Protecting the environment has become a key issue in today’s society — not only for consumers, who increasingly seek out the most eco-friendly purchases possible, but also for businesses themselves. Lucy Taylor looks at the impact this growth of 'green' awareness is having on the region's F&B outlets.
There was a time when saying a restaurant was ‘going green' would have meant a new paint job and nothing more.
But nowadays, 'green' is an industry buzz-word and implementing eco-friendly initiatives in kitchens, outlets, even on menus, has become a serious part of the food and beverage business.
Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay executive chef Gerald Bergue is a firm believer in the importance of implementing green initiatives. "It is one of our core values that we remain 'in harmony with the environment and our cultural surroundings', as well as being in line with our environmental and sustainability policy," he explains.
The Chedi, Muscat executive chef James Viles points out that in certain countries, such as Australia and Sweden, the government offers grants to new business and homes that are built in an eco-friendly manner.
"The whole ‘going green' ethos must stem from the top," he emphasises. "The entire community needs to be involved."
"The big issue in the Middle East is that nobody recycles - there is no program to enforce it. Cars drive along the side of the road throwing rubbish out the window; in some cities you are fined for this offence," he adds.
Another advocate of the green movement is Fairmont Dubai director of F&B Sunny Joseph.
"This should not only apply to sustainable cuisines, but also to establishing a purchasing policy that encourages using environmentally friendly products to eliminate excess packaging and buying in bulk," he says.
"Recycling is also key, as is ensuring that all kitchen equipment is used responsibly - i.e. not leaving equipment on for extended periods of time or during non operating hours."
The produce palaver
An ongoing issue for F&B professionals across the Middle East is the importing of fresh produce, a process that is not only costly but also causes significant harm to the environment, due to the consequential carbon emissions of such shipments.
At Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay, Bergue uses locally-grown vegetables, local rocket leaves, local mango, honey from Muscat and buys his catch of the day from the local fishermen.
The Chedi's Viles adds that he also uses local fish mongers. "The seafood in the Gulf of Oman is very diverse, in particular the yellow fin tuna, rock lobsters and sea bream," he notes.
"We also use some organic products - for example our cheeses - but our main focus at the moment is on our bakery, where we bake using four different organic flours."
However Viles adds that the fact Oman does not have a strong market for organic produce, especially in a commercial environment, is a major problem.
Taking the eco-awareness issue to heart, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts recently made a formal commitment to use - wherever possible - sustainable, locally sourced and organically grown products as part of its everyday food service operations, explains Joseph.
"We offer tea selections from the Metropolitan Tea Company in North America, a business committed to supplying tea from gardens that conform to the lowest MRL (minimum residue levels) for approved agricultural inputs for tea. It's also North America's only member of the Ethical Tea Sourcing Partnership," he says.
"Similarly, our ‘Lifestyle Menu' features organic wines - from suppliers such as Bonterra and Penfolds, pioneers of organic viticulture - as well as transfat-free menu selections.
"Today's consumer is increasingly interested in where their food is sourced and how it is produced," observes Joseph. "We have pledged to continuously assess where we can make a difference through food purchasing practices that are responsible."
Whether down to a growing global awareness of animal rights or a run of fast food documentary exposés, it's true that today's diners are more conscientious about asking where their food - particularly meat - comes from.
Six Sense' Bergue comments: "You will not find shark fin on our menu, nor foie gras because we are against the principle of how is the goose is fed. We feel it's cruel and that animals deserve a decent life."
But even with top environmental morals like these, some ‘eco-harm' is unavoidable if you are in hospitality, points out Bergue.
"Unfortunately we are un-eco friendly regarding some items, because they have to be imported and so cover number of carbon miles to satisfy our guests' needs and demands," he admits. "But this is only the case when we cannot source these items from the region."
The kitchen conundrum
The heart of any outlet, the kitchen, is from necessity a hotbed of activity and one of the key areas in which green practices can be implemented.
According to Six Senses' Bergue, the highest energy consumption is due to lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning units.
"There are some basic measures you can implement to reduce the consumption of energy," he advises.
"Use natural light as much as possible and remember that if light is needed, you may not need all lights switched on; replace fused light bulbs with energy-saving ones; always keep appliances clean and in good condition so they last longer, remain safe and reduce power consumption; only use ACs during the hot months of the year, otherwise use natural ventilation; make sure the refrigerator door is properly closed; and avoid using hot water unless it's really needed."The choice of drinking water available is also a key factor.
"It is better for the environment to choose local water brands that have not been transported for long distances," says Bergue. "Although the mineral waters from Europe are of good quality, a lot of pollution is emitted when transporting them all the way from Europe to the Middle East."
"The majority of the drinking water across the region is desalinated sea water," he continues. "The process of desalinating water is very energy-intensive and emits a great deal of pollution. There are only a few local water brands in our area that come from natural springs - the Masafi brand is one example."
The Chedi, Muscat has implemented a Molok waste disposal system that compacts wet and solid waste naturally, which has a big impact on kitchen waste, says Viles.
"We also educate our staff in the basics, such as turning taps off properly, switching appliances off that are not needed and working with isolated kitchen gas stoves and pizza ovens during quieter service periods."
According to Fairmont's Joseph, it is important to remember that initiatives can start right from the early stages of restaurant preparation.
"Our green measures begin in purchasing and procurement, with a policy that takes into account the products that reduce pollution, such as the Ecolab cleaning products that we use in the culinary operations and the aerators fitted to taps to save water," he says.
A logistical nightmare
The simple fact of being located in Middle East can throw up challenges, according to the professionals.
Six Senses' Bergue notes that maintaining green practices related to food sourcing are extremely difficult, "particularly in the Musandam region, due to logistics and a lack of green companies willing to deliver particular items".
"The frame of mind regarding going green in the Middle East is still virgin," he adds. "There is a huge need for campaigns to raise awareness across the region."
According to The Chedi's Viles, the only way to truly impact the environmental impact of the region's F&B industry is for everybody to get involved.
"Everyone must participate to achieve the ‘go green' effect - we need proper education about the eco-friendly way of life; teaching and re-education will encourage a new generation to lead the way," he asserts.
Fairmont's Joseph agrees that "the main challenge is awareness".
"People must learn that initiatives at the property level not only impact environmental concerns in the industry, but also contribute to the bottom line in terms of tangible savings," he points out.
"Sourcing sustainable, local foods is also a challenge, given the environment in which we operate," he continues.
"With mounting food and transportation costs for imported goods, this is certainly something we continue to monitor closely."
Added cost is a major factor in such a competitive industry, as The Chedi's Viles notes.
"I think that it's a more feasible avenue to explore when building new kitchens.
"Once a kitchen is already operational, the cost to convert it to a greener environment is not worth it," he admits.
Growing a greener future
So what does the future hold, for those F&B professionals determined to take their outlets over to the green side?
Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay is to design its own organic garden to produce vegetables and fruit.
At The Chedi, Muscat, Joseph is "continually working with local authorities on environmental issues, with regards to how we can help with the direction they are going in".
There is no doubt that turning outlets into eco-aware eateries is a hefty task.
It requires commitment, training, extensive product sourcing and of course some financial outlay.
However for those places willing to make such efforts the end rewards - in terms of reduced energy expenditure as well as customer satisfaction, loyalty and spending - will quickly justify the means.
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