Imagine a canteen where chefs cook up diverse dishes from food produced with care for the planet, prepared in a low-energy kitchen that wastes nothing. Now chefs all over the world can get the support and the impetus they need to realise this sustainable food vision with help from a chef-driven resource that aims to make the world a better place.

The Chefs’ Manifesto, crafted by more than 150 chefs around the world, was launched in 2018 at the EAT forum in Stockholm. It is tied to the United Nations (UN) global goals, and identifies goals and actions for cooking food without cooking the planet. It includes a recipe database, ‘Cooking the Manifestoaimed at eating sustainably.

UN sustainable development goals

The Chefs’ Manifesto is driven by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were set by the UN in 2015. The SDGs have a noble cause: to end poverty by 2030, promote peace and protect the planet. SDG2 aims to, “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”

Paul Newnham heads up the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, a network connecting big and small players in food production from private, charity and public sectors globally. Independently-funded, it has strong backing, participation and engagement from a number of UN agencies. One of the key groups Paul has been gathering through the Hub, are chefs.

He describes his original inspiration: “I decided to approach my work at the [SDG2 Advocacy] Hub in the same way I approach dining out. When I go to a restaurant, I ask questions of the staff: ‘Would you eat here? What dish is your favourite?’ Then I started wondering, what if chefs could direct me to something on their menu that not only tastes good, but also generates good for the farmer, the planet and for me. Chefs can educate the public, and by bringing chefs together they can learn from each other.”

Open to all chefs

As well as facilitating the Chefs’ Manifesto, the SDG2 Advocacy Hub offers a network across 60 countries, where chefs can find resources, share information and plan actions, including real-life gatherings. All chefs are welcome to join.

“It is an open-armed organisation,” says chef Ben Pryor who co-founded a Chefs’ Manifesto Action Hub in Bristol with Jen Best in April, and launched it from their restaurant, Poco Tapas Bar.

“Whether you are a Michelin star chef, working in a sandwich bar or a canteen, or at a catering college, you can identify with the goals, take them and run,” says Ben. “The Hub is a non-hierarchical umbrella organisation and it gives food-makers a collective global voice. If you are talking to your local council, for instance, you are not just an individual, you have got their ear because you are chefs of the world united.”

Ben is passionate about challenging the status quo in food production, otherwise, he cautions: “…we are wandering in the same rut shaped by industrial farming, complicit in an unsustainable food system which is driving us off the cliff-edge, ravaging biodiversity and killing soil life.”

Eating sustainably

The Chefs’ Manifesto encourages chefs to resist ‘business-as-usual’ collusion. Shaped by eight chef-identified themes, it invites food makers to question every angle from field to fork and back again for maximum food sustainability. Inspired by this are the following eight things that a chef can do to improve sustainability from field to fork – these tips can also be applied in the kitchen at home.

1. Use ingredients grown with respect for the earth and its oceans

Make sustainability your bottom line and interrogate your supply chain. Ask questions: where are the ingredients from? How are they produced and reared? What are the animals fed and how are they cared for? Do you know which fish are more sustainable than others? For instance, sardines and mackerel are plentiful mid-water fish that can be caught without damaging the sea bed. For fruit and vegetables, ask how the soil is fertilised and if bee-harming pesticides are used? If your producer is local, visit the farm. You can find out more about asking the right questions here.

2. Protect biodiversity and improve animal welfare 

Switch sourcing for as many ingredients as you are able to small local producers. Make meat go further and use every part of the animal. Explore heritage grains such as wild sorghum which is naturally drought resistant and uses three times less the amount of water than maize (corn); it’s also gluten-free and a nutritional powerhouse. Another heritage grain is fonio, one of Africa’s oldest cultivated grains. Quick-growing, it thrives in poor soil, is also gluten-free and contains amino acids missing in barley and rice.

Use forgotten plants varieties and be inventive – there are many more plants that we can eat than we currently do. Preserving their genetic diversity is important for resilience – the greater the variation in genes, the more likely plants can adapt and thrive.

