'Chefs don't realise they have an impact on biodiversity'

29 March 2024 by

Chefs are more influential than they think on a supply chain that leads from the diner right back to the biological health of the planet

Biodiversity – the plants, animals, bacteria and fungi with which we share the planet – is in crisis. Globally, only 30 crops account for 95% of our energy intake, and only four (rice, wheat, maize and potato) supply 60%. The UK has one of the lowest levels of biodiversity in all of Europe, according to a study published in the journal Ambio.

Industrial production methods and the ease of sourcing food from overseas are also reasons the UK is losing its traditional food and drink, along with its specialist knowledge and expertise – not to mention different flavours, choice and unusual and interesting ingredients to cook with. So the decisions chefs make in the kitchen about what to use and where they buy it from are key.

"Chefs don't realise they have an impact on biodiversity," says Chris Rowley, executive chef and owner of Ballintaggart, a hotel and restaurant in rural Perthshire. "[But] chefs are very influential tellers of food stories. Through their restaurants and cookbooks, and on TV and radio, they are able to shape tastes and raise our awareness on a whole host of issues."

Simply choosing what to have on a menu affects biodiversity, and chefs can be the instigators behind setting food trends that can bring forgotten ingredients back to the fore.

"There have always been unexplored cuts of meat that are considered ‘lower grade' and chefs have been really brilliant in the past 50 years in completely switching that around," says Ned Burrell, chef and director of sustainability-focused Wilding Kitchen & Shop in Horsham. "The St John restaurants in London are a really good example of that – think how many people have put bone marrow on the menu since Fergus Henderson first did it in 1995."

The Wilding Kitchen & Shop opened last year within Burrell's family-owned Knepp Estate, itself the site of a pioneering rewilding programme. He says that chefs, especially those who use social media and have a huge following, have a responsibility to research their produce thoroughly.

When supply is sporadic, a flexible menu can accommodate what suppliers can provide. "The suppliers are the chaps writing your menus, not you," argues Neil Forbes, chef director at Cafe St Honoré in Edinburgh.

"Have the confidence to ask: ‘what should I be using this week? What's great? What's a good price? What have you got a glut of? And what have you just slaughtered?'"

He adds: "Once you have a laminated menu that never changes, that's when you've got a problem. That's when the mass catering butcher company is going to start inflating its prices."

Tell a sustainability story

One way of championing lesser-known ingredients is by explaining their presence on the menu so that customers understand the value of what they're getting.

Forbes tells the story of his produce through a weekly newsletter. "The newsletter goes out on a Sunday morning at 11am. By late afternoon there's been 30 bookings made on that day every week," he says. "We need to be promoting it – we are the PR at the coalface of selling this stuff to people. Once they've eaten it, they'll order it again at a restaurant or maybe look to buy it online."

However, there's a fine line between sharing your ingredients' provenance and being preachy. Burrell says: "Some people just want to come for lunch. You've got to be able to recognise that and not shove your story down their throat. The initial reaction of our customers is quite often that it's too expensive, and we've got to get better at telling that story and getting people into the restaurant. Once they're in and they've had the food, they understand completely, but it's trying to attract people without putting them off before they get to the door."

The key is to make it fun – for customers and teams – Rowley says that using alternative grains and flours challenges his chefs in the kitchen: "It makes their job more interesting – they can't just place bulk orders for mass-produced ingredients and churn them out. They have to think about it, and it gives them a chance to be a little bit creative."

Forbes, who often takes his team on supplier visits, agrees: "I want to enjoy what I do for a living," he says. "You can pick up the phone and get anything delivered tomorrow from all over the world... but that's boring."

And of course, the critical element is the taste. "What we're putting on the plate is the flavours," he says. "This rare breed stuff is unbelievably delicious. Once they understand the effort that has gone into breeding, growing or fishing, they understand and respect it more and treat it with a lighter hand."

Grow your own

The Contini group, led by Victor and Carina Contini, who own three restaurants and an events business in Edinburgh, cut out suppliers by growing their own produce. The family researched heritage ingredients (see panel), tapping into the knowledge of heritage product suppliers, engaged a horticulturalist and had a topographical survey done of the garden to understand the terroir. They now grow Musselburgh leeks and James Grieve and White Melrose apple varieties to use in its crumbles and chutneys.

"We're not growing massive amounts, but we're growing enough that we are able to showcase produce in the restaurant. And it's a talking point – there's a flavour that's probably more interesting than something that's just off the shelf," says Carina. "Our garden is as much a marketing exercise for us as it is production."

