When it comes to asking questions in a restaurant, many of us are fearful of being seen as fussy or awkward customers. But by speaking up and asking for information about provenance and the ethics of ingredients, we make these issues important; if you don’t ask questions, the owners and chefs won’t know that these matters concern their customers.
While front of house staff aren’t usually directly involved in sourcing, it may inspire restaurants and cafes to engage all their staff in these issues so they are prepared to respond to questions and trained accordingly. So how do you make sure the food you’re eating when out is aligned with your values? And what are the main issues surrounding sourcing in restaurants?
Step 1: Understand your values
Eating out can bring a whole different list of questions to cooking at home, and it may help to think through your personal values before considering questions to ask. Which ingredients do you care about most? Are you happy to just avoid certain dishes if they don’t meet your criteria? How will this shape the restaurants you choose to eat at?
Take some time and consider what the most important factors are to you and let these factors inform what you are trying to find out.
Step 2: Preparing your questions
A lot of restaurants post their menus online or through social media. It can be worth looking at these to gauge what you can establish in advance and what questions might be appropriate to ask when you are there. This can be especially helpful if you’re interested in the seasonality of a menu or the balance of animal- and plant-based dishes on a menu.
At the restaurant, the person you are likely to be speaking to is a member of the front of house staff and they may not have all this information to hand. Start by explaining why you want to know the information, and that sourcing and ethics are very important to you. It can help to put your server at ease if you point out that it’s ok if they need to ask someone else, such as the chef, for the answers to your questions.
If you can call in advance or pop by prior to your visit, this may make it easier. You may find the staff or chef less busy than in the middle of peak service times, and you will be equipped with the answers before you are faced with selecting your dishes from the menu. Another option is to email; it may help your questions reach the right person so you can get the right answers to your questions.
Step 3: The Questions
These are designed as a starting point but should be shaped and adapted for your personal values.
Question 1: Can you tell me about any of the local producers you use?
This is a great question to begin with; it opens up a conversation and gives a chance for them to talk about their favourite producers and why they like them. Asking what they buy from them and why, will tell you a lot about the quality of the produce they are sourcing, and the length of their relationship with the producer can indicate a firm commitment from the restaurant to local sourcing.
Asking about these relationships tells the restaurant that this connection is important to customers as well as encouraging them to talk about and highlight the producers that they support.
Follow up questions could include: ‘Why do you buy from them?’ ‘How long have you been buying from them?’
Question 2: Can you tell me about where your beef/lamb/pork/chicken is from?
A restaurant that cares about sustainable food should know the provenance of their meat. For some restaurants, sourcing directly from a farm can be challenging as they require a certain quantity of different cuts for dishes on the menu, so they may opt for sourcing through a local butcher instead.
Whether they buy direct or go through a butcher, they should be able to tell you where it is from and how the animals are raised (e.g. free range, organic, pasture-fed). If they source through a butcher, a decent butcher who also cares about provenance should be able to give them this information. Therefore, it might be worth asking why they have chosen that specific butcher.
If the meat is not local, ask them for their reasons as there may be specific factors (e.g. the breed of animal or they may want organic certification).
Follow up questions could include: ‘Can you tell me how the animals are raised?’ ‘Why do you source from that farm?’ ‘Why do you use that butcher?’ ‘Why is your meat not local?’
Question 3: How often do you change your menu?
Seasonality is important in terms of a sustainable diet. A constantly changing menu can indicate a chef that is cooking in alignment with the changing seasons, choosing the freshest ingredients and adapting their menu to fit with this. This is especially true with vegetables, where a menu that shifts with the seasons also may indicate sourcing local produce – although this is always worth checking.
There are inevitably dishes that aren’t dependent on the seasons and won’t change regularly, but a restaurant that is committed to seasonality should be changing at least part of the menu (beyond a few daily specials), on a monthly or even weekly basis to reflect the produce available.
Follow up questions could include: ‘How many of your dishes change every week/month?’ ‘Where do you source your vegetables from?’ ‘What proportion of the vegetables you buy are grown in the UK?’
