The Path to Sustainability

Our garden as an infant.

Our garden as an infant.

When we first opened Amass, the first six months were a whirlwind and we were just getting our footing in running a restaurant. In retrospect, I feel a bit guilty that we didn’t have the wherewithal to make Amass a sustainable restaurant from the beginning. It wasn’t until our first holiday closure that we actually had some time to review our first six months as a restaurant. At this point we wanted the restaurant to reflect what was truly important to us. It was a no brainer: We were going to try to make Amass as sustainable as possible.

The garden was our obvious starting point, and we are very fortunate to be able to have this opportunity. But with this opportunity, we bear a responsibility to work sustainably. Like all new projects, we wanted to do everything at once. I spent late nights poring over sustainable garden systems and nerding out on composting practices on the computer. But I realized that there was no immediate gratification when it came to sustainable gardening. This process was going to take time if we were going to do it properly. But this was not just about setting up a physical system ­– we all had to be mentally committed as well. Basically, if your employees aren’t as passionate about separating different types of waste or saving excess water, this was going to be an exercise in futility. Luckily, this was not a difficult idea to sell to the team. They realized as much as I did that this not only benefitted the restaurant, but it was part of a larger vision about our obligation to the environment.

From there, the project just snowballed: We keep on discovering new ideas and solutions. Over the next few entries, I’ll talk concretely about how we started on this path, the decisions we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. In doing this I hope that other people will take bits and pieces of this information and try to apply it to their kitchens – restaurant or not. For us, the garden opened up possibilities that we could have never have done if we were confined in the city. But just because you don’t have a garden, doesn’t mean that you can’t replicate some of the initiatives that we do here, whether you are in a restaurant or a home kitchen.

So after that long introduction, I want to start off with my first and probably one of my biggest failures (and there have been many…) in our quest for sustainability: COMPOST.

My Relationship with Compost

The wrong way to compost.

The wrong way to compost.

When we first opened, composting was the obvious thing to do. We have a garden, the garden needs nutrients, we have lots of organic kitchen waste, so let’s compost!!!!. Wow, I couldn’t have been more naive about how to go about it. My original thought was, “Let’s build a couple of boxes to dispose of our kitchen waste and magically we’ll have fertile compost for our planters!” Wrong! It wasn’t until 5-6 months in that I realized that something was going quite right. It was winter and despite it being around 2 C, the compost was giving off a rancid smell. Something was obviously not working. Coincidentally, around the same time that my compost was turning into a stink bomb, we met a couple of guys that had just started a business called BioArk. Mikkel and Lasse were hard-core sustainable urban gardening junkies. As BioArk was just starting out, they suggested collaboration. They use our garden as a lab for their ideas, and we would get cool gardening systems in return. We couldn’t have asked for a better deal. When it came to our composting practices, I showed Mikkel our boxes and unloaded a whole bunch of frustration. Right there, I got a quick lesson in how to compost properly, and from there on in, I was hooked on composting.

Basically, what I realized is that our compost needed some serious vitamins. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the process, successful composting is a balance between nitrogen (as in kitchen waste) and carbon (for example, shredded cardboard, wood chips, straw, etc.). Our compost desperately needed a source of carbon and guess what? All the brown cardboard we had been placing into the recycling bin could provide us all the carbon we needed. It was right in front of us all along and thanks to that little bit of knowledge, we just decreased our trash pick up by one third.

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The right way to compost.

But this was not the end of my compost woes. In theory, composting sounds simple. You add carbon to nitrogen so you can promote the decomposition, not rotting, of organic matter. But in reality, it’s not that simple at all. The point of composting is to encourage the growth of good bacteria which breaks down organic material into nutrients that plants can use, as opposed to bad bacteria that will only give you nasty smells. And that’s not all. Compost has to be “cooking” – that is, it has to be within a certain internal temperature to promote the breakdown of matter. And if anyone knows the weather in Scandinavia, it’s a problem, especially if you have an outdoor composting system like ours. What happens when the temperature drops? It gets really moody, thus there needs to be a certain volume of organic matter in order to keep at a steady temperature. And your bacteria have to breathe. As the material decomposes, the organic material compacts itself, thus asphyxiating your bacteria. To insure that there is an adequate source of oxygen for all bacteria, you have to constantly turn it to distribute air throughout the box. At this point, we’ve changed our composting systems about four times. It’s become an obsession. Just when we’ve got one system down, I starting thinking “there must be a better way that I just don’t know about.” That’s when you find yourself wide-awake at two-thirty in the morning ruminating new ways to compost.

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