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NOT SO FANTASTIC

From takeaway containers to cling film, plastic has always been a key part of many restaurant kitchens, writes LEE TRAN LAM. But as chefs aim to be more sustainable, is running a plastic-free business possible?

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LEE TRAN LAM

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Is a plasticfree kitchen possible? Lee Tran Lam looks at sustainability.

Restaurant kitchens are so dependent on plastic that a chef once punched Lennox Hastie in the stomach for misplacing a roll of cling film. “I was so upset,” says Hastie, who runs Sydney’s Firedoor. “I was pretty young and I burst into tears.” He’d simply put the cling film on the left side of the kitchen, instead of the right – and while his boss’s overreaction was out of line, it also proves that plastic wrap rules kitchens. At the first restaurant Hastie worked in – at age 15, in Sussex, England – he repeatedly reached for the plastic. He’d tend to a chicken stock or let a veal broth bubble away for nine hours, then tightly cover each one with cling film once it was done. “Which was completely stupid,” he says, “because as soon as it cools down, it has a natural layer of fat to protect it.” But hey, he was just a kid, obeying older chefs.

Plastic was so key to his culinary education that he was taught how to expertly cover things. The correct approach was to use the smallest amount possible – a trick that some chefs could stand to learn. “They’ll wrap something and it’s like they’re wrapping a Christmas present: round and round, so many times.” But going through wads of cling film was normal at top restaurants with so many ingredients to prep and preserve. And in many big UK kitchens, Hastie noticed each section would label their roll, because it was a prized item that other chefs might steal.

With a working history so tightly layered with cling film, it’s surprising to learn there isn’t a single roll in the Firedoor kitchen. The chef has been actively removing plastic from his business – and in doing so, joins a wave of hospitality figures trying to banish this environmental hazard from their venues. With the advent of climate strikes, zero-waste initiatives (such as Plastic Free July) and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s finding that “there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, in 2050”, it’s no wonder people want to reduce the damage done by single-use plastics.

“We got rid of plastic straws a couple of years ago,” says Hastie. “We now have either metal straws or hay straws.” Firedoor uses glass storage jars and other permanent containers, instead of cling film. Hastie credits the rise of sustainable product ranges, plus backing from his team (especially his sous-chef Jason White), as inspiration for the plastic-free push. Suppliers have supported the move and transport ingredients in boxes that they take back with them. That said, he’s had to convince some producers not to deliver ingredients mummified in layers of plastic. Storing produce in an excessive amount of wrapping only degrades its quality, anyway – it’s why Josh Niland doesn’t use cling film at Sydney’s Saint Peter and Fish Butchery. “If you cling-filmed your arm, your arm would smell gross,” he told Gourmet Traveller in 2017. Doing that to fish would create the same effect. So avoiding plastic isn’t just good for the environment, it also makes your food taste better.

“This is a bit ropey, let’s get rid of these…” was Darren Robertson’s response to takeaway plastic containers in the early days of Three Blue Ducks, which began as an 18-seat café in Sydney’s Bronte in 2010, and has since expanded into four locations on the east coast, including a venue in Byron Bay located on a 32-hectare farm. Sure, it’s impressive that the plastic containers are gone, as are the plastic straws and bags. But the Juggler café milk tap system, first installed in Bronte, is even more so. This chilled-milk dispensing system is both eco-friendly and efficient: milk is delivered in 10-litre lots that load into the chiller, making plastic bottles unnecessary. Once installed, Robertson’s team no longer had to empty one-and-a-half bins of plastic a week. “And that was just at Bronte.” It’s now in all Three Blue Ducks outposts, and has saved around 200,000 plastic milk bottles in total. By offering sugarcane-based takeaway containers, a water fountain rather than bottled water, housemade cold-press juices in glass bottles and a cooler program to replace the polystyrene boxes from their fish suppliers, among other admirable moves, Three Blue Ducks has drastically cut down on waste. But the business isn’t fully plastic-free. “We’re still searching for a compostable cling film solution,” says Robertson.

“There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean in 2050” so it’s no wonder people want to reduce the damage. In the meantime, they’ve still got four large rolls of cling film left, so the chef told his team: “Let’s see if we can stretch this out and make it last a year.”

Jo Barrett credits her time at the now-closed zerowaste café Brothl for inspiring the sustainable approach at Oakridge in Victoria. “I am also a keen open-water swimmer, and it makes me so sad every time I see a piece of plastic floating by, because I know the damage that it is causing to our environment,” she says. To her, wrapping dough in sheets of plastic seemed excessive, so her kitchen splurged on an eco-friendly alternative: a prover, even though such equipment can cost thousands. Oakridge’s old-school tactic of receiving milk in buckets, meanwhile, has spared the world an extra 8060 plastic bottles so far. “And we are just one business,” Barrett says. “Imagine if everyone joined in.”

At Jerry Mai’s three quick-service Pho Nom eateries in Melbourne, minimising plastic is a challenge: each restaurant might deal with 200 orders a day with a significant amount as takeaway meals. It’s why she’s adopted the Returnr system. “It’s a new closed-loop takeaway-food initiative where customers pay a deposit for a reusable container and can redeem the deposit in full when they return the dish,” she says. It could be revolutionary if it takes off. For Mai, the “toughest part” of going plastic-free has been convincing suppliers to phase out Styrofoam and disposable packaging, which she achieved after six months of intense phone calls. It was the birth of her son two years ago that inspired these changes. “I want to preserve his right and his future generations’ right to enjoy nature, breathe clean air and climb (and fall out of) trees like I was able to when I was a kid,” she says.

Likewise, it’s the next generation that galvanises Robertson. “For all of our younger chefs coming through, it’s a priority for them,” he says. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, he noticed that many chefs were having the same discussions about sustainability. “There’s a global movement,” Robertson adds.

Banishing single-use plastic is also a priority for Melissa Palinkas – co-owner and executive chef at Perth restaurant Young George – who has spent $8000 implementing a new container storage system. “I found Cambro containers, and I haven’t looked back,” she says. “They’re indestructible and have suction lids to lock in freshness.”

For Hastie, the cost of such improvements isn’t a deterrent. “The cheapest way is to continue using cling film, obviously. It’s the easy thing and that’s what it is – it’s convenient. But the investment in the permanent stuff is something that lasts,” he says. “It’s going to cost the restaurant a lot more, but the environment a lot less. And I feel better about that.”