Under The Table: Going Green
Todd Darling scooped me up in his BMW convertible and handed me a book of road maps. “What do I do with this?” I asked in a slight panic. I had never used a road map before. “You’re playing navigator,” the restaurateur of Posto Pubblico told me. “Where’s your GPS? Wait – I’ve got one on my iPhone,” I said, hoping for a promise of getting to our destination. He looked at me as if I were a yuppie brat. “Nice BMW, Todd,” I fired back.
We were headed to farm country in Yuen Long to watch vegetables grow, and maybe kill a pig. As we cruised through fume-choked tunnels, he talked about how he wanted to be a different kind of restaurateur – his philosophy: there are many ways to make money, why not choose to be ethical while you’re at it?
We pulled up to Hong's Organic Farm and I stepped out with my driving loafers into fresh mud. There were butterflies everywhere and a sweet freshness in the air. Todd was arranging vegetable pickups for the restaurant’s opening that day. He chose this supplier because the owner, Thomas Fung, is one of the only farmers in Hong Kong who will work with a non-Chinese. It’s been a struggle to source local-grown ingredients for his new restaurant, because apparently no one understands why a white guy from New Jersey wants to buy produce from their farms. The simpler option would’ve been to do what every other restaurateur in Soho does: call a mass supplier for sub-par goods. “This is the only way I want to open a restaurant,” he said.
I know how to eat healthily and respectfully, but I lack the time and commitment for this way of life. There are too many rules and inconveniences: buy only fruits and vegetables from certified organic farms; find line-caught fish not on the endangered list (and memorise the endangered list); and eat eggs from birds that are raised on acres of land and aren’t force-fed with hormones. If this process was made easier for lazy eat-gooders like me – say, in the form of a restaurant – then I would subscribe.
I kept asking Todd, “What’s your gimmick? What kind of pony show will his place have?” I need these talking points for my story. “Nothing,” he kept saying. And it wasn’t until I sat down with him and his partners Robert Spina and Cathal Kiely that I understood what he was getting at. Serving fresh foods shouldn't be a hook or a sell point. It’s what every restaurant in the city should serve. Real food.
Upon arriving at Posto Pubblico’s Italian-style kitchen, I was shocked to find they make their own breads and cheeses, and their fish are from sustainable sources. They do pretty much everything themselves – except milk the cows. I had to stop and ask myself why this was so exceptional. Only when seated in front a platter of just-picked baby vegetables did I realise that eating like this shouldn’t be a diner’s privilege – it should be a diner’s right to be served fresh food.
“We have a responsibility [in the food industry] to serve people whole food,” Todd said. Sure, some restaurateurs call him and his team idealists and predict a premature demise, saying that high rent and food costs will buckle them. But I think they are onto something. New Aussie bar and restaurant Coast, for instance, just opened with sustainability in mind. Their menu reads like many others in the area, but they buy from organic and sustainable farms.
Across the harbour, the Langham Hotel’s Bostonian restaurant is set to go 100 per cent sustainable in 2010. “We have seen a large increase in demand for sustainable eating this year,” said executive chef Mark Bannon. “I think it is our responsibility to ensure we are sustainable where possible.” When setting their budget, they found the cost was not a huge jump from their conventional distributors.
I was at the Sydney Food Fair this year, and each restaurant we visited listed the names of the farms, butchers, and makers on the menu, which in turn makes suppliers assume responsibility, and creditability, for what they serve people. The pride they get from having one line on a menu makes more of an impact than you think.
We forget eating isn’t just about the cuisine or entertainment. It’s to feed our bodies so it can enjoy the nutrients and health benefits.
My locally farmed carrot had a rot running through its body. This doesn’t happen much with industrially grown carrots. It was simply roasted with oil and salt, and it tasted of sunshine. If you have never tasted a real carrot or tomato or just-picked corn, then you've never eaten. I realise this way of eating involves rots and bugs and worms and dirt. But I’m looking forward to all of that if it means food tastes this good.