Question 4: What do you do to reduce food waste in your restaurant?
An often forgotten aspect of the dining experience is a part that you never see: the waste that restaurants create. The environmental impact of well-sourced ingredients can be lost if a huge amount of food is being wasted. The most innovative restaurants will find a way to reduce waste at different points in the process.
From careful sourcing and menu planning, to using offcuts – such as the greens from the beetroot, cauliflower leaves and much more – in their menu, to making sure any uneaten food is redistributed if possible, there are lots of ways for restaurants to look at this issue. The more we, as customers, ask about the policies and practices, the more we highlight this as an important factor to chefs and restaurant owners.
Follow up questions could include: ‘Do you compost your waste?’ ‘Do you redistribute unused food to local charities if possible?’
Question 5: Where is your fish from?
Sustainable fish is a complicated issue. There are a huge number of different issues to consider, from the environmental impact of fish farms to the way that bycatch is dealt with in the fishing industry. It is worth doing some reading around the issue to find out more about the issues and why they are important before deciding what your priorities are when it comes to eating fish.
A good thing to check in the restaurant, is what fish they are serving. We have some of the best fish in the waters surrounding the UK, and there are few reasons to source fish from further afield. However, the type of fish is also important; the most commonly eaten fish in the UK (salmon, tuna and seabass) are among the least sustainable so look for alternatives to this. In season, fish such as mackerel, herring and sardines are a good choice, and an alternative to seabass include wild bream, gurnard and plaice.
The seasonality of fish is a good thing to ask about. Their fish offering should change regularly to reflect migration routes, the weather and the breeding patterns of fish. A restaurant that changes the fish they offer in line with these things, is considering the sustainability of what they are serving, whereas a restaurant that always serves farmed salmon or seabass is simply offering a popular option, regardless of its impact.
Follow up questions could include: ‘Does your fish offering change seasonally?’ ‘Why have you picked those fish to serve?’
Step 4: The Review
How did you feel about the conversation? How were you treated? Were you satisfied with the answers? Do you need to do any further research? Were you happy to eat at the restaurant? Was there anything you weren’t happy with?
These are just some of the questions to ask yourself afterwards. Be prepared to do some further research (this is where advanced questions can help) – if they give you the name of the farm where their chicken comes from but little other information, go home and research it further. Remember to keep checking over time if you are a regular visitor as staffing changes can affect sourcing. Are they still buying from the same farms? Has their sourcing changed at all? And if so, why?
Step 5: Further Reading
The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) is an excellent place to start when looking at restaurant sustainability. They have several different criteria, looking at everything from local sourcing, to waste and employee welfare. Restaurants that are part of the SRA will often have a sign or sticker to indicate this, and ratings range from one to three stars.
The SRA has a campaign called Too Good To Waste which aims to raise awareness and reduce food waste in restaurants. Restaurants who are concerned with food waste are developing innovative ways to reduce it, as this SFT piece outlines.
Regarding sustainable fish, there are some good general places to start – Slow Food has a comprehensive overview of the issues and some good clear guidelines, and the Marine Conservation Society has a good fish guide with lots of information about specific species.
For meat sourcing, there is a wealth of information available on animal welfare issues and what the jargon used to describe different production systems means. An excellent introduction to the problems with our industrialised food system can be found in the film Food Inc, or the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Compassion in World Farming has a lot of helpful information about animal welfare, and the Sustainable Food Trust has a useful reference to certification and terminology.
This article was co-authored with Joe Wheatcroft.
Joe has worked for 20 years in many aspects of the food business, from organic pig farming to washing dishes in fine restaurants. Working on farms both here in the UK and in Denmark has been really valuable when it comes to understanding the nuts and bolts of how the food is produced. He has worked in many of Bristol’s food establishments including Southville Deli, Radford Mill Farm Shop, Fishworks and Taste, and is now the co-owner, shop manager and fishmonger at the Source Food Hall and Cafe. He loves what food does to people and he doesn’t just mean the nutrients.