Forage Restaurant serves up the 'Next Course' in sustainability

Forage executive chef, Chris Whittaker
Forage executive chef, Chris Whittaker. Photo by Welbert Choi.

80% of restaurant's ingredients sourced in B.C.; 30% reduction in energy costs

Plan ahead. That's one of the guiding principles at Forage, a new sustainable restaurant in downtown Vancouver.

From pickling asparagus when it's in season, to purchasing equipment based on the operating cost over its life, executive chef Chris Whittaker maintains that forward thinking and flexibility are the keys to sustainable restaurant management.

Forage (formerly O'Doul's) opened its doors this past November. It's the product of the Next Course, a collaboration between BC Hydro and other key partners. The goal of the project is to demonstrate how technology can combine with a seasonal food philosophy to save energy, improve operations, and make a restaurant truly sustainable.

Menu is a locavore's delight

Chef Whittaker grew up fetching potatoes and carrots from his grandparents' root cellars, and eating eggs from his neighbour's chickens. He has worked to imbue the Forage menu with a similar sense of connection to the places its food comes from.

As a result, 80 per cent of the restaurant's ingredients are sourced in British Columbia, and the rest come from other parts of the Pacific Northwest and Alberta.

To make the most of local produce, the kitchen staff preserve foods when they're in season, freezing berries for jams and chutneys, and making pickles and other preserves.

Flexibility is essential for sustainability

Flexibility is another key ingredient in a sustainable restaurant. Whittaker says with Forage, the menu can change on the fly depending on what is locally available.

"We can respond quickly if nettles or wild watercress come into season, because the customers don't have an expectation of having same meal every time," he says.

Instead, sustainability is the restaurant's standard fare. "We measure our success by our sustainability and how much food we can forage locally," says Whittaker. "I think that will reflect to our customers that we have integrity in what we're doing."

Energy-efficient kitchen equipment adds advantages

Some existing equipment in the restaurant's kitchen has been replaced with more energy-efficient models, and other equipment has been set up to work more efficiently.

One significant change was to install an on-demand exhaust system. The exhaust hood is typically the largest energy user in a restaurant kitchen and most restaurants operate their exhaust at full speed all day long. A variable-speed motor can cut fan energy by 50 per cent and heating and cooling energy by 25 per cent.

Forage's new system automatically powers down when the kitchen is not cooking intensively. "Midday when we shift between services, we can hear the exhaust powering down," says Whittaker. "You know right away that you're saving energy."

The restaurant's gas-fired griddles were replaced with electric induction griddles that have impressed the staff with their consistency and versatility. And there are new fryers that are not only more energy efficient, they offer an added advantage. Whittaker says, "The oil lasts longer because these fryers don't burn oil as quickly, so we're saving oil as well as energy."

Stand-up fridges, which each had an independent compressor, were replaced with a second walk-in cooler. Now, there's just one high-efficiency compressor located in the parking lot. It uses less energy and water, and does not create unwanted heat in the kitchen.

Staff used to store dairy and juice in a lower cooler, so the new reconfiguration has reduced trips in the elevator.

Forage meets 30% savings target, and it's an industry-wide goal

BC Hydro set an energy saving goal of 30 per cent for the project, which reflects the energy shift they are hoping to achieve industry-wide. The Forager project's energy savings are estimated at 120,000 kilowatt hours — the equivalent of powering 11 B.C. homes.

Says Whittaker, "When you hear the exhaust hood winding down for two or three hours during the day and shutting off for a few hours extra at night, you know you're saving. That's 20 to 25 per cent savings right there on that one piece of equipment."

Inspiring restaurant industry sustainability

The Next Course project aims to educate and inspire other businesses along the supply chain, from food to equipment to delivery.

For Forage, this means adjusting the menu to help farmers and produce suppliers work sustainably. "If our suppliers need us to move 300 pounds of cabbage, we'll make sauerkraut or do some other fermentation," says Whittaker. "Sustainability is about being sustainable in the whole approach to whatever you're doing."

How to get started: assess the long-term savings

Whittaker offers some advice for restaurant owners looking for a place to start increasing their sustainability. "Sourcing local food is easy," he says. "Many of the bigger companies offer local food options for places that don't have time to source it themselves."

In terms of replacing equipment, "Ask yourself if it's going to be the best choice in the long run," he says. "It may cost $2,000 more for an efficient one up front, but it could offer significant savings over its useful life."

For a more detailed look at the making of a wholly sustainable restaurant, check out the Next Course videos on the Forage website.

Read how other B.C. restaurants are taking on energy efficiency: