Food evokes a sense of pride in Asia and inevitably, the catering at an event tends to be a main talking point among delegates. No more are fried noodles and jugs of cordial juices the standard for meetings. These days, delegates want their food to be original and exciting; a bonus if the menu evokes a sense of theatre or interactivity. However, with catering teams constantly pushing their creative confines, waste abounds.
Waste not, want not
It comes as good news that caterers are moving away from overflowing chafing dishes to individual portions. “We manage our food waste by accurate food portioning. Over-portioning will lead to waste and under-portioning will lead to complaints,” says Alan Tan, MD for Singapore-based events catering group Purple Sage. “We eschew chafing dishes for plated meals. It’s also better for presentation.”
However, it cannot be avoided that food is an integral part of Asian culture and a way hosts show hospitality to clients, and with that, the concept of ‘abundance’ is still cherished. While culture cannot be changed, Tan says that he’s trying to “educate customers not to over-order”.
Altogether, it appears that venues in Australia and New Zealand are better educated around food waste, recyclable packaging, and local produce. Gavin Robertson, executive head chef at Adelaide Convention Centre, said the centre “is not producing as much”, and reducing its waste along the way.
“We’re not making batches and batches of stew and things like that. Our buffets are never as full and elaborate as they could be simply because we hold a lot of that food back. If the customers don’t arrive, we’ll be able to use that food for OzHarvest [an Australian food rescue charity] or for Food Bank SA,” he says.
Robertson is also more conscious about the way he’s cooking his foods, such as the energy used and food shrinkage of each method. “We cook in a smarter way that reduces the natural food shrinkage that’s usually happening in general day-to-day roasting and boiling. We’re using sous-vide and cooking food more freshly so we get lot more yield out of our ingredients than we would normally get,” he says.
Closing the loop
Hotels and convention centres preach their sustainability efforts, but few take care to think about creating a circular economy the way the Alila properties in Bali have. Its ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’ programme means that all waste and energy is recycled and regenerated internally for hotel operations, effectively eliminating landfill use.
Key to the programme is its Integrated Sustainable Resource Recovery Facility (iSuRRF), an on-site laboratory where waste streams are transformed into higher value products and services through a series of biological engineering systems.
For instance, plastics, glass and ceramics are shredded and crushed to produce aggregate, sand and fibre that is reused to produce green building materials for the hotel. Meanwhile, uneconomical waste plastics such as food wraps and films are converted into a light crude oil that is distilled down to diesel, kerosene and gasoline for reuse in the hotels.
Alila Seminyak, whose kitchen is led by Vivian Vitalis, incorporates a dedicated area for the separation of waste materials for recycling. Food waste is manually separated, and compostable waste is put into an in-house composting machine to be broken down over 48 hours.
Compost is then used in a local pig farm as food for the animals; these pigs are eventually used in the kitchen as food for guests. Compost is also used to fertilise in-house permaculture gardens where vegetables and herbs are cultivated for kitchen use.
When clients in Asia request wild Atlantic salmon and Spanish ham, venues are forced to comply. But some are taking matters into their own hands, whether it’s working with local suppliers or educating clients about the natural bounty closer to home.
A good case study is Athenee Bangkok, the first hotel in the world to be given an ISO 20121 accreditation (a sustainable event management standard), partly down to its committed F&B programme.
“We are quite a large convention hotel, we do more than half a million covers per year,” says general manager Choo Leng Goh. “We, as a team, feel that sourcing healthy or safe food is very important. By safe, we mean organic. And if there was a country that could do it, it’s Thailand. It’s an agricultural country.”
While some organic products are more expensive, Goh and her team hunted down suppliers within an hour of the hotel and began to buy direct, essentially cutting out the middleman. Through this, she manages to save on distributor costs while championing fair trade prices.
“Because we buy from them directly, the pricing is a lot cheaper than supermarkets or other channels. And the farmers get a better price from us than what they would get from other channels,” says Goh.
She adds that food costs have actually gone down and profit margins up despite the switch to organic. As a bonus, in-house restaurant Smooth Curry is booked to the brim even on weekdays – a lesson that going down the responsible route does indeed reap the rewards.
For more information on Goh's sustainable F&B programme, read our interview here.