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Sustainability is more than just a trend for restaurants and other businesses in the food and drink industry...

How three culinary pros across Canada are prioritizing sustainability

At 40 Knots Winery in Comox, B.C., community and sustainability are inextricably linked.
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Sustainability is more than just a trend for restaurants and other businesses in the food and drink industry. For innovative chefs, restaurateurs and winery owners, it’s a core philosophy. Whether it’s how food is sourced, how a restaurant is designed or how a community is centred, there are business owners across the country doing their part to show peers and conscientious diners what’s possible if you refuse to stick with the status quo. Here, three boundary-pushing leaders in Canada’s culinary scene share their sustainable practices.

Grá
Ross Ferry, Cape Breton Island, N.S.

If you’re one of the lucky 25 folks who can secure a seat for dinner at Grá, you’ll experience a true farm-to-table experience. The restaurant itself is on the farm property of owner and chef Cherie Swift, whose approach to food is guided by the belief that “everybody should experience fresh produce and see where their food comes from.”

Swift uses organic principles in her farming. “We don’t use any pesticides, so our grass has weeds in it, as does my garden. We try to control the weeds naturally,” she says. “And when I start dealing with a new supplier or somebody who’s growing something around here, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘How do you grow the produce?’ Because I don’t want anything that has been sprayed with pesticides to be put on a plate and served.”

Left: Grá is a 25-seat restaurant on the farm property of owner and chef Cherie Swift, who believes "everybody should experience fresh produce and see where their food comes from."
Right: Swift carefully plans Grá's menus to avoid food waste; any unavoidable scraps go to the farm's chickens and pigs.

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At Grá, sustainability extends beyond how ingredients are grown or produced; Swift has set a target of zero waste for her restaurant operations – and she’s close to achieving it.

One tactic she uses to meet this goal is being very intentional with her reservation system.

“I cut off reservations the day before the actual date of the dinner so I know exactly how many people are coming,” she says. By doing this, she stocks only what she will use. “Everything is picked fresh from my farm or picked up fresh; I go out the morning of my dinner service to pick up what I need, and the goal is to get 70 per cent of the produce from my farm. If I have 25 people coming, I know I need 25 of each item. And I’ve got six courses – I’ve set my menu so I work out of a regular-sized fridge.”

Of course, a little food waste is unavoidable, but Swift has a plan to use that, too. “Because of how the menu and supplies are planned, the little bit of food waste that we do have goes back to the farm animals as feed. Any food waste in the kitchen while I’m prepping will go either to the chickens or the pigs, and the cow will eat bread waste,” she says.

With each evening’s work contained, Swift is able to cook everything fresh — and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I believe when you pick something out of a garden, it changes every minute after it’s been picked; the flavour, the aroma, everything changes,” she says. “I believe the same when you cook something. Anybody knows if you reheat a piece of chicken, it’s not the same as when you first made it. The texture is different, the taste is different.”

The time it takes for her to prepare and cook each course is time she hopes guests treasure. “Those 15 to 20 minutes between courses give guests a bit of a break and an opportunity to reconnect with the people they came with,” she says.

Miss Bāo Restaurant + Cocktail Bar
Kingston, Ont.

Bellen Tong had been working in the hospitality industry for more than 10 years before she opened the Kingston, Ont. restaurant and cocktail bar Miss Bāo with her co-founder (and husband) Zach Fang. “I often saw problems with restaurants and recycling, waste, equality and equal pay. I always had people telling me that it’s not possible to change things. That food waste, not recycling or composting, is the norm for the industry. People always say, ‘Oh, it’s just the way it is,’” she says.

But they knew from the start that there were sustainability decisions they were not willing to compromise on. “We decided to make things as simple as possible, and to see how far we could go with challenging these norms and creating a zero-waste restaurant.”

Left: At Kingston, Ont.'s Miss Bāo, sustainability extends to the restaurant's design. Instead of buying pre-made furniture from big box stores, co-founder Bellen Tong tasked local artisans to make all the wood panels, cabinetry and even the bar.
Right: The restaurant works directly with local producers to source their vegetables – and minimize packaging waste.

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Environmentally responsible decisions were made for everything from interior design to the menu. Instead of buying furniture and cabinetry that had been pre-made overseas, the co-founders approached local carpenters who made all of their wood panels, cabinetry and the bar in Napanee, Ont., less than an hour away from their Kingston location. Another thing they considered was the end life of each item, given the wear and tear that happens with high traffic in restaurants.

“We have these pendant lights that are actually made from cardboard, so at their end life we can recycle them. Our tables, made in Mississauga, are wood, so they can be repurposed and the material given another life,” Tong says.

Her team has worked directly with local suppliers as well to minimize packaging. “Take lettuce, which often comes packaged in plastic: We look for farmers or suppliers who can offer these products in a tote bin or recyclable cardboard box,” she says. The restaurant has strong relationships with local farms, such as Main Street Urban Farm, which is located just a 15-minute bike ride from the restaurant. “We get most of our vegetables here and they use reusable totes for us. Every time we get a tote full of vegetables, we swap it with the tote from the last delivery.”

Thanks to these relationships, in summer, the kitchen is about to source 85 per cent of its ingredients in Ontario, 45 per cent from the Kingston area.

And diners enjoy a concise menu with some intentional wording in each dish’s description. The Thai Red Curry, for instance, comes with “seasonal vegetables.” Tong explains the decision: “We don’t specify what we’ll serve with the dish so that we can use whatever is available at the time. It’s just one more step to reduce our waste.”

40 Knots Winery
Comox, B.C.

Sustainability informs every decision Layne Robert Craig makes about 40 Knots Winery, which he co-owns with his wife, Brenda Hetman-Craig – but decisions are made to benefit more than just the grapes his team is growing.

“We put community first here. Without community, I’m just a person with a lot of grapes. We have to build our business so that we help create sustainability in the community,” Craig says.

Optimization is a guiding principle – whether it’s electricity or water. From LED lights to installing automatic sensors so the light goes on only when it needs to, “we have to create a sustainability practice economically within our business, so that we can keep our employees and our community engaged and donate, with time and money, to our community,” Craig says.

Waste is addressed throughout the process of wine production: Workers hand pick the grapes, minimize the use of lifting equipment and reduce water usage by using high-pressure steam or high-pressure water to clean and sanitize their equipment.

Left: 40 Knots Winery's owners Layne Robert Craig and Brenda Hetman-Craig prioritize sustainability in all areas, from reducing water and electricity to only using eco-friendly sanitizers.
Right: One method of saving energy: workers at 40 Knots hand-pick the winery's grapes.

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“We also only use sanitizers that can go back into our ecosystem – no bleach hydrocarbon products or acids,” Craig says. “I’m only 600 or 700 meters from the ocean, so it’s going to get there. The process is much more labour intensive, but we’re keeping [it] as simple as possible, which has allowed us to create sustainability in our economics and create a premium product.”

When it comes to events, community also leads the way. “We are always trying to find something that makes sense to do here, something that doesn’t take away from anyone else,” he says. 40 Knots’ Wine Wednesday events, which include music and food, for example, were specifically created to not compete with restaurants, which see most of their traffic on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. “I don’t want to take away from other businesses, we want to complement them.”

The winery prides itself on being a welcoming space for everyone, too. Every year they invite community members to participate in the harvest, and pay them for their help. “We don’t believe in harvesters volunteering,” Craig says. They even have someone in his 90s who participates. And the winery is Rainbow Registered, meaning it meets Canada’s Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce requirements for inclusive practices.

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