Meet the restaurateurs doing their bit for the environment

04 October 2007 by
Meet the restaurateurs doing their bit for the environment

After picking up widespread acclaim for their eco-friendly London restaurant Acorn House, Arthur Potts Dawson and Jamie Grainger-Smith haven't hung about in launching their second site, the Water House. Tom Vaughan meets two restaurateurs doing their bit to save the world - one restaurant at a time

"Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little." Standing on the site of their next restaurant, I put this quotation from statesman Edmund Burke to Arthur Potts Dawson and Jamie Grainger-Smith in relation to all those eateries that are ignorant of environmental issues. "You're right," says Potts Dawson with characteristic conviction. "People aren't doing enough. They haven't got a fucking clue. They're stuck in the wilderness because there are no answers. You just have to do the best you can. And that's what we're doing, we're a test case and we're looking for solutions."

As he rightly suggests, Potts Dawson and Grainger-Smith are different. A year after opening Acorn House to general acclaim because of its stringent environmental policy, they're on the verge of launching their second site, Water House in Hoxton. It's due to open its doors in the next few weeks and, in their own words, will be even greener than the last.

Potts Dawson, executive head chef at Acorn House, and Grainger-Smith, restaurant director, first had the idea for Acorn House two years ago. The pair had worked together at Fifteen, and were keen to see a restaurant that reflected their beliefs. Grainger-Smith had acquired contacts with charitable regeneration agency the Shoreditch Trust and the group went into discussion over opening a restaurant to help serve the local community, housed in an unused building owned by partnering charity the Terrence Higgins Trust. The pair were keen so long as they could stamp their ideology on it. The rest, as they say, is history. Acorn House opened in November 2006 in King's Cross, with a commitment to a meticulous environmental policy and an aim of opening a training school to teach new chefs these beliefs.

Within six months it had been named Observer Food Monthly Restaurant of the Year, and labelled a business "all restaurants should emulate" by the London Evening Standard‘s Fay Maschler, and "the most important restaurant to open in the last 200 years" by Giles Coren of the Times.

Recently, says Potts Dawson, a journalist came to interview the pair and asked them why they had jumped on the green bandwagon. "I felt like slapping her," he says.

And quite rightly. In a climate when every business is happy to shout about its green efforts, often with little substance, these two are driving the movement rather than making shallow boasts. The comment grated so badly because empty claims to greenness drive Potts Dawson to distraction. "Shops claim to have ‘gone green' in their adverts," he says. "All it means is you can buy an organic sandwich, wrapped in a load of packaging, stuck in a massive fridge. People are making a shit-load out of this so-called green movement. It's boring. The sooner it calms down the better."

But surely the pair are themselves reaping the benefits of being popularly known as green, especially as they're the new darlings of the press? Not so. All profits from Acorn House go back into the Shoreditch Trust. The environmental aspect isn't some clever marketing vehicle. "We've been green all our lives," says Grainger-Smith. "Carrying it over into a restaurant was just obvious."

When Acorn House opened it sported initiatives such as composting bins, an urban vegetable garden, a ban on mineral water, and sustainably sourced energy. The Water House is going a step further. It's positioned on the banks of a canal, and a heat-transference system sunk into the water (to the restaurant's bespoke design) will provide hot and cold water. Hot water is pumped into pipes in the floor, cold water into pipes in the ceiling and the meeting of the two in the middle creates an ambient climate for the restaurant, cutting out the need for air conditioning. The kitchen is entirely electric (induction to boot), powered by hydroelectricity sourced from Scotland. The fridges are all water-based, saving 30% on power. Rain is collected for the grey water system and the toilets are all low-usage.

Can you spot the theme? "The whole place is run off water," says Grainger-Smith. "The heating, the electricity - everything. There's not one bit of fossil fuel being burnt." Hence the name: Water House. Even their vegetable delivery comes in an electric Toyota Prius van and they're laying the gauntlet down to their remaining two suppliers to omit fossil fuels from the delivery process. "Show me another restaurant in the world that doesn't give off a carbon emission. I bet you there isn't one," says Potts Dawson.

