We Need to Merge Sustainability & Gastronomy
In the end, you can’t expect every consumer and every chef to become an expert on farming or agriculture. The Certified Organic stamp basically says it’s bullshit free, and then you start looking at quality from there.”
“To me it’s obvious. We need to merge sustainability and gastronomy,” explains Christian Puglisi, chef and owner of four restaurants in Copenhagen which all focus on sustainability and organic produce. To Puglisi, this merging is the next major contribution from the cooking scene in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries. “This is something we need to pursue, and I think we’re good at it, all in all,” he says, hinting to a Danish and Scandinavian track record of developing sustainable solutions in other areas.
A few weeks ago, one of the four restaurants, Relæ, entered the World’s 50 Best Restaurants – as number 45 – with Puglisi at the helm, who for years has been cited as one of the most promising new food thinkers in the Nordic theatre of cooking. At the same time, Relæ received the Sustainable Restaurant Award, most noticeably for its dedication to a completely organic kitchen, but also for its attempt to reach sustainability in every aspect of running a restaurant, from recycled furniture and low-energy LEDs to fetching produce on bicycles and cooperating with local farmers.
One of the outstanding features of Relæ – except for the truly brilliant food – is the fact that it’s the only government guaranteed fully organic Michelin-class restaurant in the world. Head chef and co-founder Christian Puglisi’s food is best described by the love of nature and plants – and the desire for avantgarde exploration of food inspired by his background at the world famous restaurants Noma and El Bulli. But the food Relæ serves is also defined by a simplicity that reminds you of how a truly great jazz musician doesn’t need to play all that many notes to be a virtuoso. The cliché would be to suggest that somewhere in his Italian heritage there would be a confidence in achieving results through simple ideas and relatively few ingredients.
Now running not only the spartan looking basement restaurant where you set your own table with cutlery from trays build into the tables, but also Manfreds; the local diner with take-away menus for the locals, Bæst (Beast); a pizza and charcuterie restaurant based on homemade mozzarellas and charcuterie, and Mirabelle; a bakery with some of the best sourdough bread in town. All four restaurants are certified with the Organic Gold Standard, which means that more than 90 % of all ingredients must be organic, and the restaurants are inspected and approved by a government body which guarantees that the organic foods served are in fact organic.
After leaving Noma and having build an instant Copenhagen success on raw food intelligence and no frills concept, Puglisi saw going fully organic as an obstacle to overcome that would help the team stay curious. “I don’t think you can run a great team and a curious restaurant without continuously challenging the rules you cook by,” he says, pointing to the fact that if you want to run a kitchen 90-100 % organic, there’s a lot of things that aren’t possible. “Like getting enough of specific cuts from certified producers. You just can’t. I can’t order veal shanks by the hundreds for a menu for a whole week. And the price soars, so you need to buy whole animals. And then some will get the cheeks, some will get the shanks, some will have something different. You kind of have to roll with the animal as you go through it. But everyone deserves the great high quality experience, so the kitchen has to develop constantly,” he explains. This means that the organic challenge solves more than environmental issues – it also keeps the staff on their toes: “We decided we wanted to be certified organic. First of all because we believe it to be a minimum standard of quality and sustainability. Second, because it’s like putting on a stray jacket every week – it keeps us working with things.”
But for the customers choice of restaurant, you wouldn’t necessarily imagine that an organic certification would really matter to the the most hyped restaurants in the city, especially not for those being closely linked to the Nordic movement with all it’s focus on natural preservation, biodiversity and sustainability. Would customers just expect that ingredients in places such a Relæ, Manfreds and Bæst were top notch and predominantly organic?
“Well that’s the thing, isn’t it? You go to a top notch restaurant and expect craftsmanship and great produce. But is that what you get? I’ve been working in many pretty highflying places where the produce wasn’t of any kind of sustainable standard. But yes – my customers probably have high expectations to the produce they are served. But being certified organic is about more than that. It’s about going that extra mile and letting your kitchen become shaped by the best ingredients in the amount that you can get them.”
More often than not, you’d find chefs defying that quality foods and organic foods are the same. Puglisi agrees, but believes that if you want to have a standard of quality, organic seems to a pretty good point of departure: “Look – I don’t know enough about agriculture. I’m a chef. I know these great farmers that will use a little pesticide in their farming, who don’t want to be completely organic, and I’m not in a position to tell them how to do their job. I just know that I want my ingredients to be poison free and I want my animals top be able to move and live a natural life. So instead of constantly debating what is and what isn’t good agriculture, I’ve just chosen to draw the line here and say that organic is the minimum. Then we find those who are the best based on this criterion.”
But the best often doesn’t come cheap, so Puglisi and his staff has to be creative and prioritize: “Like we have a pig farmer where every pig has 200 square meters of free land to live on. It’s a whole other animal. It costs the double of a regular organic pig. But then we will just make thinner slices and serve a little less meat – making more room for the quality veggies,” he says, explaining the necessary practicality of an organic standard. “In the end you can’t expect every consumer and every chef becoming a expert on farming or agriculture. Certified Organic basically says it’s bullshit free, and then you start looking at quality from there.”
Ever since The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration introduced the option for restaurant to get an organic certification, the same way food producers have had for 25 years, more than one thousand canteens and restaurants have opted to try the program. However, Relæ are the only top restaurant to pursue this stamp of approval: “It’s a lot easier for a canteen or an institutional kitchen to go for an organic certification because they often have just one supplier. So for us, it’s more complicated. But hey, the bureaucracy of this thing is way overrated. Most restaurants have someone dealing with their invoices. Basically that’s how we keep track of staying organic: Making sure that all invoices are for organic products. I think more could work with the organic restaurant certification without too much difficulty. “
Facts on organic certification for restaurants in Denmark
Danish consumers have the highest consumption of organic foods anywhere in the western world. One of the main reasons for the success of organic food here are the fact that the government have made a certification and a control system that guarantees to the consumer that these are trustworthy, organic foods produced to meet the specific standards. There have been very few major food scandals related to the organic foods in Denmark. For the past couple of years, the Organic Denmark and The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration have worked on giving consumers the same option of choosing organic when they dine out. Puglisi’s restaurants are the most prominent in the program.