His Bars Don't Harm The Earth? We'll Drink To That!
When it comes to practicing sustainability in the food and beverage industry, no one walks the talk more than Vijay Mudaliar. The founder of the award-winning Native bar and restaurant, and plant-based bar Analogue has long been a revolutionary in showing the world what we can do to be better to our environment. We talk to him about how we can make small improvements in our consumption habits and why it matters that we each contribute in any way we can.
Did you start Native with a sustainability approach in mind?
Sustainability has always been a part of what we do. It just made more sense and was natural for us. Like, when we first started, we used to measure our trash and recycle everything we could. We repurpose ingredients, find uses for side cuts and started our own composting programme.
I just wanted to work in a healthier, cleaner, more purposeful environment. I was always curious about ingredients and like to look at them in a different way. For example, people peel the skins of cucumbers and throw them away. I dried and blended the skins to a powder and found that they had this matcha flavour which really piqued my curiosity. So, I try to be excited about the entire produce (when I work with it).
How has that evolved?
We definitely look at things differently. At Native, we push the idea of local… like using local ingredients and supporting local farmers. We now have a restaurant, which gives us a wider reach (in terms of using) local and regional produce. We used to make only make cocktails with the ingredients, but now we can use local fish from Ah Hua Kelong or organically farmed chicken.
How is Analogue’s approach different from Native’s?
At Analogue, we look at the top of the food system. We wanted to explore what would happen if we try to nip the problems at the top of the food chain – get rid of over-farming, look at accessibility and the materials used in the venue… because construction uses a lot of greenhouse gases. We looked at over-farming and found that beef, pork, milk, fish, and eggs are all over-farmed. So why even eat off-cuts of beef when you can just eat cabbage?
At Analogue, our bar is 3D printed and made of 1,600kg of recycled plastic. We are just one venue. What if every F&B venue or building could use recycled plastic? Then the plastic wouldn’t end up in landfills. So, we try to look at everything through a different lens.
How can F&B establishments improve on the sustainability front?
Energy is one of the ways we could improve. I would love to incorporate solar elements like solar panels in our establishments. Also, the idea of the amount of plastics we get in our supply chain is stressful. But we’ve shown that plastic is not evil if you make it a means to an end. It’s a perfect material because it doesn’t go away. But there’s not enough of a closed loop if you have a plastic bowl which you just throw into the recycling bin.
It’ll be nice to have more support in terms of our composting. As an example: In San Francisco, the whole city has a composting system. There needs to be more of a bigger initiative in our city. In Sydney, a couple of bars get together to do industrial composting, which goes to the soil for the farmers.
Here in Singapore, the compost could go to our neighbouring countries where we get our supply. We are not 100 per cent locally sustainable and it’s time we invest in the people we get our produce from instead of just taking.
Why does it matter that F&B businesses practice sustainability?
People look up to top restaurants and bars to see what they do and how they do things. In a country like Singapore, where people love to eat out, we have a huge responsibility to show people how things should be done. We consume and deliver more than in homes, so we should lead the way.
What are some obvious examples of the effects of climate change that prove we must take better care of the Earth?
The weather. In Singapore you can feel it; it’s been insanely warm. Globally, you can feel it’s getting worse – oceans [rising], ice caps [melting], [dwindling] water supply… Global food scarcity is growing too quickly because the demand is so high. And that’s why a lot of things are not farmed sustainably, because they need to get it out quick and fast.
Are we getting the right information about the “sustainable” produce that we buy?
There is a lot of greenwashing of things that are not sustainable, but because of the demand, restaurants jump into it. Like, what is sustainable foie gras? There’s no such thing. There’s lot of misguided information going out to customers. A lot of things are labelled organic, but there’s no background check. A lot of [these products] have no certification, but it’s out there. It costs US$10,000 just to certify one produce organic. That’s not helpful because it promotes monoculture which is not a good way of farming. Rather, you want a lot of crops surrounding and supporting each other.
How easy or difficult is it to practice sustainability in our personal eating and drinking habits?
For starters, try to bring your own bags and include a lot more veggies in your diet. Look at labels, do some cross checking, look at the history of the farms that you might buy from. Try to be more supportive of local farms, although there aren’t many here. These small things help quite a bit.
Also, I think we can be more open to things we are not familiar with and recognise that most green stuff costs more. But it makes more sense to spend a bit more on, for example, bamboo straws, which are more expensive than plastic.
Sometimes I feel [premium ingredients like] caviar, tuna and wagyu have become a requirement at restaurants. What does sustainable caviar even mean? You’re cutting up a fish for its roe. So don’t just look at foie gras, caviar and uni… be a bit more open to other choices.
We have a drink called Cactus at Analogue where everything in it is made from the cactus, like prickly pear, mezcal and dragon fruit. We might be eating a lot of cactus in the future because it can withstand heat. So our food source and supply might be a bit different in the next 10 years.