Chefs today can be activists promoting causes which are important for society. Richard Ekkebus, chef of restaurant Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong is conscious of the importance of giving back to society and has made it his philosophy to try and improve things.
Ekkebus is on a mission to try and remove plastic waste from the restaurant. And it is something that he and his team monitor on a weekly basis.
“In Hong Kong, we live in a city with over consumption and we have a huge problem when it comes to landfills and pollution. There are things that we can do to fight this. We have been thinking about ways to eliminate plastic within our operations. It is not just a question of limiting food waste but also of limiting packaging because we are only now realising that plastic is coming back into the food chain after 100 years of industrial and household use of plastic,” he told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
Plastic is everywhere from the packaging to bottles and even vacuum bags or piping bags. For the time being, he is working alone and it is not his idea to create a movement in Hong Kong. “I am not going to start pointing fingers at people if I do not walk the talk. You have to lead by example. We need to create awareness and we are very active when it comes to reducing the use of plastic. In the kitchen, chefs love to use piping bags, vacuum bags, plastic transfer sheets. When I started working in the kitchen 25 years ago we did not have plastic machines, piping bags, the tips for the piping bags were made of metal. There is a lot we can do daily to reduce the use of plastic,” he said.
He tells me that they are now using biodegradable plastic in the kitchen. “There is plastic that is made with petrol and is not biodegradable and then you have plastic made from corn starch or vegetables. All the packaging and paper we use must have this quality. There is a lot we can do daily to source differently and to buy equipment that will not land in a landfill.”
To monitor how they are doing in terms of cutting waste, they weigh it to ensure that progress is being made.
To do this he has created a system to audit suppliers to ensure that they work according to their ethics. “If you are going to work with us, we will not just focus on the price but we also ask you to show what you are doing to reduce waste, your waste management strategy, whether you recycle waste. We prefer some suppliers to others because of their ethical way of working,” he tells me.
Ekkebus said that they are also working on a daily basis to see how they can recycle oils into biofuels, how they can recycle organic waste into products that are used for compost and they are also working on creating a roof garden on top of the building.
From this month they will no longer be serving mineral water but will start using filtered waters. “We will not have plastic bottles but glass bottles instead,” he said.
Since opening the restaurant they have always separated waste even when it was not mainstream. “We have done a lot of things. All the lamps in the building are energy efficient.”
On the weekends, from time to time the restaurant team go for a clean-up on the beach or work in soup kitchens or visit hospitals that deal with patients who have mental problems. “Ultimately it is about what you can give back to your community. It is also about sourcing locally and working with smaller companies rather than large companies.”
Even the roof garden, which the restaurant is creating on top of the building of the Landmark Mandarin Oriental is a way to contribute to society. “Of course we will not grow watermelons in the garden. But we have calculated the amount of herbs and flowers that we import and we will be gaining in freshness and also in benefiting from a full cycle of the restaurant. “We have calculated the amount of money we pay for airfreight and also how much fuel that entails. It is not just about cost saving but we can put the money to do others things that matter and that can make a difference,” he said. “If everyone does this, we would live in a better world.”
He knows that he will never be able to go local. “In Hong Kong, everybody says we have a free market and we have to import everything because nothing grows here. If you are an American chef and say that you are only working with American products you can say you are a ‘local chef’ even if it takes a 12 hour flight to move produce from New York to Los Angeles for example. On the other hand we are just two and a half hours flight away from Japan and this is the most local you can get. We work in a metropole city but it is not like New York which has its back country. Unfortunately, we don’t have that,” he said.
So the roof garden is a first step in the right direction, that of supplying the restaurant with herbs and flowers which he no longer will have to import. Of course, he hopes that others in Hong Kong will follow in Amber’s footsteps.