Further initiatives are also planned. As he strides around the concrete shell of the new 68-seat restaurant which, if all goes to plan, will be the finished article in two months' time, Potts Dawson indicates the planned locations of the vegetable shelves, reducing the need for fridges, the sustainably sourced tables (made from fallen trees) and the composting and dehydrating bins. With only one entrance to the site, might this mean chefs dragging compost past seated diners? "I quite like the fact that we can take rubbish past the diners," Potts Dawson says. "We've got nothing to be ashamed of."

The plan is to use the compost on the vegetable gardens scattered around the council flats and office space that sit beside the restaurant. Another aim is to moor a barge in front of the restaurant's waterside terrace, creating an improvised space for growing vegetables just as an unused roof served a similar purpose at Acorn House.

What's noticeable, as the pair elaborate, is the lack of those green buzz words "recycling" and "organic". The reason is simple - they're no-brainers, simple actions that should be done whatever the circumstances. "A diner asked me the other day why we didn't cite on our menu that all our produce was organic," says Potts Dawson. "I replied that it wasn't worth listing as all food should be - regardless."

It's a likeable fact about Acorn House that, despite its green credentials, it never rams the message down people's throats. Messages aren't pinned to the walls if you want to know where the electricity comes from you have to ask. It goes about its business like a normal restaurant, but in an eco-friendly way, with the aim of proving, in Potts Dawson's words, that "it can easily be achieved".

And it certainly has been achieved. The original business plan required a bedding-in period of 18 months before Acorn House started to make any real money. But within six months the 68-seat restaurant was comfortably covering its costs, serving up 750 covers a week in the busier months, with an average spend of £18 at lunch and £34 at dinner.

The food is best described as British, with a high emphasis on native produce, seasonality and sustainability - Potts Dawson won't touch a fish unless it's been approved as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. When I visited in May the menu featured early summer's windfall - mackerel, spring lamb, English asparagus, baby leeks - the dishes full with clean flavours and unfussy presentation. The food at Water House, the pair say, will be even simpler and the menu slightly shorter.

It would be interesting to know how much energy the restaurant has saved, I say, but no audit had been done on the building for 10 years as it had lain unused, so there's no comparison point. And anyway, Potts Dawson points out, how much energy was saved is slightly beside the point. A restaurant kitchen will still give off huge amounts of it at Acorn House it's all sustainably sourced.

Set-up costs have been kept low for both sites. With both buildings having been provided, the pair estimate costs to be about £500,000 each. "You don't have to go into huge buildings and spend millions to create a good restaurant," says Potts Dawson.

The locations of the two restaurants in regeneration areas are intrinsic aspects of the set-ups, but this was largely overlooked in the press coverage of Acorn House in favour of the green initiatives. The restaurant works closely with the local council and community, especially the Calthorpe Project community centre and environmental children's charity Global Generation. Groups come along on Saturdays and, in Potts Dawson's words, taste pasta, chop veg and learn about work in a restaurant. Two schools have approached them to see if they could send pupils along for educational mornings. The restaurant's roof garden was built by young offenders on a local scheme.

The Water House is in an area far more desperate for regeneration than Acorn House. The restaurant is surrounded by council housing, boxed in with metal grilles to keep tenants safe. The hope is that Water House will provide a focal point for this community - a place where mothers can grab a bowl of porridge in the morning, where children can come to learn about fresh vegetables, or where disillusioned youths can apply to get on the NVQ training schemes they're running. Maybe, says Potts Dawson, the restaurant can help arrange fresh vegetable boxes for local residents if there's enough interest.

