The leaf is tiny but the heart is large
By BEL JACOBS
Courgetti with nut pesto; grilled lettuce salad and citrus dressing with toasted nut praline; a tartine du jour, made with roasted tomato, pepper and courgette.
Sounds good? Should do. Chef Justin Horne cut his teeth at The Ivy and Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental. Now, together with business partner and marketing expert Alice Gilsenan, he's co-founder of Tiny Leaf, currently the UK’s only organic, vegetarian and zero waste restaurant.
Currently, 30per cent all of all food produced across the world goes into landfill; in 2015, UK households wasted 7.3 million tonnes of food. When food waste goes into landfill, it releases methane, even more destructive to the environment than carbon dioxide.
“Plus, we‘ve got so many people going hungry every night,” adds Gilsenan. “As a concept, it was a no brainer.”
Tiny Leaf launched as a pop up in trendy Notting Hill in January 2016. No trumpeting of ethical intentions: just light, healthy, mouthwatering food. It went viral.
‘That’s when I realised that zero waste isn’t a UK thing or a Western thing; it’s a worldwide thing,” says Gilsenan. “When you combine it with organic and vegetarian, well, that ticks a lot of boxes at once.” It’s that combination, as well as the yummy food, that won the restaurant its audience.
Today, Tiny Leaf sits amongst like-minded souls in Borough’s bustling Mercato Metropolitano, pulling in the customers with its unique - and uniquely tasty - cuisine. Surplus fruit and vegetables arrives from a few select suppliers -“so we know where that food came from, where it was produced and when it was put out for sale,” says Gilsenan - and then the team gets to work.
Just like any good meal, the zero waste food is about intelligent menu design - with a more limited palette. This is where Horne’s creativity comes into its own. Faced with a lorry-load of lightly spotted bananas from an organic supplier and bored with banana bread recipes, for example, Horne started experimenting on ideas for a banana curry.
Served on a bed of cardamon rice, topped with kimchi made from shredded chard, it’s now a bestseller.
“It’s about seeing how many things we can do with one ingredient. We were getting a lot of chard in; it gives a bit of visual interest to the banana curry. We’re currently working on the ultimate veggie burger at the moment. So, if we have any rice left over from the banana masala, we incorporate that into the burger patty - with beetroot, nuts, rice, lots of flavourings."
The restaurant also works within a root-to-fruit philosophy. “We use the whole vegetable. If we have a cauliflower, we chop up the leaves and put them in the bubble and squeak.” Purees and vegetable crisps help ensure all parts of the veg are used.
“It’s the way we used to cook in the past, when food wasn’t as plentiful,” muses Gilsenan.
While 90 per cent of the menu is vegan, Gilsenan and Horne’s attitude to meat-eating is realistic, practical, sensitive to people’s transitional states.
“When you talk about sustainability and organics and veganism, people still see something restraining, less indulgent and enjoyable, difficult to adhere to,” says Gilsenan. “A lot of people don’t want to lose meat from their lives so what we’re trying to do is not be militant but provide alternatives. That’s what we want to open our doors to - not waving fingers and saying, 'do this or do that' but providing an amazing, beautiful experience that’s having a positive impact.”
Gilsenan is galvanised by the interest the restaurant attracts: “When I started in advertising in the early 2000s, it was all about forcing the purchase. These were the things that made people tick back then because there was a lack of awareness about their impact.”
Gone are the days when you can spray your food with odd substances, beat your pig or abuse your workers with impunity; somewhere around the corner lurks a mobile phone tracking it all.
“We’ve become more exposed to information which has then influenced our purchasing decisions,” says Gilsenan. “Research is now saying that people don’t want to buy more things. They want experiences that enrich them and time with people they care about.”
Thus, the value of Tiny Leaf looks set to go far beyond its food. Gilsenan and Thorne take their roles as pioneers seriously and aim to become a hub for a new generation of people who care.
“There’s such a movement and energy,” says Gilsenan, warmly. “We feel it’s important to bring people together.” Earlier this July, Tiny Leaf held its first think tank event, co-hosted by Catherine Conway of ethical store Unpackaged and Maria Stone of Zero Waste Life at the Borough space.
“The tipping point - and change on a massive scale - happens when the masses turn to [sustainability],” says Gilsenan. “It’s important for us to be reaching out and disseminating our experiences."
In the interval between Notting Hill and Borough, Gilsenan and Horne spent time conceiving their next project, a perfect “future restaurant”.
“Renewable energies, anaerobic digestion to fuel the building, using food waste to create energy,’ says Gilsenan, clearly in her element. “Vertical growing farms. solar panels. Basically, any elements we can pull together to make this thing as efficient as possible and be an inspiration to others …”
With any other business, this would sound like castles in the sky but Tiny Leaf has mileage in dreaming big and making those dreams come true. Zero waste future, here we come.
Find Tiny Leaf at Mercato Metropolitano, 42 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6DR. www.tinyleaflondon.com