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Sustainably Scrumptious

May 24, 2011

Sustainably Scrumptious

By Cassie White

“As more Australians want a deeper connection with our food and its origin, innovative restaurants are now stepping up to the plate.

A SCAN DOWN THE ingredients list of a popular sports drink reveals food acids (330 and 331), monopotassium phosphate, ‘flavour’ and colour (102), amongst other things. Despite its lurid hue, the ingredients are obviously benign – people drink it all the time, after all – but what are they exactly? And where did they come from and who made them?

As more Australians want a deeper connection with our food and its origin, innovative restaurants are now stepping up to the plate, so to speak, serving meals that have been produced sustainably and ethically from the farm to our forks. These restaurants are taking advantage of the abundance of agricultural resources our country has to offer.

Thanks to initiatives like the Slow Food Movement, many of us are turning back the clock and getting in touch with the fundamentals of food, eating the way our grandparents did by avoiding anything pre-packaged and artificial, containing long lists of ingredients that we can’t even pronounce.

Despite being grounded in the Slow Food Movement, Italian-Australian restaurant Vapiano in Brisbane brings a whole new meaning to fast food. Your meal is created right in front of you from pasta and pizza bases that were prepared that day using fresh ingredients, many of which were sourced within a 150-kilometre radius in keeping with locavore principles. Meals are served sometimes within minutes of ordering, but that’s where the comparisons with the more common understanding of fast food end.

After living in Europe, Vapiano’s owner Will Cooke realised that Australia’s relationship with food was lacking in so many areas. With such hectic and stressful lives, how we nourish ourselves is often an afterthought – fuel to keep us going. And going. And going.

“In Europe their whole culture and philosophy in life around family and food is fantastic – it’s sit around and eat. Sometimes it’ll be half and hour but other times it will be three or four hours and that’s what Vapiano is; it means go slowly in Italian,” he says.

Although Vapiano is a European restaurant line, it was Cooke’s idea to make its first Australian venture one that sources all of its ingredients locally – even the tables have fresh herbs growing on them.

“The concept itself is all about freshness and it just didn’t seem to make sense to then buy ingredients that weren’t necessarily fresh. For me, local is just a continuation of that freshness.

“The brief we gave our distributors is that we want to use products that are as local as possible. Our fallback position is within Queensland, then Australia after that. Whilst local in my mind is 150 kilometres, the reality is, you’re never going to get 100 per cent of your ingredients within that geographical area – it’s just not practical.

“To use our fantastic cheeses as an example, we do really nice buffalo milk mozzarella and cow’s milk cheeses and they’re from Cairns, made by an Italian family. But they have one farmer who they buy their milk from and it’s made fresh each day then sent down to us. That’s not 150 kilometres but it’s still local, fresh in Queensland and it’s still handmade.

“In Australia you can always find produce because when you’re out of season in Queensland you tend to get a lot of good stuff out of Tasmania and Victoria. But once the season’s in again locally, then we go back to sourcing from predominately 150 kilometres.”

Cooke says with Australia’s ability to produce so much food, there’s no need to look overseas. He believes businesses that adopt the practices of sourcing food locally will not only succeed, but also help other businesses thrive in the process.

“I look at the land mass of Australia and our population and our ability to grow food versus the rest of the world I think we should be eating what we can locally. I just look at my nieces and nephews and the people I work with and they’re more savvy and socially aware. It’s the way of the future and at some point people are just going to demand it.”
Better beef

Mumu Grill, a steak house in Crows Nest, NSW is showing us that we don’t need to stop enjoying meat to eat sustainably and ethically. All of the animal products served are grass fed or organic, while produce is purchased from local growers.

Owner and head chef Craig Macindoe says serving food that is in season keeps him inspired.

“For me it’s all about ‘this is what’s coming into season, so I need to get used to working with it’. You’re talking to farmers and asking things like when stinging nettle will be available … so it becomes a real interaction between the food and us,” he says.

“Because we’re a steak house, we obviously have staples like potatoes but everything else changes.”

Macindoe says the life of the animals is a major concern for him and the producers he deals with. He ensures they’re cared for properly and fed on native perennials and grasses.

“With the organic wagyu for example, most of them are on green fields and rotated through different grass paddocks. The producers we deal with sometimes actually like to travel with the cattle to the abattoir to make sure they don’t get stressed before they are killed. Some people would see that as being quite nutty, but … I don’t see why it can’t be like that.

“We did a grass versus grain event when we first opened with a whole heap of journalists, the farmer and butchers. I was very careful to get the same cuts of meat, aged the same way, from the same type of animals and I was the only person who knew which was which. Of the 22 people at the lunch, 20 preferred the grass to the grain in all four courses.

“There is no doubt grass fed beef is much healthier for you. It has a much better ratio of omega three to omega six fatty acids than wild salmon, so it’s one of the healthiest things you can eat full stop.

“Grain is particularly toxic for cows. The toxins get stored in the fat and not only does that fat put weight on you; it’s also toxic for your body. If you eat sustainably, it generally means you start caring about your food and it creates a better respect for it.”

For Macindoe, the restaurant industry should be all about honest, clean and fresh tasting food, enjoyed in the company of friends and family. But he’s confident it’s slowly heading that way, as more people demand food that hasn’t been imported and processed along the way.

“People should know where their food comes from because it makes the producers more accountable. As part of the whole Slow Food Movement, people need to think of themselves more of a co-producer, rather than the end consumer. If people look at life like ‘I’m just the end consumer and food is just fuel’ then of course we’re going to go for the cheapest and nastiest product.

“But look at all the problems it has caused us. If we know where everything comes from then there’s some kind of accountability and we tend to eat fresher and better quality. It’s weird to feel like we’ve evolved when we’ve actually devolved, because we’re eating all this food that we should never have been eating, like all the highly processed products. It’s been proven; look at our record rates of obesity. If you just eat naturally, you tend to get more in sync with the food. It’s just so much better for you as a person to actually cook food because you have some kind of connection with it.

“It’s like a spiral of goodness. We do regular dinners where we invite the farmers in and they speak. Then I’ll talk about why we do certain things and that sort of education is the backbone of our business”

By Cassie White

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