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TEDGlobal: Arthur Potts Dawson and urban sustainable food

Chef Arthur Potts Dawson describes himself as “a London boy with country roots” who’s fascinated by urban sustainable food. He wants to make food that doesn’t impact on sustainability today or in the future. But this is a challenge, because he tells us that restaurants are some of the most wasteful industries in the world. The food we eat there is drenched in oil, and generally ten calories are wasted for each one you eat.

Dawson asks us to consider preparing a potato. It requires energy to plant it, grow it, harvest. It requires huge amounts to distribute it, to sell, purchase and deliver to him. And there’s a huge impact that comes from waste in the restaurant.

Waste within the restaurant has been the focus of his crusade the past five years. He tells us he’s trying to keep the potato’s impact as low as possible, seeing himself as a conduit for food, someone who allows food to come in and go out, and reduces the impact of the potato you have. He lists for types of waste – of time, space, energy, waste – he’s trying to lower the waste of each element.

We tour his restaurants, observing the recycled floor, recyclable chairs, reused cushions. One restaurant is powered by wind, another by water. All compost their waste, bottle their own tap water, and grow plants inside, including an orange tree growing in a tire. The menus allow diners to select their own portion size to reduce food wastage. And in the back, there’s a “waste room” – the necessary. We tour the compost bins, the wormeries (he admits killing off a set of worms by trying to feed them dried veggies.) We see water filtration over a stone bed, using waste water to grow a garden.

One of the restaurants is carbon neutral – it’s heated and cooled by canal water. He got rid of air conditioning and is now doing heat exchange using canal water outside. “I have no idea how it works, but I paid a lot of money for it.”

Beyond his five restaurants, named after five elements in Chinese alchemy, he’s working on a new project, the People’s Supermarket. Using recycled tills, carts and materials, he’s building a space that’s designed to address disconnects between local growers and food shoppers. It’s in early stages and far from profitable, but it’s a step towards making food more sustainable.