Paul Newman is chef patron at Errichel, a hill farm, bistro and deli with holiday cottages in Perthshire, and was named Scotland's Sustainable Chef of the Year 2022 by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. He keeps rare cows, sheep and pigs that he says: "would cease to exist if a few farmers didn't still breed them". He doesn't farm enough animals to sell meat commercially, so almost all of it is used in the restaurant, such as Shetland Kye, which is used to make biltong.

Straight to the source

For businesses that don't have access to a garden to grow their own – and even those that do – suppliers can be fonts of knowledge.

"To be able to tap into that level of knowledge through our suppliers is what it's all about," says Carina. However, she has seen that many have been forced to cease trading – and with them go their knowledge and products.

"It's a real problem on the smaller scale, where there is that level of knowledge and passion, but the economies of scale just don't make it work," she says.

Rowley agrees: "It's a lot harder and more time-consuming to source the way we do, to cook driven by seasons and to source locally and as well as possible. At the end of the evening, instead of phoning one or two suppliers to place your orders, we sometimes have to phone seven or eight, and quite often it's not as simple as phoning them, it's tracking them down and seeing what they have available.

"There's a real need to get restaurants and chefs to make responsible choices and consider environmental impact, not just bottom-line profit, which is difficult when you're running a business. But it is possible to do both. As an industry we've got a duty and a responsibility to do that."

Wendy Barrie, Scotland's Slow Food leader for the Ark of Taste (see panel) highlights that heritage ingredients aren't necessarily expensive. For example, Orkney bere, an ancient form of barley, can be added to loaves, scones and pastries to lend an interesting flavour "at not too much cost to the restaurant".

At the same time, the price must be sustainable for both the supplier and the operator. When Frederic Berkmiller, chef owner of L'Escargot Bleu in Edinburgh, had two restaurants, it was possible for him to buy a whole carcass of beef and split it between the two sites. Now, despite the closure of one of the sites, he's found a new cost-effective way to make it work: splitting a carcass so he has one half and the butcher keeps the other. However, he has found that using heritage ingredients is appreciated by customers who are willing to pay a little more: "If the consumer wants to learn about products and understand them, quite often they're willing to pay a premium.We are chefs, not teachers, but we can do our bit from our kitchens."

Forbes agrees: "It's important that we save these old ways of doing things, otherwise they're lost forever and that would be such a shame."

Scotland's Slow Food movement

Interest in Scotland's food heritage has been particularly active in recent years, thanks in no small part to Wendy Barrie, Scotland's Slow Food leader for the Ark of Taste, a catalogue of foods that are lesser known or face extinction, and Cooks' Alliance, which brings together cooks and chefs who want to preserve biodiversity and support small-scale producers. Her Scottish Food Guide lists local producers.

She says: "It's not about just fancying a different ingredient, it's about keeping those gene banks, whether they're living gene banks or seed banks, to allow us to cope with climate change and to give our bodies a better chance. Because there are so many foods that have been adulterated, diluted or pumped with water, that we're losing those valuable nutrients as well as the skills to cook them.

"And if we lose these things, we can't get them back."

Scotland's supply chain

Scotland Food & Drink is a membership organisation of 450 businesses that leads the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership, a collaboration of industry organisations and public sector agencies in Scotland. As well as spearheading the country's food tourism strategy, it has 19 regional food groups led by head of regional food Fiona Richmond.

"We need businesses of all shapes and sizes to support suppliers, as that's how change happens: if everyone gets behind these suppliers and finds a way to put their produce on their menus," she says.

Meanwhile, Scotland Rural College's SAC Consulting arm supports small, Scotland-based businesses through its Thrive programme.

"Supporting biodiversity is not an easy thing to do and all too often the chef has their head down with so many plates to get out the door," acknowledges principal consultant Ceri Ritchie. However, she highlights the marketing benefits of using local products and of building shorter, more resilient supply chains.

Biodiversity resources

*The Sustainable Restaurant Association

The association's #EatForTomorrow campaign champions an approach to hospitality that considers biodiversity and food loss.


Food Diversity Day

Dan Saladino, author of Eating to Extinction, which explores the world's most endangered foods, created Food Diversity Day in 2023, with talks and information from the day available online.


The Slow Food Foundation's Ark of Taste

The Ark of Taste is a catalogue of small-scale quality products threatened by industrial agriculture, environmental degradation and homogenisation. The products are at either imminent or potential risk of extinction. The UK currently has about 190 products in the catalogue.


The Rare Breeds Survival Trust

A conservation charity that aims to preserve the genetic resources of farm animals in the UK.


Scottish Food Guide

Campaigner Wendy Barrie's guide to ethical artisan produce and chefs across Scotland that champion food producers.


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