Arthur Potts Dawson slaps his hand onto a wooden tabletop in the spare, modern dining room of his new London restaurant, Water House. "This is sustainable English ash, treated only with linseed oil," he says. He points outside to the terrace overlooking the murky canal that cuts through this industrial North London neighborhood and explains that the benches are made from trees that were felled in a storm and that the herbs sprouting in boxes grow in soil enriched with his kitchen's composted waste. Water from the canal is used to heat and cool the space.
"The restaurant industry has a wanton disregard for the environment," says Potts Dawson. "I want to be accountable for everything-either reuse or compost it. The last, most terrible word is recycling."
Potts Dawson is not your typical eco-fanatic. He is a highly regarded chef with 20 years of experience at some of Britain's top Michelin-starred restaurants, including a four-year stint at the River Café. But these days, his passion for food is equaled by his enthusiasm for reusable delivery boxes and solar panels and for banishing chemical cleaning products from his restaurant-every surface is cleaned with water and microfiber mitts. "If you find a spot of bleach, I'll give up my job," he declares.
Several top London chefs, including Potts Dawson, are transforming their restaurants into showplaces for environmental sustainability. In February, Tom Aikens, the youngest British chef to win two Michelin stars (by the age of 26), opened a fish-and-chips shop in West London that sells only nonthreatened species from small-scale fishermen who don't trawl with nets that damage the ocean floor. Another restaurant, Konstam at the Prince Albert, takes local eating to the extreme, buying 85 percent of its food from within the limits of the London Tube system. The London gastro-pub Duke of Cambridge, perhaps the original spark for much of this activity, was the first restaurant in England to receive an organic certification-nearly a decade ago.
While restaurants in other places are implementing eco-initiatives-a new U.S. chain called Pizza Fusion delivers in hybrid cars and its restaurants are designed to cut down on energy consumption and water use, and San Francisco's gastronomes have been emphasizing eco-awareness for years-London has become a nexus of environmentally friendly dining. It's not that surprising, given how green policies are sweeping across industries in Britain. Marks & Spencer, one of the country's largest retailers, plans to be carbon neutral by 2012; some of its stores are producing electricity with leftover vegetables and other waste. Starting next month, supermarket chain Tesco will label every product with its carbon footprint. Telecom company BT Group buys its electricity from renewable suppliers, and Rupert Murdoch's media company British Sky Broadcasting Group has been carbon neutral since 2006.
Far from being quixotic vanity projects, eco-minded restaurants are very popular-because of, not in spite of, their environmental credentials. "The concept draws people through the door," says Oliver Rowe, Konstam's owner and chef.
The British press has lavished these eateries with coverage. The Times of London food critic Giles Coren called Potts Dawson's first eco-conscious effort, Acorn House, "the most important restaurant to open in London in the past 200 years." Rowe starred in a BBC series about finding London-based suppliers for his restaurant. A decade after opening, Geetie Singh, founder of Duke of Cambridge, still does weekly interviews for various media outlets and estimates that her environmental approach generates an extra million dollars a year in sales.
The free publicity comes at a cost. Rowe spent months developing a network of farmers within the reaches of London's Tube system. His meat comes from a farm at the surprisingly rural end of the Metropolitan Tube line, and wild garlic, thistle, and chickweed are foraged from the city's public forests. Buying from such a restricted area forces Rowe to only use produce that is in season. That usually means lower prices but can also be quite challenging, especially in April and May, when vegetables are scarce.
Singh, who grew up in a commune, is used to thinking about the origins and delivery route of the food she uses, but that also has its challenges. Her menu changes daily because she's often unsure of what her suppliers will have on hand. She requires an extra full-time administrative person just to handle the multiple small producers that deliver to her-many of whom group deliveries to save on trips.
Aikens researched the fishing industry for months before opening his restaurant and even went to sea with the fishermen he buys from. He's put their pictures up in the restaurant, and he quizzes his employees on the fishing industry before he lets them on the floor. "The future of our fish is looking very dim," Aikens says. "But through our staff, our customers are learning more about the importance of supporting the industry."
Potts Dawson's two restaurants were developed with the Shoreditch Trust, a government organization that provided funding and uses profits from the restaurants to invest in the community. When working on Acorn House in 2006, he fired his contractor halfway through the job because he didn't understand the environmental considerations. It cost him an extra $180,000 to start over with someone new.
Most of the restaurant owners refuse to pass additional costs from eco-initiatives on to their customers-their establishments are no more expensive to dine at than their polluting competitors. Konstam's roast pork belly, at $29, is a bit of a bargain for London. Even Acorn House's lamb chops, its most expensive dish, is a competitive $36. The exception is Tom's Place, which charges $27 for fish-and-chips-more than double what you'd pay at a traditional shop, but still not a bad deal for London's posh Chelsea neighborhood.
Of course, there are savings too. Water House doesn't use any natural gas, opting instead for a totally electric kitchen powered by energy from a Scottish hydroelectric plant. As a result, it needs less powerful ventilation in the kitchen, and the restaurant has saved about 20 percent on the kitchen's mechanicals. By dehydrating and composting all of its kitchen waste and requiring that suppliers eschew packing materials, the restaurant produces only half a bag of garbage a week, compared with dozens of bags a day at a regular eatery, saving on disposal charges.
While they are acutely tuned to the environmental impact of their businesses, none of these chefs are overly concerned with the health of their customers. Most serve plenty of meat, wine, and beer. Aikens fries his fish in beef drippings, though a more heart-friendly option is available.
"If you have too much cream and sugar here, we don't really care as long as it's fair trade and the cows are healthy," Singh says.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.