How Food Choices Impact the Planet
Executive chef Rudi Liebenberg of Cape Town's famous pink hotel has had a Damascus moment - after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma three years ago, the 42-year-old chef fell in love with earth-conscious cooking. The upshot? Sweeping changes for the Mount Nelson's kitchen, which Liebenberg had then just been appointed to run.
"It made me rethink everything," he says of the book, an exploration of how our food choices impact on the planet. "These days you can switch on a machine and a chicken breast pops out. I started asking questions about where my food came from. And I realised I could do things differently."
The most significant change has probably been learning to treat the kitchen's raw fruit and veg waste - around a ton of the stuff a week - like the culinary equivalent of the crown jewels.It has proved its weight in gold, providing all the fertiliser for the hotel's new organic herbal roof garden."Here, taste this," says Liebenberg as he plucks a tomato in the 250m² garden and hands it to me. Launched at the end of last year, the garden now features 20 different herbs, ranging from curry leaves to marjoram. When complete in spring, it will even boast fynbos herbs like buchu - a first for a South African restaurant.
"Tomatoes are my favourite ingredient. They're the only thing that makes me happy when I'm sad," Liebenberg says as he watches my reaction - the tomato is moreish, a bittersweet taste of what life must have been like in our pre-supermarket world.
While an outside supplier converts a third of the kitchen's fruit and veg waste into fertiliser for the herb garden, the rest is processed by the hotel's on-site wormery - everything, that is, "except the stuff the worms don't like", like citrus fruits and onion, which are either too acidic or strong for an earthworm's gut.
Based in a wooden shed behind the staff parking lot, the wormery houses 60 crates of some 3000 worms each. These spend their days happily chewing through decomposing fruit and vegetables, and produce up to 60kg of vermicast - or worm poo - for monthly use in the herb garden. Liebenberg has big plans for his dominion of worms, hoping to double its size by the end of the year.
Apart from produce grown on-site, the mark of a green kitchen is locally and sustainably sourced free-range produce. Liebenberg has boosted the kitchen's use of free-range eggs - sourced from Stellenbosch's Spier estate - from 60 to 1400 a week in just 18 months.He says he tries to buy only green-listed, sustainably harvested seafood, although there are some orange-listed species, like kingklip and prawns, on the menu.
"Our venison, lamb and chicken are local and free-range. Half our beef is pasture-reared - the rest comes from the best feedlot I could find. It's the most consistent product around at the moment," he admits.
"It's a slow process educating diners ... and changing suppliers. It will take another couple of years before we have all the right suppliers and can claim all our meat is free-range."
Before Liebenberg's tenure, only 60% of the hotel's ingredients were sourced in South Africa. Now 90% is local and 70% hails from the Western Cape - no mean feat for a hotel that must satisfy the idiosyncratic tastes of guests from all over the world. He has even launched a five-course vegan menu - all wine-paired.
Liebenberg says his biggest hurdle has been staff buy-in. "If you've always been used to buying something in a packet ... and then you take someone into a garden and tell them to grow something themselves, it doesn't come naturally ... but it's changing now.
"The chefs are becoming increasingly aware ... they're beginning to understand they have more control over the product's quality, knowing it's not been lying in a storeroom for a week before you get it."
The pièce de résistance of the kitchen's earth-conscious drive is a tract of land at Spier, set up by Liebenberg at the end of last year to grow organic fruit and vegetables. The size of four rugby fields, it will be managed by local organic farmer Eric Schwarts on Liebenberg's behalf. Already a field the size of a rugby pitch is being planted, but Liebenberg's still not happy. Says he's not anywhere close to his target. "I have to be realistic."
For a moment, the Nellie's executive chef looks like he's taken on the weight of the world. Can someone please hand the man an organic tomato?