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Hong Kong’s top sustainability champions on the future of dining

As we increasingly reflect on the relationship between food and sustainability, we talk to five people – Richard Ekkebus, Peggy Chan, Roman Ghale, Avni Jhunjhnuwala and Ashley Salmon – who are making waves in Hong Kong’s restaurant and hospitality industries, about the present and future of dining out.

Whether it’s a trendy coffee shop, a neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall, a fine-dining establishment or a cocktail bar, millions of people escape to restaurants every day to eat and socialise. In Hong Kong, more than in most global metropolises, dining out is an integral part of the urban culture. With more restaurants per capita than most places in the world, the industry makes a substantial contribution to the local economy.

At the same time, its impact on carbon emissions, waste generation and biodiversity can’t be ignored. “Being sustainable, as everyone here knows, is very expensive and I don’t think it’s accessible to most restaurants, which need support from the top,” says Ashley Salmon, head chef of Roganic, while talking with the other interviewees on the morning of our photoshoot. “The damage that’s been done took generations,” adds Avni Jhunjhnuwala, brand manager of Ovolo Hotels, “and it’s gonna take even longer to undo it. As Ashley said, it needs to happen at an institutional level. Sustainability is now a luxury but it needs to become easier.”

Roman Ghale, Ashley Salmon and Peggy Chan

Although the task at hand is undeniably overwhelming, there’s a palpable sense of positivity in the room. “Currently, we’re measuring everything on productivity and we’re using the fiscal capital to measure how successful we are,” says Peggy Chan, founder of Zero Foodprint Asia and Grassroots Initiatives. “Down the line we need to measure success on social and environmental activism too – we need to figure out how we can actually do that.”

As, at last, we begin to envision a post-pandemic future with no restrictions, there’s a collective sense of urgency that we should do better and in minimising the impact of our actions on the planet. The food-and-beverage industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, not only in Hong Kong but around the world, can lead by example by shifting the perspective on what good food is actually about.

Richard Ekkebus, Culinary Director at Amber

Sustainability Richard Ekkebus
Richard Ekkebus

Since founding Amber at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in 2005, Richard Ekkebus has worked on changing the concept of what fine dining means. “It’s a little bit of a preconceived idea in fine dining that you can only have a certain cut of the fish or meat and that vegetables should be cut into a triangle or square,” he tells me. “We need to change that perception. Fine dining isn’t about cutting things in different shapes – and particularly not when you can’t use the waste that it produces.”

At Amber, Ekkebus and his brigade have implemented what he calls “a serious waste-management system”, which involves weighing and segregating every type of wastage, every day. This process is one of many intended to make the two-Michelin-star establishment more sustainable. Over the years, Ekkebus has also introduced a growing number of vegan and vegetarian choices, departing from old-school, animal-protein-heavy menus. He says it’s a choice that’s proved successful in attracting a younger clientele.

“It’s super-daunting to [try to be sustainable] on your own. I’d recommend entering an organisation such as Food Made Good, which can help you, assist you and point you in the right direction,” he explains. “The only problem in Hong Kong is that, unfortunately, businesses are still not measured on their output in waste. If there were financial incentives, as in other countries, businesses would need to make these changes.”

Ekkebus passionately believes that “change comes from above. Restaurants like Amber can drive change. The movement is gaining momentum all over the world – even Eleven Madison Park went vegan.”

On a personal level, Ekkebus has long been environmentally conscious. “Coming from a part of Holland where we’ve had to deal with deadly floods ever since I was a kid,” he says, “I was always aware of the effects of global warming. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I was, in a way, shocked by the opulence of this city and the lack of understanding towards a lifestyle that’s not sustainable at all.”

Ashley Salmon, Head Chef of Roganic Hong Kong

sustainability salmon
Ashley Salmon

In Britain, Simon Rogan, who’s known for both his farm and successful fine-dining restaurants, is a leading figure in the farm-to-table movement, which has taken the country by storm over the past 20 years. In Hong Kong, Roganic centres around the same philosophy of seasonality and responsible sourcing.

