Chef Suvir Saran writes: Why the clarion call for sustainable dining is an urgent one |India Today Insight – India Today

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Michelin-starred chefdom in Manhattan of the early 2000s and bestselling cookbooks made me a popular speaker and guest chef at food and wine events and public health forums. For twenty-plus years, I’ve been teaching at the Culinary Institute of America and at thought leadership summits hosted by the Harvard School of Public Health. It wasn’t my good looks that brought me this honour, it was my visceral understanding of living and working sustainably. It was my living in a heritage farmstead in a bucolic hamlet in North Country, New York. It was those years at the farm, seeing firsthand the challenges that come with living connected to the land, that made me appreciate how much farther we still need to travel to make the world greener and fairer for all.

Outpacing the pandemic

The pandemic has brought front and centre the need for a sustainably thoughtful mindfulness to permeate our consciousness. Consumption of healthier, fresher, natural, less processed, local, seasonal, regional food has become the call of the hour. The voices calling for sustainability can no longer go unheard. We are grounded in a new century, and it is incumbent upon us chefs and diners, in NYC, New Delhi, or anywhere else in the world, to demand and deliver quality while ensuring the health and security of a shared planet. What we started in the US in 2000 is still a work in process, but has acquired a renewed momentum with the pandemic.

The last year has thrown the hospitality industry globally into a decimating ditch. Restaurants and cafes, cloud kitchens and street food stalls—all took a hammering. Our determination and success in battling the pandemic should give us hope in our ability to achieve sustainability in our food and hospitality industry as well. But sustainability demands sustenance of sustained efforts. And to this end, a small and sound cadre of chefs is giving India a route to this ideal that turns proud nationalism into a profitable and heartwarming enterprise. These masterful chefs are marrying old farming practices to biodiverse modern techniques. They are seeking out and celebrating local and seasonal produce, and seducing new patrons by updating lost recipes in ways that keep them authentic to both the past and present.

Food soldiers of the future

It is here that ITC Hotels makes a valuable contribution through its commitment to responsible luxury: “I chase purity of ingredients and find local and seasonal both delicious and sustainable. We aspire for zero carbon footprints and are happy as we get closer to that future reality daily,” says Manisha Bhasin, corporate chef of ITC Hotels. Remembering her grandparents and making me think of my own, Bhasin speaks of a time “when home food was revered and was that source that kept us mindfully sated and healthy”.

ITC hotels serve several choices with seasonal, plant-based proteins, ancient grains, and raw foods

Also remembering the past and harkening back to another era and geography is Kashmir-born 34-year-old chef Prateek Sadhu. “My mother insisted we speak in Kashmiri and that we ate everyday food from the region. Ours was not Wazwan cooking or Roghan Josh, but simple greens and vegetables that were rather exotic in those days. Today, at Masque, his pioneering restaurant in Mumbai where he feeds 30-odd lucky diners, and at his bespoke Food Lab where he feeds a dozen more, he has taken his professional training and education in the industry and combined them with the lessons he was given in a stealth manner by his mom in the cooking of his people. Modernity and simplicity marry the ancient and simple. His food is a celebration of culture and people, of hope and tomorrows, and most of all it is as current and contemporary as India can be.

At Masque, with not too many seats to fill, Sadhu focuses with acute attention on practising what he believes in. “We take all the unused and leftover bread from the kitchen to the Masque Lab, where we turn it into an amino paste. It’s roasted, and then mixed with koji and a salt brine for about a month. That paste becomes the base for the cookie dough and then into the cookies that diners get at the end of their meal.” Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Sadhu cleverly creates two dishes out of different cuts from the same fish. The fish trimmings and bones make their way to the Lab, where they are turned into in-house fish sauces and garums.

Trevally peach chunda served at Masque

Sustainability was once a faddish term for then young chef Manu Chandra as he began his career in Bengaluru. “Plugging in cool words, by buying the odd hipster product or two and then milking it for all it was worth seemed to be the way to check the box that sustainability stood for,” says the 40-year-old masterful chef. “But I grew up, and as I did, a deep understanding of how so much of what we serve and eat is broken at a fundamental level became more apparent.” He continues by saying, “Being mindful of the bio-diversity around me, the concept of fair trade, and an overwhelming desire to do justice to not only those who are the producers and suppliers of food, but the end consumer too, is what drives me for the most part. My menus tend to echo this sentiment, be it through more researched sourcing, to forging alliances with the actual growers of the food.”

