A couple of weeks ago, the Sustainable Restaurant Association contacted me and asked me to write a blog about what it is like to work as a waitress in a sustainable restaurant. The post appeared on their website last week, but if you missed it, here it is again:
Let’s face it, working in a restaurant has the potential to be a terrible job. I’m not just talking about the long, unsociable hours and treating customers with every kindness even though they may give you little. But in the professional sense, being a waitress in some restaurants may not always give someone the opportunity for personal growth and intellectual development as is the case with other careers. Thankfully, this is not true at the Newman Street Tavern, and I believe this is largely down to the fact that the tavern is a sustainable restaurant.
As a sustainable restaurant, we have to be responsible about the items we have on our menu. All our fish are line-caught and we do not use the same types all year round – since opening at the end of November last year, we have served 53 different types of fish. This depends, in part, on which fish are in season but it also means that we don’t contribute to overfishing.
As we are also a nose-to-tail restaurant – meaning that the chefs use as many different parts of the animal it is possible to cook with – this gives us the perfect opportunity to offer a unique and diverse menu. At the moment, we’re serving bath chap (pig’s cheek) with egg on toast, we’ve had seared cuttlefish testicles as an appetiser, as well as chitterlings (male cod roe), shisho (Japanese mint), and pennywort (a mustardy, foraged leaf). At one point this summer our offal dish included beef heart, liver, kidney and sweetbreads. It’s definitely not for the squeamish (and possibly not the best menu for vegetarians), but it definitely makes for an interesting meal.
And as your waitress, it’s my job to know everything about all these different foods. If I’m doing my job properly, I’ll be able to tell you the different cuts of meat we will be serving, when the fish was caught and where it came from, as well as what each dish comes with and what it will taste like. Unfortunately for me, this entails many tastings in the kitchen, trying each and every new dish to come on the menu. I really hate it when the kitchen creates a new dessert…
More seriously, though, my job involves many a briefing with our living encyclopedia of a head chef, a.k.a Peter Weeden. Any question I have, he can answer. Just last week, wild salmon started arriving into the kitchen and as he expertly prepared the fish to be cured, Peter gave us an impassioned and detailed narrative, telling us that the salmon’s blood is such a brilliant, bright red due to its bloodline, which acts a reserve battery full of oxygenated blood to help the salmon fight their way upstream to lay their eggs in the clear, still waters near a river’s source. For the front of house staff at the Newman Street Tavern, our jobs aren’t simply a matter of turning up, putting on our uniforms and serving tables. We are constantly learning and developing our knowledge about food, about how it is sourced and what it means in the grander scheme of things.
And of course, being sustainable isn’t just about the food. It also takes into account how much energy and water we use and what we do with waste. Personally, I’m a bit of an eco-warrior and I hate waste. I see it as a personal challenge to make an interesting meal out of the leftovers in my fridge and I have been known to clear up after housemates by fishing plastic packaging out of the rubbish bin, washing it out and sticking it in the recycling bag. Thankfully, the Newman Street Tavern is a place that not only accepts these slightly OCD tendencies, but encourages them. We have three different recycling bins; glass, paper and food. We save old menus, cut them up and use them again as order pads, and we’re more than happy to eat slightly stale bread or ‘near-funky’ fish for our staff breakfasts and dinners.
While I have been trying desperately to think of any negatives to working in a sustainable restaurant, I can think of only one. And that is the slight awkwardness I feel at explaining why the prices of our dishes may be more expensive than those in other restaurants in the area. No one really likes to talk about money. But hopefully, the proof is in the pudding and guests realise that as sustainable food looks, smells and tastes better, it’s worth paying that little bit extra.