Helmed by chef Ashley Salmon, the one-Michelin- star establishment recently garnered another accolade that solidifies its message and mission: the city’s first Michelin Green Star. “We achieved the award by carrying out Simon’s philosophy of real farm-to-table as much as possible and reducing passive food waste,” Salmon explains. “It’s quite hard in Hong Kong, because the land space is very limited, but it’s all about working closely with farms and, most importantly, supporting the right practices, because there are a lot of producers that do things the wrong way.”

For Salmon, being a fine-dining chef carries responsibilities. He says that given the platform and the resources at his disposal, it’s a duty to make an effort and embrace sustainability for the future of the younger generations, the dining world and the planet.

“We tend to use a lot more local fish than meat – and though we do use meat, which is usually for one or two dishes on the menu, it’s locally sourced pork, chicken or duck,” Salmon explains as I ask him about the challenges of creating an elevated menu based on seasonality. “When using a vegetable, we try to take out all its depth through different textures and flavours and while we’re not trying to lecture our guests on our philosophy, we try to use our platform to showcase and elevate our products.”

Salmon is what you’d call a “reducetarian”. Although he doesn’t believe that the whole world should – or will ever be – vegan, he does firmly advocate for reducing the consumption of animal proteins while focusing on quality and the way they’re produced.

“In order to see a permanent change in the industry, it needs to come from the top,” he explains. “Restaurants need funding, because it’s expensive to be sustainable. Even investing in better agricultural practices could result in better options in the kitchen – or stricter rules on overfishing, for example.”

As we talk about biodegradable toilet paper, the restaurant’s collection of home-pickled herbs and vegetables, local pork and other – seemingly small – things that make Roganic what it is today, Salmon brings up the interesting connection between sustainability and mental health.

“This is a big thing for me. Our approach to sustainability needs to start with offering a good working life for our staff,” he tells me. “This industry is tough and incredibly stressful. It’s not just about food, it’s about looking after your team, the work environment and mental well-being, so that everyone can actually work together to be sustainable and make a difference.”

Avni Jhunjhnuwala, Brand Manager at Ovolo Hotels

Avni Jhunjhnuwala sustainability
Avni Jhunjhnuwala

Coming from a family of successful entrepreneurs, Avni Jhunjhnuwala knows that nothing in business is as easy as it sounds. As brand manager of Ovolo Hotels, the hospitality group her father founded in Hong Kong in 2010 and later expanded to Australia, she’s experienced the challenges and rewards of implementing disruptive changes at first hand.

“I naïvely used to think that when people said, ‘We’ll go sustainable by 2025 or by 2030,’ they were just not being fair, because you could do it by tomorrow or sooner,” she tells me. “Only when we started looking into it, I realised that making it a habit requires a massive commitment. It’s a journey and we’re in it right now.”

Beginning with menus, and then continuing with operations and other initiatives, the brand is adapting to a new normal. Even one of the city’s most popular dining establishments – an Indian restaurant that Jhunjhnuwala’s mother founded years ago – was rebranded to fit into the company’s evolution.

“My mom started Veda almost 20 years ago as a modern Indian restaurant,” she explains. “After closing it down in 2008 when we were looking at food concepts for Ovolo Central, which is on the same road where the old Veda was, we figured that it would be nice for it to come full circle and reopen it as an adult concept.”

Veda 2.0, which opened in 2019, is now a fully vegetarian, modern eatery that embraces the family tradition of bringing out flavours with spices, rather than being based around meat or fish. The philosophy behind it is to create satisfying meals for everyone by elevating “humble vegetables” without using any plant-based meat alternatives.

“The other challenge is to be sustainable while being vegetarian, because the supply chain is where the majority of the problem lies,” Jhunjhnuwala says. “In Hong Kong, the local produce is limited and importing a lot of ingredients automatically brings down your sustainability score. That’s why we’ve been working with Food Made Good to know exactly how to improve and continue our journey.”

