A growing number of Australian restaurants and food businesses are putting sustainability and nutrition at the forefront of their operations. We’ve spoken to two culinary experts leading the way with their eco-conscious practises.
Next to household and fashion wastage, the food industry remains one of the biggest drains on the environment, with the average restaurant generating around 2.5 kilos of food waste every week. The food retail and hospitality industry is responsible for a third of Australia’s food waste output – not only does this leave restaurants with massive revenue loss, but it contributes to the country’s less-than-stellar ranking as the 10th most wasteful country in the world, with our total annual food waste sitting at 7.6 million tonnes.
Single-use plastics and fresh produce are some of the most commonly tossed items, and not just within the nation – 45% of produce goes to waste around the globe, much of which happens before the fruit and veg even make it onto the shelves. Restaurants and food businesses are particularly culpable, with businesses blamed for throwing out 2.5 million tonnes of organic waste every year.
We’re also seeing a rise of another type of food business model in the form of ready-made meal services, with the restraints of the pandemic a major catalyst for Aussies to prioritise convenience and ease. Findings from Ibisworld have blown the lid off the booming pre-made meal industry, revealing it has accumulated a market worth of 1.5 billion dollars and that Aussies are buying these meals at a growing rate of around 3% each year. We’re also seeing supermarkets responding to the increasing demand, with a 13% increase in available meal choices lining the shelves. But many of these options are covered in plastic and loaded with preservatives and added sugars, with little nutritional value.
That’s where sustainable food businesses like Tim Fresh come in. This ready-made meal service prides itself on providing nutritious meals made from fresh ingredients that are not only convenient, but sustainably made too. The founder at the helm of it all is Tim Cassimatis. The chef and business owner says he was looking to solve the issue plaguing Sydneysiders; the challenge to converge convenience with nutrition. Tim says they’re not mutually exclusive.
“I started Tim Fresh in November last year, I got into it because I saw a gap in the market for healthy, actual restaurant-quality food where there is a core focus about the process of everything and doing our best to control as much of it as we can in-house,” he says.
Tim notes the rising popularity of ready-made meals has revealed a stark contrast between the frozen, premade meals we associate with the industry and the more nutritious alternatives – and he’s set out to break down the preconceptions.
“It’s difficult to bridge the gap between having a ready-made meal that's been made in a factory with loads of additives, has been vacuum sealed and is sitting on the shelf of a servo, versus sitting in a restaurant and receiving a wholesome, fresh, delicious plate of food made with quality ingredients, which is one of my main goals,” Tim says. “Trying to change the stigma of the 'heat & eat' where albeit the element of convenience is there, we do serve products that are more perishable than others due to the fact they are all handmade and fresh to order, as we like to remind our customers this is real food with real ingredients made by the same set of hands weekly.
“It's almost that we're trying to promote the ethos of a neighbourhood restaurant where you know a bit of love is put into everything they do, except it comes in a box and lives in your fridge.”
The search for both healthy and convenient meals is one of the reasons why people are switching from home cooking or takeaway to premade meals instead.
Chris Peters is one of the many Aussies who have made the switch over to a ready-made meal service during the pandemic.
“I used to lose two hours of my day in traffic after work heading to the supermarket, paying a ridiculous price for not much at all, and coming home just too exhausted to even cook anything," Chris says. "I’d eat a bag of chips and end up in this cycle of unhealthy eating, so my ready meals give me that one less thing to worry about, and I like having time in my day to spend with the kids and getting to actually enjoy some of the day.”
Chris is certainly not alone when it comes to the stress of rising grocery costs.
With inflation at a near 30-year high, we’ve seen veggie prices shoot up by around 7% and fruit prices up by almost 5%, leaving many Aussies struggling to get through their weekly shop, let alone managing to purchase healthy and sustainable food. It’s why the convergence of convenience and eco-conscious meal services could be the solution.
“The price of my meals really isn’t all that different to what I was spending on my own, but this way, I don’t have to get out the pots and pans," Chris says.
While some of the major ready-made meal players have been monopolising the industry, more environmentally-friendly and nutritious alternatives like Tim Fresh are changing the game for consumers. Tim's business has a number of sustainable practices that set it apart from the crowd.
