Alex Renton wrestles with the notion of a truly green restaurant and empathises with Pizza Express workers
My new restaurant idea is the Carbonara Neutral: at this serious-minded neighbourhood ‘organo-bistro', electricity will be generated through a waitstaff-driven treadmill, and food and beverages collected from local suppliers in a donkey cart. If the critics sneer that the donkey eating hay and emitting gas is himself a contributor to global warming, we'll slow-cook the donkey and serve only what neighbourhood farmers can get their grandmothers to carry to us in panniers balanced on their heads, as used to happen when the world was young and green. We could ban gas-guzzling out-of towners, too. Local food for local people!
This is a better idea than the last one (a molecular sandwich bar at the M4's Heston services). But I can already hear the bank manager moan, "How many neighbourhood farmers are there round your way? How much kale can a human eat in February? Has this ‘local' thing really got legs?"
He'll have a point. This winter, local has become, as they say, the new organic – particularly in the minds of big supermarkets. Scrambling for the moneypot, revealed by extraordinary growth in organic sales (the Soil Association believes the increase may top 40 per cent when the 2006 figures are complete), Tesco and Sainsbury's have got into greener-than thou, each unveiling schemes to promote local producers and eco-up their operations.
What is clear, though, is that local is not sustainable. Just as shortages in organic basics like milk and beef are becoming commonplace, especially in winter, so will it soon be clear that British agriculture does not have the capacity to support any largescale demand for local produce.
In fact, if you want local you may have to settle for non-organic – not a bad trade-off, but not quite what the green movement really wants. Already, 60 per cent of organic salad veg comes from abroad. Worried, DEFRA has been pushing the notion local is not all good: an early-season tomato grown in Spain and trucked here may cost less in carbon than one greenhouse-grown in Britain. (Another statistic from the report is that the transport of food is responsible for only 20 per cent of the food chain's carbon emissions. Cows – production of meat and dairy – account for fully half of the total.)
When all-natural, planet-kindly American supermarket chain Whole Foods Market opens its first UK store in London in June, more petrol will be thrown into this debate.
Whole Foods is big on local sourcing in their 200 superstores in North America. But its definition of local is anything trucked to its distribution centres in seven hours. With some nifty work on the GPS, it could get us ‘local' potatoes in from the Czech Republic.
One thing my new restaurant would heartily and pretty painlessly embrace is ‘no airfreighting'. It's a no-brainer: one per cent, by weight, of British food supplies flown here are responsible for 11 per cent of all carbon emissions resulting from food transport. The Soil Association is looking at the issue, but some of its senior officers are convinced that the organisation should refuse organic certification to foods that have been flown to us. So: fresh Ecuadorian shrimp and Kenyan green beans will only be served at the Carbonara Neutral if delivered by hangglider.
I'm sorry, but that's how green we are.
Pizza of my mind ? The waitress is near tears, the pizzas were ordered 40 minutes ago, there's one chef at the ovens, three waiters covering the entire restaurant and our half-term gang of under-10s were starting to tear bits out of each other. What would you have done?
In an Edinburgh Pizza Express recently, the minimum-wage waitress apologised sweetly and asked me to call head office and complain. Her manager's advice was the same. He told us it had been like this for months. "We've been under pressure to cut back on staff since last year, none of us can take the stress and the tips have collapsed."
Last October, the Gondola group, which owns Pizza Express, was bought for £559m by private equity firm Cinven. Such outfits specialise in stripping down costs and maximising profits: I thought I might have discovered who was making the waitress cry.
But when I rang the operations manager to grumble, she said, no, there was no cut in staffing budgets. My problem, which she'd noticed herself, lay in her restaurant managers not meeting their staffing targets.
She was going to have a serious word – and send me some free meal vouchers. Which I think I'll hand over to the waitress.