All three chefs value the importance of being seasonal and regional, and are doing their best not to rely overtly on factory-farmed products. They value these efforts as small steps in the right direction, championing indigenous grains and greens. While all of them appreciate organic products, they are quick to distance themselves from the dishonesty and noise that has made that organic labelling rather questionable. Each one works with ingredients and farmers that make their many offerings exciting and sustainably interesting. Fair trade and ethically sourced, natural and hyper-local, indigenous and regional, trump mere labels and trends.

Evolving a larger ecosystem

Sustainability relies as much on the humanity of business owners to treat their employees with justice and integrity as it does on their commitment to mindfulness in choosing their sources. But this conscientiously sourced, prepared and served food in restaurants and hotels comes at a cost that is hard to maintain if the consumer doesn’t appreciate it and pay for it with the reward of repeat business. F&B operators and chefs can choose ingredients with care, pay fair wages and provide employee benefits, cook and present food in smaller portions that manage food waste and keep customers healthy and their lives meaningfully richer, but is the consumer willing to pay for it? Will they choose correctly every time they dine out?

Bhasin is giving the ITC guests endless choices that bring them seasonal and smarter seafood offerings, ancient grains, plant-based proteins, raw foods and low glycemic menu options to make the consumer pick happily and smartly. Chandra works closely with local vendors and exporters to cook with the freshest fish of the season and keeps his menu changing to mirror the offerings in the market. Sadhu is just as wise and ensures consumer interest by using seasonal veggies and cooking them with recipes from his heritage, plating these dishes to match the gastronomic trends of the day and still keep the offerings soulful and tasty. True sustainability lies in the hands and minds of the chefs. If they come to it with heart, soul and humanity, we are guaranteed food that is tasty and brings satiety. When one does the happy dance with every bite one takes of a dish, and when one finds those bites memorably delicious and soulfully inventive, sustainability in dining is achieved.

Forging the road ahead

The pandemic asks questions that lead us to take chances for the safety of our nation and human collective. Sustainability too challenges us to take chances that urge us to be bold and daring. What if our most delicious foods could be healthy and environmentally sustainable at once? Would Indian scientists and business leaders work with chefs and hospitality and culinary students and together create business-friendly solutions to our public health crisis and the most pressing environmental problems, such as climate change, waste management and water scarcity? It will take collaboration between chefs, nutritionists, environmental scientists, epidemiologists and medical experts to create innovative and savvy strategies for the future of the food-service industry. Three chefs featured here, along with others in India and abroad, are showing us the way. We owe it to ourselves to give them a chance to change our future.

Suvir Saran is a chef, cookbook author, and an educator

The ITC philosophy

“The ITC Hotels growth story is a story about sustainability. From day one, we have been committed to various aspects of ‘responsible hospitality’—from the choice of design, material, WelcomArt, Welcome Jawan programmes to reviving India’s back stories through heritage cuisine and making “local” a big part of our food and beverage repertoire. Today, as the world talks about high immunity foods, the philosophy of ITC Hotels has always integrated seasonal ingredients and low carbon footprint, local and healthy foods, creating economic benefits for providers of local produce. Our Responsible Luxury initiative is today a Harvard case study. I strongly believe that any effort to save the planet ultimately equals to saving ourselves.”

—Nakul Anand, executive director, ITC Limited

Food for thought from Indian chefs abroad

“Sustainable dining is within easy reach and should be an important attribute for chefs. Restaurants should lead the way in minimising food waste. I’ve always stressed to our chefs to maintain local ties when sourcing ingredients and to endorse homegrown and local produce. Recycling glass, cardboard-packaging and returning packaging to suppliers to be reused should become part of a restaurant’s responsibility. Even the smallest change will help!”

—Vineet Bhatia

At all of our group restaurants, as with all projects that I’m involved in, we utilise sustainable and local ingredients wherever possible. My cuisine is a special fusion of Indian food heritage but also my great love of British and local ingredients. Being sustainable is even more than simply the food that we serve; it is also the people and the places working together to be greener and ensure that we all maintain a balance. Shopping local and eating local are trends that are here to stay—they are now more important than ever. We need to champion our high streets and keep them sustainable too.”

—Atul Kochhar

“We have always eaten seasonally in our Indian tradition; somehow with greater access to refrigeration and easier transportation we seem to be losing that tradition and ethos of eating local produce. Restaurants are increasingly serving out of season produce flown in from distance lands. Since I opened my restaurant in 2017, I haven’t served fresh vegetables and produce flown in from India or Africa. I did not want the carbon footprint of their journey on my menu. I served the traditional niramish (vegetarian), Bengali beetroot chop, aloo gobi mattar and aloodum—all from British produce. No customer has ever complained that I do not serve okra or jackfruit on my menu, if they had, I would have told them that I wanted to offer a sustainable menu by buying local.”

—Asma Khan

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