Meraki Hospitality Group co-founder Laura Offe argues that we shouldn't stop at sustainability when sourcing what ends up on diners' plates
As a city that has prospered throughout history due to its inseparable relationship with the sea, Hong Kong is a bellwether when it comes to the current state of the seafood trade, ranking second in terms of seafood consumption in Asia; meanwhile, Hongkongers themselves hold the title of the world’s eighth-largest seafood consumers on a per-capita basis. Yet the seafood trade is known to be hugely damaging on the marine environment, with rampant overfishing and destructive fishing practices contributing to the decline of fish stocks around the world.
Laura Offe, co-founder of Meraki Hospitality Group, shared her thoughts on what needs to be done to ensure the survival of marine biodiversity while continuing to feed the city's appetite for seafood into the future.
At Meraki, we're all for ethical, rather than sustainable, seafood. Sustainability is a scary word today because there are so many dynamics to it, especially when it comes to seafood. When you use that word, you're putting yourself in a very difficult position to do a fully sustainable operation. What we should not forget is that there are a lot of people who are trying to be ethical in the way they fish, in the way they farm. That's the most important thing, because it's just not possible for the entire world to suddenly go completely vegan, like the conclusion of Seaspiracy suggests.
Instead, we need to look at a way to sustain everyone, and that means sustaining the fish farm that's trying to make a difference. It means sustaining fishermen in places like the Maldives where their only way of surviving is by fishing. It means sustaining the vegetable farmer in England who's trying to make a difference.
When it comes to sustainability in general, traceability is so important. No matter how much information you try to gather from importers, you're putting your trust in people to tell you that the farm or fishery is doing it sustainably. But as we've seen from Seaspiracy, until you actually go there, you'll never really know if it's true. Really, the only way is being able to meet with fisheries, meat farms, and vegetable farms, to understand their process and to see what they're doing.
While we have less control over issues like traceability, what we can control is how can we reduce our food waste. There is so much waste—for example, when you have a massive menu, that means that your food waste is going to be huge, which is why at Meraki, we try as much as we can to keep our food waste to as little as possible. At Bedu, [executive chef] Corey Riches has such a tiny kitchen that he has no choice—despite this, he orders on a daily basis which is a hassle, but at the same time it means that we're not putting anything in the bin. The only waste that we have is actually scraps from fish bones or vegetable skin or anything that's left over from the customer's plate.
We've actually measured our food waste over a period of one week with an NGO that's called Green Hospitality, and I was quite surprised at how low in a way our food waste was. But we're still creating waste, and that's my issue—there's a circle, but there are so many holes in it that at the moment I'm not reducing our environmental impact as much as I'd like. The next step is for us to compost, but therein lies the next issue. Outside of hotels like the Landmark Mandarin Oriental that have space for composting machines like the Orca, there are no facilities in Hong Kong for composting. Given how much rent costs and the amount of space that you would have to dedicate to food waste, I would be losing a portion of my restaurant. That's why we're trying to work with the NGO world to have recycling bins and composting machines in certain areas.
At the same time, it takes a lot of cash to actually do all of this. We don't have the funds that big restaurant and hotel groups have, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it. We just need to find different ways to accomplish it. Although Hong Kong still has a lot of work to do, I think that there are so many people that are so passionate about this issue and who want to make a change, that change will happen eventually.
In a way, it's about community. No one in Hong Kong can do it alone; we all need to work together towards the goal set by the government of being carbon neutral by 2050. If you look at countries in Europe where you have a tax to encourage recycling, it's controversial but I would like my company to pay for the same in Hong Kong. If we really want to get things going, we will need to find a way to allocate a certain sum to environmental efforts, and to do that, the best way to effect change is through companies—once companies are on board, it will become an obligation for the city too.
It's not possible to be completely sustainable in a place like Hong Kong today, but there are ways for us to get there. Peggy Chan and Joel Tomas from Grassroots Initiative are starting a programme called Zero Foodprint Asia, which was originally created in partnership with restaurants in California in order to reduce their carbon emissions. A large part of doing that is engaging in the circular economy, by helping local farms produce sustainably so that we import less goods from overseas. Of course, we'll never be able to do it completely—we'll have to import from China all the same—but if we can reduce the amount we import, it will go a long way.
At the end of the day, the important thing is not being perfect on the first go—it's about doing something. As long as we each start with tackling one aspect of sustainability, as a whole we will get there. But we all need to start thinking, what can I contribute?
Tatler Dining does not necessarily share views expressed by opinion writers. We regularly invite figures from across the F&B industry to write for us in order to present a diversity of views.