How Darwin & Wallace’s executive chef keeps his kitchens sustainable

Simon Duff reveals how supply chain, growing spaces and menu development all contribute to the pub group’s environmental objectives.

20 December 2018
chainsfood wastepackagingpubssustainability
Rotisserie chicken

Engaging with local neighbourhoods has always been a core part of each Darwin & Wallace venue. Increasingly, that means demonstrating a desire to utilise local produce and reduce wastage, whether that be plastic packaging or food scraps.

Last year, the bar group was given top marks by the Sustainable Restaurant Association, which awarded it three stars for its recycling initiatives, seasonal dishes and sustainably sourced foods. It’s also just been nominated for the Publican Awards’ accolade for best sustainable pub company.

Food Spark spoke to executive chef Simon Duff about what actions have proved most effective in reducing and reusing refuse. 

What have been some of Darwin & Wallace’s most successful sustainability initiatives?

I think what we did from day one – which was to not accept packaging from the suppliers and to make them use reusable boxes – has made the greatest impact. The suppliers had to work out a better way to deliver their products, but it allows us to not create tons of unnecessary waste every day, which has helped us achieve and maintain our recycling rate at about 95%.

Are you currently experimenting with new ways to make your supply chain and menu more sustainable?

I’m always trying new ways to make the business more sustainable, whether that be trying different crops in our gardens, working with suppliers to better use all the parts of an animal, or finding more local produce or more sustainable fish. We’re also constantly reviewing what we buy and what we could do better regarding our waste and all of our other processes. 

Some businesses deal with food waste by donating leftovers, others compost it, still others turn it into new dishes. What’s your approach?

I try to minimise food waste through smart menu development and writing. All our products have multiple uses across the menus, so they can be kept fresh. All parts get used and no product sits unsold, becoming waste. The dishes are sold with options for sides, so people can order what they are actually going to eat, which ensures less food coming back from the tables. We also separate all our waste, so any food that does come back is destined for compost to grow more food.

What challenges are there with maintaining a cohesive sustainability strategy in the kitchen across several sites?

I have very good controls in place with food manuals, online ordering, weekly stock and so on, but making sure all staff members appreciate why we separate waste and don't need all the equipment on all the time can take some time. As we have been doing most things from day one, though, it becomes a built in culture, which people see value in doing rather than something new and forced on them.

Darwin & Wallace has previously said that it wants to repurpose some of the outdoor area at every venue for growing produce. How far along is this process? And what kind of herbs and veg are you growing?

I have some growing space in all of our sites, which ranges from space for herbs in some, to full, dedicated organic gardens in others. With all spaces, I start with thyme, rosemary, sage and bay, followed by mint, chives and basil.

In the bigger gardens, the crop changes throughout the year. At the moment, we have chard, mizuna, mustard leaf, rocket, chives, Treviso, purple kale, land cress and nasturtiums I’m also experimenting with perennial beds that have lovage, bronze fennel, artichokes, rhubarb and more in them.

Halloumi and crushed avocado burger

In the spring, I started adding some leeks and fast-growing herbs, edible flowers and other spring salads, while growing tomatoes, courgettes and squashes from seed in windows around the sites and at home. Once big enough, we will get them into the beds for the summer, with a selection of bee-friendly plants scattered around, so my ladies from our hives have something to enjoy as well.

This is in constant development, and I am always asking questions and experimenting with new plants at home to see what will work.

Are there any ingredients or cuisines you’ve been experimenting with at the moment with an eye to adding to menus next year?

We have started to make our own kimchi, which is working well and tastes amazing. I’ve also been trying different ramen-style dishes, but I think it will take a while longer to get my own version right, and this may be better for autumn. At the moment, though, I’m mainly working on some interesting vegetarian dishes to feature on our spring menus.

A number of restaurants have removed avocado from their menus recently, in response to claims that its production is not sustainable. Where do you weigh in on this?

I think simply removing an item is the easy way out, and this may actually hurt the small farmers who are doing things right. Instead, I’m pursuing a more sustainable supply, as it must be out there, even if it is a bit more expensive. Avocados are so delicious, it would be a real shame not to use them!

What are the most popular dishes on your menu?

Our house burger, which is a staple on the menu made from amazing 28-day dry-aged beef from Lake District farms. Also, our halloumi burger with crushed avocado, rocket, basil and garlic yogurt. These are closely followed by the very tasty and satisfying house salad and rotisserie chicken. Our small and sharing bites sell very well, too.

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