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Features 5 minutes 01 October 2019

What Does Food Look Like When Sustainability Is The Main Ingredient?

Swedish chefs have an answer.

Swedish cuisine sustainability Sweden

Ängamat by award-winning chef Thomas Sjögren of Skärets Krog in Smögen, Sweden, means "food from the field." It's a vegetarian dish of boiled carrots, pickled beets, burnt onions, dried dill and fresh herbs served with a purée of spinach and lovage, buttermilk and rapeseed oil sauce. All of it foraged, sourced or grown within about 15 kilometres (9 miles) of Klevs Gård farm in Bovallstrand, Sweden. And the buttermilk is the byproduct of the restaurant's housemade butter.

This is what food looks like when sustainability is the main ingredient.

Leading Swedish chefs and restaurants utilising sustainability practices are not only defining the current and future food and culinary practices in Sweden for diners, but are setting an example for the entire world. But what does that mean for the future of restaurants and how diners perceive, taste, order and enjoy food?

"Sustainable cooking" can be a vague, subjective phrase for many, and is defined individually rather than in objective terms.

"For us, it means bringing food waste to a minimum. We actually have our own logo and we call it 'We Fight Food Waste,'" says chef Jens Dolk of K-märkt Garnisonen in Stockholm, known for its sustainability efforts.

At Gunnebo House and Gardens, chef Hannes Högberg serves all-organic, vegetable-focused courses inspired by the onsite garden, sometimes accompanied with small quantities of locally caught fish or raised meat. He avoids cooking anything that depletes the environment or limits the welfare of the local animals. "[We must] broaden the variety of crops to increase the diversity of our farms and preserve older, more resistant, but less efficient crops. We must decide what to cook from what needs to be eaten in order to minimise the waste in the chain of food production and buy from the farmer what needs to be sold," Högberg says.

"It's no longer a question of if we should practice sustainable cooking, but how we do it," Sofia Olsson says, the chef of vRÅ in Gothenburg. Her sushi and raw food restaurant implements urban farming practices on the rooftops of her establishment, pulling "city-grown" wasabi leaf for her Swedish-Japanese cuisine, along with utilising local lobsters, diver-picked oysters, demand-grown mussels, sustainably-farmed raw shrimp and mackerel certified by the Aqua Stewardship Council and other seafood depending on the season. Olsson uses a Japanese composting method called bokashi — which utilises an inoculated bran to create nutrient dense soil — to grow her rooftop herbs and vegetables.

"We have a rooftop farm with Kajodlingen (a local urban farming company) where they created a small hyperlocal circular system fermenting our food waste with bokashi and turning it into soil for growing vegetables. All the leaves, herbs and flowers that we use come from our roof during spring and summer. We serve a dish called Today's Harvest with a variation of whatever we have on a daily basis. For example: sorrel, wasabi, shiso leaves, marigold, chives, chile, cabbage leaves and flowers."

And if chefs aren't growing produce or raising livestock for their restaurants, they are sourcing it hyper-locally.

Chef Titti Qvarnström, the current creative leader at Restaurant MAT, gets her meat and vegetables for her restaurant in Malmö from Skåne and dairy from Själland. Her salads and microgreens are grown within the city, and the beer served is brewed around the corner.

Others snap up what might have been thrown away. Chef Erik Andersson from SPILL in Malmö buys food from suppliers that for various reasons would otherwise be thrown away. For example: Saving a box of vegetables that contained several mouldy pieces while the rest are otherwise perfect.

In fact, the entire country is on board with sustainable cooking: Sweden has actually turned itself into the world's largest gourmet restaurant through the Edible Country initiative. It's 100 million acres of DIY dining with 13 tables found in natural settings like a seaside cliff or fairy-tale forest around the country, and menus are created by lauded Swedish chefs (including four from MICHELIN-starred restaurants). Guests book a spot at the table of their choice, pick up a wicker basket with some of the ingredients needed to make their chef-curated meal, forage for the rest right in the forest, seaside or other environment, and dine communally with other attendees. The experience itself is about USD$13 to $15 (SGD$18-20).

'Ängamat' by chef Sjögren features boiled carrots, pickled beets, burnt onions, dried dill and fresh herbs served with a purée of spinach and lovage, buttermilk and rapeseed oil sauce.
'Ängamat' by chef Sjögren features boiled carrots, pickled beets, burnt onions, dried dill and fresh herbs served with a purée of spinach and lovage, buttermilk and rapeseed oil sauce.

