quality. A majority of chefs insist that taste isn’t sacrificed at the altar of sustainability.

‘It may be surprising to many but local produce often trumps imported produce in favour of quality because of less travel abuse and better care in an intimate farm setting,’ chef Troy of Sanderson’s believes. 

Sandserson's Korean fried bao bun. The local eatery believes in locally sourced ingredients over imported ones that have clocked several air miles
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Chef Scott of Folly agrees: ‘It’s easy to make luxury ingredients taste good, but what we do is challenge ourselves to offer guests the opportunity to try new ingredients and combinations.’

Exotic ingredients have traditionally loomed large over the menus of fine-dining establishments, whether it’s tuna fished off the Japanese coast or Italian truffles, but chefs are slowly and steadily shedding that definition, says Chef Bernardo Paladini, head chef at Torno Subito.

That a chef patron of a three Michelin-starred restaurant (Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy) chooses to use leftover ingredients to create star dishes is a shining example of how sustainability is being brought into razor-sharp focus across restaurants of all price points.

‘The future of sustainability in food lies in chefs working backwards by being inspired by local produce and then creating a menu using the best technique to coax out the ingredient’s beauty,’ says Baker and Spice’s Andre.

Sustaining sustainability

Besides re-engineering the food creation process, there are a few recurrent themes that will chart the course for how sustainability will unfold across the UAE’s food and beverage scene in the near future.

For instance, in an effort to go plastic-free, several restaurants across UAE will be offering filtered water to its clientele, an initiative spurred on by Dubai Food Code.

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Restaurants will continue to become platforms for advocating sustainable consumption and this will be furthered by local policies. Boca, for instance, has been conducting zero-waste dinners and working closely with the Ministry of Food Security to include sustainable crops like Slicornia and quinoa into their menu, and Torno Subito has collaborated with UAE Food Bank to donate unused hotel food.

Restaurants that didn’t start out as sustainable concepts too will be slowly making the important shift. Homegrown franchise Asian5’s switch to organic vegetables from Greenheart six months ago is an example. ‘Customer feedback has been very positive,’ says its founder Maxime Jacques.

The restaurant has switched to sustainably farmed beef from New Zealand and aims to introduce local organic eggs into their menu soon.

‘We started in 2015 and it took us some time to refine our concept and understand where we wanted to go. These changes are not easy but we know that the ethical and environmental-friendly way of operating is the way for restaurants to move forward.’