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An open letter: What sustainability means to chefs

Eat Out and Woolworths hosted the first of two sustainability workshop in Cape Town this week – a space for producers, farmers and chefs to share their ideas on what it means to eat sustainably. One of the speakers was respected chef and well-known forager Chris Erasmus, head chef of Foliage in Franschhoek (currently number 13 in South Africa).

Chef Chris Erasmus. Photo supplied.

Ahead of the workshop, chef Chris asked his team an important question: “What does sustainability mean to you? What do you want the industry leaders to know about how we think about our food?” They then composed and read out this open letter.

I remember in the late 90s, imports were flooding into our country. Chefs were cooking with foie gras, black truffles and frozen dredged scallops. It was exciting, in a sense, to use what we thought was the best Europe had to offer. Little knowing how much we had on our doorsteps and what the carbon footprint was on all these exotic imports.

Luckily it is now frowned upon by many peers if there is excessive use of imported and out-of-season products on your menu. [However,] It is still the norm for many chefs to just reach out to a supplier – a quick phone call and they can have almost anything they are willing to pay for.

What if we only ate tomatoes when they were in season? Will our lives fall apart? What happened to regional produce and cooking? I wouldn’t go and eat with Kobus on the West Coast [at Wolfgat] and expect porcini mushrooms from the forests of Franschhoek – luckily, this would never happen.


So why is it that there are all these out-of-season products available in our restaurants and supermarkets? Because we as consumers create the demand and they simply supply. If there was no demand for (beef) fillet, it would not commercially exist. What happened to all the cheeks and trotters? Have we forgotten how to eat?

It all happened a few million years ago, when foragers started growing their own food, attracting larger groups of people together and forming towns. It all became about convenience. There was a tradesman for each job, and people started to lose basic skills. You wouldn’t expect your doctor to know how to farm.

inside at Foliage

Foliage. Photo by Claire Gunn.

I don’t believe we can go back to being [truly] ‘sustainable’ and live in harmony with Mother Earth again, with the global population and food systems [that are now] in place. It’s way too late, but we can all do our part to soften the blow on the environment.

Teach your children to grow vegetables. It’s up to us to arm them with knowledge and skills, so they can fix our mistakes.

Awarded to one sustainable restaurant leading the pack in South Africa, the 2019 Eat Out Woolworths Sustainability Award forms part of the annual Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards. Enter now using the easily navigable form.

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