“I am proud to say that 80% of my packaging is made from paper and recycled cardboard, which is all compostable,” Tim says. “We do a lot of pickling and preserving, smoking and drying, which helps with utilising all of our stock!
“We source our produce from the markets, always using what’s in season and what’s available. We work with meat that’s dry aged and comes from Cowra & Canowindra. To break this process down further we work with our butcher and do our best to use the cuts he has most of or don’t sell so much so we can ensure some form of sustainable practise.”
But it’s not just the ready-made meals industry that’s undergoing rapid changes – restaurants are similarly coming up against growing expectations for sustainability. The hospitality industry tosses out 65% of food during the preparation process, costing the economy an eye-watering $36.6 billion dollars. The impact on the planet is the equivalent of a whopping 17.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. One chef says running her own business has been the key to implementing sustainable practices.
Julia Zhong, founder and chef helming her business, Chef Julia, says the lagging progress of sustainability among restaurants often comes down to money and hygiene. Before starting up her own service, Julia worked at hatted restaurants and fine dining eateries, sharing that sustainability was not at the heart of their operations.
“Working in a commercial kitchen there was a lot that I saw that was not sustainable…you need to understand how food prep works and the issue of food hygiene, but really simple things that can be employed are things like having a recycling bin, and the restaurants I worked at didn’t even have a recycling bin, and that’s something that’s very simple.”
It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that Julia was inspired to open up her own business as a private chef, having first gotten a taste for the culinary world as a child watching the national television sensation, MasterChef. From her oyster mushroom risotto to the customer-favourite dry-aged duck, Julia knows how to meld sustainability with good food.
“In my own practises, because I run my own thing, I do whatever I can to reduce plastics,” Julia says, noting that other restaurants will often default to plastics. “The use of plastic in the commercial kitchen, things like glad wrap, vac packs, I don’t do that because I don’t have a commercial vac packing machine and it’s just expensive.”
Instead, the private chef is able to mainly rely on reusable materials instead of single-use plastics.
“What I do is use Tupperware for my prep, we also have a compost bin so I use that for any of my scraps.”
Despite the steps forward in legislation with the NSW plastics ban rollout and a spate of awareness campaigns, many restaurants are still lagging behind. Julia says there’s a broader issue with hotels and the fine dining industry when it comes to sustainability.
“I worked in a hotel, so that’s very notorious for unsustainable practises but I also worked in other fine dining restaurants, but they’re typically not very pro-sustainability,” she says, adding that commercial restaurants are less likely to take a chance with sustainable, “ugly” fruit and veggies. “You’re putting a lot of risk in ordering these kinds of veggies but if they come out kind of crap, you can’t use that, so I don’t really see that happening.”
These expectations around the appearance of produce are another driving element of food wastage, with 20% to 40% of fruits and veggies rejected before they can even make it to retailers, and it’s usually down to their appearance. It’s why campaigns around imperfect produce have launched in a number of supermarkets and grocers – and Julia says they have a dual benefit.
“Personally, I do, depending on what I’m making, then I’ll use “ugly” fruit,” she says. “Anything to reduce my costs, then I’ll do that.”
Julia says she’s enjoyed having a greater freedom to make more eco-friendly choices in her own business. While she’s able to implement her own practices around sustainability as a small business owner, Julia says there’s more restaurants could do – but it won’t be an easy road.
“What should happen in commercial restaurants is things like changing the type of plastic they use, so using biodegradable ones where possible, things like glad wrap – they use a lot of glad wrap, so little things like that would make a difference.”
But Julia notes there have been some inroads in reducing waste around produce, sharing her observations of the industry.
“I think the trend about being produce-driven is quite impactful; actually caring about the produce they get, trying to use the whole of the produce and to use scraps – you see that less in fine dining; when I was working at fine dining restaurants we would throw so much away when they could have been used," she says.
“What restaurants could do better is care about reducing waste – it’s a lot of cost, as well as trying to get more biodegradable plastics. There should be more pressure to do that, but if it’s a move that’s going to cost more, they’re not going to do it.”
Without incentive to change, many restaurants and food industry giants will maintain their wasteful practises, which is why voting with your feet can be the simplest course of action.