3. Invest in livelihoods

Examine your food supply chain and choose fairly-priced produce to enable a viable livelihood for farmers and suppliers. For instance: are salads coming from a “just-in-time” supermarket system (electronic ordering from centralised distribution centres, instead of having stock in-store)? According to food journalist Felicity Lawrence: “Migrant labour is not coincidental but structural to the just-in-time model, which needs the extreme flexibility of a class of desperate workers to function.” Food Space in Ireland is an online tool to connect chefs with small producers and offers a 50-mile menu stamp for dishes using local ingredients.

4. Reduce waste and value natural resources

Globally, we throw away about a third of all food that we produce. This wanton waste shows a lack of respect for food, farmers and our planet. Connect the dots between valuing food and not wasting it. Use sustainable local produce and prepare it with pride. Look at what diners leave on their plate. Don’t serve fillers that will not get eaten, such as mounds of white rice. Repurpose produce. For example, freeze fish trimmings until you have enough to make fish cakes. Tredwells, a Marcus Wareing restaurant, has created its own ‘virtuous cycle’ whereby a farmer collects Tredwells’ food waste and uses it as mulch to grow fresh produce for the restaurant. Eco-chef Justin Horne is another strong advocate running London’s first zero-waste vegetarian and organic restaurant, Tiny Leaf. Use parts normally discarded: carrot tops (use in pesto, add to savoury pancakes), onion skins (dehydrate into powder and use as flavouring) and cauliflower leaves (roast till crisp).

5. Celebrate local, seasonal food

Food in season, grown locally, is more likely to be fresher than produce which has travelled miles in a chiller. Avoiding air-freighted food makes environmental sense. Local food in season can be more cost-effective than imported food that’s out-of-season; and buying local food supports rural economies, safeguarding farmland in your local area. The fewer the links in the food chain, the more the money stays local. Chef Ben Pryor says: “Make seasonal menus by looking at what is growing in the fields.” If you have the space, create a kitchen garden for unbeatable freshness. Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill grows produce on the rooftop of his Chicago restaurant, including tomatoes, chillies and pak choi. Grow herbs on a window-sill and see the difference it makes to a dish.

6. Focus on plant-based ingredients

Use more vegetables. Think about what grows best where you are, and harness regionality in your cooking for extra taste and sustainability. Make a little meat go far with flavoursome slow-cooked stews. Ben says: “Move away from the mind-set of vegetables as a mere accompaniment for meat. More and more chefs are unashamedly making vegetables the centrepiece of a meal, giving them the time and love they deserve. You can see this, not just in trends of ingredients like jackfruit, but in a chef’s willingness to devote larger portions of limited prep time to more time-intensive cooking methods such as salt-baking beetroot or celeriac.”

7. Educate your eaters about food safety, healthy diets and nutritious cooking

Think of Hippocrates and see food as medicine. What we eat is key to our health. Chefs can educate their customers by offering nutrient-rich food rather than food that is low in nutrients and high in sugar and fat. Chefs can also champion the enhanced taste and higher nutrition found in heritage and sustainably-sourced vegetables. They are also reviving the use of traditional fermentation of raw foods to promote a healthy gut by serving sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods such as sriracha and kombucha, educating the mind and palate of their diners.

8. Choose nutritious food that is accessible and affordable for all

Be canny about sourcing and keep to a budget. Cook everything from scratch to cut costs. Choose cheap cuts of meat and cook them slowly to tenderness. Learn about wild food foraging – there is an array of food that most people never dream of eating that is both delicious and nutritious – just be safe and respectful of what you take. Experiment with bitter but edible plants that animals leave alone but which are highly nutritious. Remember when rocket was not easily available? Maybe there is another local edible plant that we are overlooking? In turn, your dishes can inspire others to cook healthily and inventively on a budget at home.

So, whether you are a chef or home cook, the Chefs’ Manifesto is a guide to help you be more sustainable in the kitchen.

You can find out more about the Manifesto and sign-up here.

Photograph: Robert Dann

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