The tyranny of distance

Red Lantern’s Mark Jensen believes, “Supporting someone who’s farming sustainably far outweighs the food miles incporated in transportation”.

Red Lantern’s Mark Jensen believes, “Supporting someone who’s farming sustainably far outweighs the food miles incporated in transportation”.

What’s better—organic produce with lots of food miles, or local produce that isn’t necessarily organic?

The road to running your restaurant in an environmentally mindful manner is not always an easy one to travel. Set off on that journey and, before you know it, you’ll reach a significant fork in the road: should you use organic produce, and turn a blind eye to the food miles it sometimes comes with, or should you limit your food miles by featuring local produce on the menu—even though not all of it will be organic?

“It really is a minefield,” says Mark Jensen, chef at Sydney’s Red Lantern. “I think you just have to choose what’s right for you.” In Jensen’s case, he and his brother-in-law and fellow chef Luke Nguyen decided that, while they would source what they could locally, they’d concentrate on using organically produced and ethically sound ingredients in their award-winning Vietnamese dishes.

“I buy organic for the restaurant and part of the reason I do is because I think that suppliers who are using initiative and producing things organically need to be rewarded,” he says.

Jensen’s argument is that, yes, organic produce can sometimes travel to Sydney from Darwin or Far North Queensland, but it’s not coming from the other side of the world and racking up actual air miles. “When you’re talking food miles, you’re generally talking truck miles,” says Jensen. “Sure, diesel is dirty, but to me the fact that we’re supporting someone who’s caring for the land and farming sustainably, without using chemicals, far outweighs the food miles that are incorporated in transporting it to us.”

Not everyone takes this view. Chris March is co-owner of The Locavore, a restaurant and wine bar in the Adelaide Hills, and as the name of his business suggests, he’s passionate about serving local produce. Adhering to the principles of the 100-Mile Diet (which originated in California and involves sourcing as much food as possible from within a 160km radius), he believes that buying locally is better for the environment than sticking strictly to organics.

“We avoid millions of food miles every year; that’s a lot of greenhouse gases that are not being created on our behalf,” he says. “And we’re fortunate that, even if they’re not certified as organic, a lot of our local suppliers are growing their produce in a very sustainable way.”

Since it opened in 2007, The Locavore has developed a business model that appears to work well on both an environmental and a practical level. March and his business partner Nathan Crudden have spent the past few years traversing the region, building a strong relationship with their suppliers. Seeking out local businesses that keep The Locavore stocked with everything from beer and whisky to cheese and venison sausages has taken time and effort.

Today, March has about 250 registered suppliers on his books—“The accounts department hate me!” he quips—and it’s not unusual for the restaurant to go through a cheque book in a week.

“We’ve had to do a lot of footwork to get everything set up, but we’ve essentially cut out the middle man. Most of our suppliers sell to us direct. We pay them a good price, we’re getting amazing produce and the money stays in the region.”

It could be argued that part of the secret to The Locavore’s success lies in its location. Being based in the Adelaide Hills means there is no shortage of world-class wines and fine fare on the restaurant’s doorstep—quite literally. Sometimes March will open the back door to find that someone has left a surplus box of homegrown rhubarb or a case of lemons for the restaurant to use.

It’s not all been plain sailing, though. In the early days of the restaurant there was some resistance from diners. “People would say ‘I’ll have a Corona’ and we’d have to say ‘sorry, you can’t’. The attitude was ‘well, I’m your customer and that’s what I want’. Now, though, there’s a far greater understanding, mainly through the media, about food miles and carbon emissions, and their impact on the environment.”

“The fact that we’re supporting someone who’s caring for the land and farming sustainably  outweighs the food miles that are incorporated in transporting it” Mark Jensen, Red Lantern, Sydney

It can still be hard to compete with “the pub down the road that serves up Taiwanese squid for a few bucks”, says March, but persistence and focus does eventually pay off. “Our commitment to using local produce has become our strength because we’ve stuck to our guns.”

Likewise, if you choose to put organic food on the menu, you need to be consistent in the way you do so, says Melbourne chef Rob Barbey. A pioneering restaurateur, Barbey opened BCOZ, one of Australia’s first all-organic restaurants, back in 2004. And while it has now closed, his latest venture, Organic Matters Food & Wine Store, hasn’t strayed far from the fold.

“Things are so much easier now than when I started BCOZ, every year the number of organic suppliers is on the rise. It all comes down to having a reliable source of good-quality organic ingredients to work with,” he says

What hasn’t got easier for restaurant owners, Barbey says, is dealing with entrenched attitudes among chefs and kitchen staff, who sometimes oppose the idea of going organic
because it limits the ingredients they have to work with. “Cooking with only certain produce requires extra creativity, and not everyone is up to the challenge,” he adds.

Another issue is cost. “Organic produce tends to be 30 to 50 per cent dearer to buy,” says Mark Jensen. “But I think there are enough diners willing to pay that premium for it to be a viable business proposition.”

However, he cautions that there is a fine line between covering your costs and scaring diners away. “Sometimes when you see something organic on a menu it feels like it’s 10 times more expensive [than the non-organic alternative]. Supermarkets charge a lot, too much, for their organic fruit and vegetables and when restaurants start charging at those prices you can see why diners are put off. People aren’t stupid, they know when they are being conned.”

There are, however, plenty of excellent reasons to showcase organic produce on a menu. The idea of chemical-free, healthy eating has a powerful appeal; the concept of supporting sustainable and ethically sound growing methods does too. Organic produce tends to be fresher and, while the jury is still out on whether or not it’s nutritionally superior, the general consensus is that it tastes better. “It’s obvious to me that organic food, especially fruit, tastes better,” says Jensen. Likewise, Barbey asserts that “organic food is always worth the extra money on taste grounds alone”.

It’s the pursuit of outstanding flavour and freshness that drives chef Paul Kuipers, who runs Courtney’s Brasserie in Sydney’s Parramatta, to walk the tightrope between organics and local produce on a daily basis.

“We’re lucky because there are a lot of organic growers right near us, in the Hawkesbury area. I’ll always use organic or biodynamic produce when I can get it, but it has to come from within 200km,” he says. “For me, taste and seasonality are what matter most.”

Kuipers also finds it satisfying to purchase, say, a box of ripe tomatoes (which probably wouldn’t be suitable for sale through the markets anyway) directly from the grower and to pay him more than he’d get from an agent. “We like to buy from people who care about what they do and who care for the environment,” he says.

This sentiment rings equally true for anyone who supports organic producers or who works hard to showcase local produce. And no matter which of these directions a restaurant takes, it’s sending a message to the dining public that it takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. “We want to limit our impact on the planet,” adds Red Lantern’s Mark Jensen, “because, hey, we care too.”

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