Last October, Ovolo launched Year of the Veg, a forward- thinking initiative that made all the group’s hotel menus menus vegetarian. “It was a big experiment – we were the first group to do that,” she says. “We’ve gained a lot of exposure through that exercise, and we want to continue doing it.”

Peggy Chan, Executive Director of Zero Foodprint Asia and Founder of Grassroots Initiatives

sustainability peggy chan
Peggy Chan

Throughout her career as a plant-based chef and sustainability advocate, Peggy Chan has been one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable names in the industry who actively addresses climate change and the city’s systemic issues.

“We’re all part of the problem and therefore we need to all become part of the solution. With [her now-defunct] Grassroots Pantry, we wanted to use the restaurant platform as a way to engage with customers and the greater food industry to showcase how delicious plant-based food can be,” she tells me. “Once I succeeded in getting that normalised, we started Grassroots Initiatives, which is a consultancy.”

An animal lover and environmentalist, Chan began this journey at a young age by integrating her passions for nature and cooking. Most recently, she brought Zero Foodprint, a non-profit organisation that aims to mobilise the food world around agricultural climate solutions, to Asia.

“For everything that I’ve built – businesses, social enterprises and now the NGO – the whole idea is to help our industry and recognise that we’re all accountable and we all need to be part of the solution,” Chan says. “I think everyone in the world is resetting and re-learning how to be more – I don’t want to use the word ‘sustainable’. I’ve stopped using it because we can’t continue to sustain our world – our climate is degrading at a speed that is unfathomable.”

For Chan, exposure to how the climate crisis is killing people and animals, and destroying forests and biodiversity, together with accountability for one’s actions, are key to finding and implementing realistic solutions for the present and future of that planet. In other words, she stresses, a more radical approach is needed.

“There’s not much time left. Instead of thinking about sustaining the planet, we need to really be restoring or regenerating it,” she says. “Hence, the whole goal of Zero Foodprint is to help transition our farmers from industrialised systems to regenerative ones, and to take care of the land without chemicals and artificial fertilisers.”

Roman Ghale, Co-founder of Penicillin

sustainability  roman ghale
Roman Ghale

Last Spring, Penicillin was awarded the Ketel One Sustainable Award by Asia’s 50 Best. Since it opened last year, the city’s first sustainability-focused bar took the industry by storm by combining a socially conscious, powerful message with a trendy concept that attracts people of all ages.

Penicillin’s co-founder Roman Ghale says that the idea came from both his family and that of his business partner, Agung Prabowo. “During the pandemic, we had more time to think. Seeing a lot of bars closing and businesses being so affected, we sat down and thought about what Hong Kong was missing.”

At the beginning, he admits that it was hard even to approach the largely unexplored idea of farm-to-bar. It took a lot of learning and research for Ghale and Probowo to be able to implement and rigorously operate innovative techniques of minimising waste.

“It’s very important for us to work with our neighbouring establishments in the industry. We ask restaurants that are close to us to give us their waste,” he explains. “For instance, we collect, brush up and disinfect the oyster shells from our friends at Honky Tonks Tavern and put them in whisky,” he says of the oyster-infused whisky being used in one of their cocktails.

Engaging with the community and making the most out of every ingredient, with a meticulous and almost scientific approach, are at Penicillin’s core. More than anything, the bar, which was created by two fathers, aims to be a catalyst for change and an incentive to leave a better world for the next generations.

“It’s impossible to achieve 100 percent sustainability in Hong Kong,” says Ghale, “but we’re trying really hard to achieve at least 80 percent,” pointing out that it’s even harder in a city where products from almost everywhere on the planet are readily available. “We’re very committed to this project because we’re very passionate about it. That’s why we collaborate with other people in industry as well as everyone in the local community to improve collectively. It starts at home, at the supermarket, everywhere.”

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