Cub is the kind of place that thinks nothing of using bananas to soften carrots and serving produce grown out of a city’s food waste. Part art, part alchemy, meet the team smashing the concept of ‘sustainable restaurant’ apart with an inimitable approach to zero-waste food and drink.
Sustainable restaurant, eh?
It’s hard not to sneer at the concept of a ‘sustainable restaurant’. On the whole, restaurants tend to live by bulk wholesale orders, non-native recherché ingredients, and relative lavish excess.
Perhaps it’s healthy to uphold such scepticism, as it leads you to some interesting places. I’m at Cub, in Hoxton, talking with general manager Maja and operations manager Robin. The word ‘conversation’ comes up a lot. Here a discourse, rather than a main course, is the dish du jour.
Cub, at least by their own expression, is an embodiment of ‘a conversation’. And one, as it’s increasingly clear, that we should all be having. The space in which it sits formerly housed White Lyan, which Time Out called the ‘Fat Duck’ of cocktail bars, and is Cub’s predecessor. ‘We closed White Lyan because it needed to evolve into something else,’ says Robin. ‘We’d had the conversation by that point.’
One man’s trash is another’s edible treasure
Before you decide things are getting a little too pompous, the discussion revolves around one of the most unsophisticated things imaginable: waste. Specifically, how we can turn it into a force for good in the wider context – not just within these four walls in East London. ‘The whole idea,’ says Robin, ‘is to show what you can make to eat and drink from ingredients that might otherwise have earthy roots, as sustainability in general has quite an earthy approach to it.’
When it’s a discussion that’s brought together Ryan Chetiyawardana, one of the world’s best mixologists and founder of Dandelyan, and Doug McMaster, chef at and owner of Britain’s first zero-waste restaurant Silo, there’s reason to take notice.
Ultra-sustainability and zero-waste, it’s all down to harmony
Food is talked about in the same breath as drink (as evidenced by the menu, where drinks are served as constituents of the 12-courses), while bartenders are chefs, and chef are bartenders. ‘There’s four stations for the staff,’ says Robin, gesturing from the bar and kitchen to the tables. ‘And everyone works on each station simultaneously. That’s when you start to see bridges in food and drink come together.’
This synergy cuts across everything, from sourcing to the finished courses. Indie Ecology, who Cub source from, employ a system whereby waste and surplus food is collected from restaurants around London, composted on their farm in West Sussex, and ploughed back into the soil. From this soil, new crops are grown for the kitchens the waste material originally came from.
‘When you soak basil seeds in acid…they almost taste like clove instead.’
This relationship is quite unique, as it means Cub have carte blanche over what they can grow on their plot at the farm. And boy do they like control – the restaurant has a herbarium where they grow seedlings, tinkering with the temperature and ambience to change the outcome in flavour of the plant. ‘Basil’s got a clove-like flavour to it when you look underneath it all,’ says Robin. ‘When you soak the seeds in acid and give them a certain amount of light, they almost taste like clove instead of basil.’
Getting different flavours and textures out of ingredients will not be something new to those who’ve visited Silo, where the most popular dish is dried beetroot, rehydrated in beetroot juice, and served with a roasted potato skin stock. At Cub, the thinking is similar. Robin tells me of a trick involving using bananas to help soften carrots. ‘The gas that bananas give off when they’re ripening helps break down starches in the carrots, so it’s a bit like fermenting, but you’re speeding up the microbial process. You get floral notes from it, a bit like violets.’
Social sustainability is as important as flavour at Cub
Like bananas, what they can’t grow over here in the UK Cub won’t ignore, even if they consider themselves conscious of the environment. Social sustainability is as important as flavour. The team want to make sure they’re supporting someone who’s growing something extraordinary and then honour that producer – and the environment – by getting as much out of an ingredient as possible. ‘Say after you’ve fermented the carrots with the banana,’ says Robin, ‘you take the banana and make banana bread, and roast the skins to make a syrup. But sometimes we’ll try and use something too much, and by that point it’s lost a lot of its flavour. Then the process becomes moot, as you’re not going to enjoy it.’
All this seems a tad ambitious, especially when everything – including the ‘kitchen’, which is actually a few hot plates behind the bar – fits inside a room no bigger than, well, a small cocktail bar. ‘For a no-waste operation, you need a space six or seven times the size of this,’ says Robin. ‘Just look at Silo.’ More of a challenge, perhaps, but less of a problem when it imbues everything they do: from the tables made from yoghurt pots and the recycled clay walls that filter minerals in the air, to the decision to keep the place open three days a week so that – contrary to the 80-hour week common in the industry – staff get a decent break.
‘This is about making people think of the disconnect between where meat comes from, and what you find in the supermarket.’
Speaking of staff, only one on the team is vegetarian. Which might seem curious given such a tiny portion of what Cub serves is meat. Rather than being a purposeful omission, ‘this is about making people think of the disconnect between where meat comes from, and what you find in the supermarket,’ says Maja. A few weeks ago, Cub, like almost every other restaurant, put haggis on the menu for Burns Night. To mark the occasion, sure, but also as a timely reminder that the dish is one of the most sustainable in the world. ‘Because it’s everything people don’t want to eat shoved inside something people don’t want to eat. With some herbs and spices,’ says Robin.
‘If you can buy it in Tesco, it shouldn’t be on the menu.’
When the restaurant does bring meat in, it’s most likely to be off the back of a phone call with a farmer who’s got a pig or a cow coming to the end of its life. Or from a supplier who’s strong on their ethics. ‘We’ve bought fish from Cornwall that’s slaughtered by a needle down the spine so it dies instantly and without stress,’ says Robin.
High sourcing standards is probably why, as Maja tells me, people try cooking these dishes at home, only to come back, defeated, with more questions. ‘We have a small directive that,’ says Robin, ‘if you can buy it in Tesco, it shouldn’t be on the menu.’
As helpful as it is, a sustainable restaurant shouldn’t be exclusively about getting fish from healthy ocean stocks, waging war on plastic, or paying their staff the living wage. Though it might sometimes baffle the critics, it should be about nurturing a new dialogue. Plenty of that at Cub. Just don’t do it with your mouth full.