And while sustainable cooking might seem like the latest culinary trend du jour, it is actually part of traditional Swedish preservation practices that have been used for many years — but under less catchy names or intention. "The trend of 'new Nordic cuisine' is bringing back the old traditions and making them into MICHELIN-starred dishes," Sjögren says.

Modern day sustainable cooking goes beyond reviving traditional cooking techniques into the realm of how, when and where the food is grown, among other daily kitchen practices. Swedish chefs and restaurants are cutting out the middlemen to buy directly from local producers. But how does this translate to the diner?

First of all, there is no set menu. Every day is a new surprise for both diner and chef. Chefs are cooking and serving based on what they are getting in that moment from suppliers.

"We don't plan the menu for the day only until after we see what products our suppliers have available," Dolk says. "Cooking with no menu means that we need to have experienced chefs who like creative cooking. Chefs that are able to come to work every day without knowing what to cook. In one way this is a challenge — but at the same time this actually has turned out good for us."

"Before industrialisation [in the mid-1900s], pretty much everything was sustainable. The problem now is that everyone expects to have everything — always. I think back to the days [when] you relied on what you had around the corner instead of expecting avocados for breakfast seven days a week," according to Jacob Holmström, chef and co-owner of two-MICHELIN-starred Gastrologik in Stockholm. "Sometimes we have to wait a little bit longer for more sustainable seasons when fishing. Line-caught instead of trawled, for example. But it almost always goes hand in hand with quality, so it's worth the wait anyway."

Another aspect of the movement is a focus on what has the smallest carbon footprint, which often means smaller portions of meat in favour of more vegetables and eschewing buffet-style dining.

However, Holmström believes in keeping the market for heritage breeds alive by placing them on his menus, but only as he sees fit. "In summer when there are actually vegetables available here in Sweden, we serve [only] two out of 20 [courses with] meat."

Chef Dolk serves an "upside down" style buffet: Instead of starting with proteins and carbs at the beginning of the line, her restaurant begins with greens and reserves the very end for proteins. "By doing this we are nudging our guests to have more greens and less protein from meat. We can't change the world by having a few vegans — but if everybody on earth starts to eat less meat, we can actually make a difference," Dolk says.

Off the plate, diners can expect a bit of tableside education. Chefs personally visit each table, teaching diners "farm-to-table" principles, i.e. where the food comes from, zero-waste or closed-loop cooking, seasonality and about the protein shift from animal to plant-based proteins — all while managing expectations regarding pricing since abiding by these principles can be costly.

"That makes the guest question if the meat or fish is locally produced when they go to the next restaurant, so then hopefully that restaurant understands that their guests want local food. This will hopefully make [the restaurant] change the way they work with products," Sjögren says.

"Working with sustainable cooking often requires more communication between the restaurant and the guest, which can be a challenge for the restaurant, but leaves the guest with an enhanced dining experience. I think that is what guests today want anyway," Hogberg says.

Many Swedish chefs don't see sustainability as a challenge in the kitchen or tableside, but rather an opportunity to simply be better citizens of our planet.

"We don't need to cut back on the experience in order to be more sustainable. Our business is focusing on the guests' experience first, always. [Sustainability] doesn't affect them in any way but positively. For example, they can't taste or see the difference if we do or don't use green electricity, plastic film with PVC or recycle our waste," Holmström says.

Qvarnström follows a similar path: "Minimise packaging and waste from single use packaging. Make sure that water is used sparsely during prep and cleaning. Educate the pot washer, cleaner and cooks to use as little water as possible and the right cleaning techniques to avoid any excess use of harmful chemicals."

While the benefits of sustainability are clear, the drawbacks if they aren't put into action today will be all too real too soon — especially given a fast growing world population that is in need of ongoing sustainable food solutions.

"The way we eat today isn't the way we'll be able to eat a few years from now. In order for cooking, as a craft and knowledge, to be able to develop over time we have to focus on practicing sustainability," Hogberg says. "There is no use in spending hours of refining methods to cook, for example, a fish that will become extinct if we keep on eating it."

"I believe Sweden can be trendsetters when it comes to sustainable restaurants and cooking," Dolk says. "Sweden [is] a clean country [in the world's eyes] — we should use this reputation to inspire others."

Photos courtesy of Skärets Krog.

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