It's only a small operation and it's doing a small proportion in the wider scheme of community work - there's only so many fresh vegetable boxes a small team can organise. But it's working to the best of its ability, and it's clear that at the core of the operation lies a heart of gold. "The other day a gentleman came into Acorn House towards the end of lunch who was, shall we say, down on his luck," says Potts Dawson. "He asked for something hot and I told him to wait a mo while I went to get some leftover soup. A diner stopped me and asked what the hell a tramp was doing in here. The whole idea of a restaurant as helping to feed people has disappeared through the years. I'm not saying we're a soup kitchen but we're here to help the community."

The training scheme - NVQ levels 2 and 3 - is contributing to this community commitment. At Acorn House there are already five trainees and another five are being sought. The difficulties of administration and the requirements of the course have meant it has taken longer than anticipated to get up and running. Now they've tackled these teething problems, they hope to have trainees in the Water House within six months of opening.

Potts Dawson anticipates a huge demand for his trainees once they've qualified - particularly because of the sustainable methods and practices they're being taught. "It'll be like the old days of the River Café when every chef that came out of their kitchen was snapped up quickly as other restaurants wanted to know the secret of its success," he says. "It's been like that so far with chefs who've left Acorn House. People want to know what we're doing to get such respect."

But creating that demand is part of the plan, Potts Dawson points out. The aim is for these alumni to spread out and slowly change the restaurant industry's attitude to the environment. "You can't do something unless you believe in it," he says. "I've seen restaurants paying lip service to being eco-friendly but they're not really. I'd like to see that change."

What does the future hold for the pair? Other restaurant sites are definitely on the cards, and not just in north London, but elsewhere in the capital and, eventually, outside it. With all the media coverage they've also attracted a few requests to consult on new restaurants, but they're keen to focus their energies on their own projects at present. "One guy asked us to consult on a new restaurant in the Seychelles," laughs Potts Dawson. "But how do the people get there? They fly. How does the food get there? It flies. No thanks, we said."

After the Water House opens, the costs of financing so many trainees will mean an urgent need for sponsorship. "Maybe you could put that in your article," Potts Dawson suggests. "It doesn't matter how little they contribute, just to help train this new wave of green chefs." All right, I agree. And anyway, as Burke said, doing a little is better than doing nothing…

Green initiatives at Water House

  • Heat-transference system - using the neighbouring canal's temperature to provide hot and cold water that can also be used to create an ambient temperature in the restaurant, cutting out the need for air conditioning.
  • Composting and dehydrating - all old food is composted and used on the vegetable beds.
  • Filtered and bottled tap water - offered to customers if they don't want normal tap water
  • Hydroelectric power - sourced for the all-electric kitchen, which in turn cuts out the burning of any fossil fuels.
  • Delivery of vegetables is in a Toyota Prius electric van.
  • Recycling of as much waste as possible.
  • Energy-saving light bulbs.
  • Shelf-storage of vegetables cuts out need for a walk-in fridge.
  • Restaurant is chemical-free - only biological enzymes are used.
  • Non-chemical paint is used on the walls.
  • Furniture is bought from sustainable sources.

Acorn House
69 Swinton Street
London WC1X 9NT
Tel 020 7812 1842

Water House
10 Orsman Road, Hoxton
London N1 5QJ

The greenest pub in England?

Pub chain JD Wetherspoons last week opened a flagship green pub in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, designed to use 50% less energy than other sites. The Kettleby Cross cost £3m to build, compared with usual costs of about £1.3m for a non-green pub of the same size.

Features include a ground-source heat pump to help supply underfloor heating and cooling, camouflaged solar panels on the roof that will provide a minimum 33% of the energy used to heat the pub's hot water, double the amount of insulation required by law, a wind turbine to help supply electricity, rainwater-harvesting, heat-recovery systems that will provide at least 10% of the hot water in the pub and numerous other systems and devices to ensure the 50% energy-saving target is achieved.

The idea is to monitor which devices work best for the pub, with a view to fitting them as standard to new pubs.

"Once this has been done we can see which ones are suitable for pubs in the future and which ones we can use in our current pubs," says Wetherspoon's new developments consultant Chris Large.

Read story in full here >>

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