Staying the Path

Despite the hardships the pandemic brought, three Thailand chefs remained dedicated to their sustainability practices

Composting, recycling, upcycling, sourcing locally, reducing waste—these terms are so familiar to the three eco-conscious restaurateurs in the story that all three describe them as “habits”. But when Covid hit and restaurants were forced to shutter, how did these restaurants cope? How have their perceptions of sustainability changed when suddenly nothing is secure and everything is hard to sustain? And what have they had to give up to survive?

Delivery Dilemma

Wanting to cheer people up during Covid, Chef Phanuphol Bulsuwan of Blackitch Artisan Kitchen in Chiang Mai created a new brand, Izankanyang, delivering frozen Isan-style kab klam (snacks eaten with alcoholic drinks) to Bangkok.

But then Blackitch decided to only deliver food within Chiang Mai. “We saw problems with packaging, reheating food, and freshness,” said Phanuphol. “I was worried because when you deliver food, there’s a lot of packaging and waste.” 

For Chef Chudaree Debhakam of Baan Tepa Culinary Space in Bangkok, food delivery presented another set of problems. 

Located in Ramkhamhaeng, chef Chudaree said “We’re definitely a destination restaurant. That was a huge challenge for customers to get food from us and pay a huge delivery fee.” The market is highly competitive. Plus, delivery wasn’t keeping the business afloat. They charged about 250 baht per box, down from 3,900 baht per head when the restaurant was open.

But like Phanuphol, Chudaree hated the packaging part of delivery the most. “When I had to pick packaging, I was like, this is horrible. I didn’t want to pack food in plastic boxes,” Chudaree said. 

The restaurant initially used biodegradable plastic boxes but eventually stopped and instead turned to containers made from betel palm. 

“We get customers complaining about it. It’s soft. It doesn’t completely lock in all the sauces. But I’d rather do that and get complaints than use these plastic boxes, plastic bags, and rubber bands.”

Sakson Rouypirom, owner of Broccoli Revolution, had more experience with food delivery prior to the pandemic. The restaurant has always had a no-plastic policy, but to him, even biodegradable packaging is hard to swallow. “You can say it’s compostable. You can say it’s recyclable. It’s still garbage.”

For Sakson, who runs three branches of Broccoli Revolution in Bangkok, delivery isn’t profitable either, but it does make people remember the brand. “It’s a double-edged sword. With no delivery, people forget about you, they think you’ve shut down forever.”

Waste Not

Prior to the pandemic, the Sukhumvit branch of Broccoli Revolution served hundreds of customers per day. That meant it was more difficult to control waste. Covid has meant less customers, handling fewer orders, and a slower pace. 

“It has allowed me to pull back a bit, work more on the system, and talk more to the staff about why it’s not just about the money that you’re wasting, but it’s also about the waste that we’re creating,” Sakson said. “Overall, it’s given me time to develop a more encompassing system for sustainability.”

Broccoli Revolution also works with partners for their composting and recycling programs that invite people to drop off their recyclables and organic wastes. Moreover, Sakson is exploring reusable packaging and upcycling with start-ups and designers.

As can be seen with Sakson, the pandemic hasn’t diverted eco-conscious chefs and restaurateurs from their sustainable journey. It has even pushed them to be more meticulous, curious, and creative about waste reduction. 

At Baan Tepa, kitchen-waste compost becomes food for the restaurant’s organic garden. The herbs then get turned into oils and sauces for finishing. But the garden makes up a tiny part of the ingredients used by the restaurant.

When Covid hit, Chudaree was forced to think about how to not waste the ingredients that they stocked and stored. Despite the stress, the chef said the team had a lot of fun with preservation and learning more about fermentation and pickling. “You really need to figure out how you store them and how you add value to them. How do you keep these flavours that are going to go because we can’t open?”

Before Izankanyang, there was Churos, a brand Phanuphol launched less than a week into the first lockdown last year to sell off remaining house-made sauces and condiments. Within 40 days, they sold out. 

Phanuphol has long been known for fermentation, so since the pandemic, he’s been experimenting with other preservation techniques like retorting and freeze-drying. 

When it comes to ingredients, Blackitch’s practice has always been this: “If you bought vegetables for 100 baht, use 100 baht of it. You can price the food at 500—that’s your business. But don’t buy it for 100 baht, use 20, then charge 500. But that’s how people do it nowadays.” The main question for him is how to work with ingredients in a way that everyone in the food chain feels the value is fair.

Sustaining Human Connections

Before Covid, Chudaree had a big staff and a big plan to grow. The most difficult conversation she had to have with her team was when she was forced to downsize her staff and restructure the company. 

“Financially, it was very tough on the team once we stopped doing service,” she said. “I actually didn’t reduce the salary at all. The only thing that was missing was the service charge. We didn’t reduce during Covid until the very last wave that was really bad.”

Seeing how stressful the situation was, some employees left on their own. Chudaree had to reassess which roles were most necessary, while the staff had to learn to step into more roles. -

The restaurant is now preparing for a reopening in December. The pressure of the crisis has made Chudaree re-evaluate the value of work and implement a healthier and more efficient system for her team. She’s experimenting with giving the staff two days off, with one prep day and four days of service.

“We’re not trying to fill the house as much as we can all the time. We’re going to do it more sustainably. We want the people who work here to be happier and stay with us longer.”

For a large operation like Broccoli Revolution, shifts and service charges had to be reduced, and some employees left on their own. Sakson found that he’s ended up with an even stronger team.

“I’m very happy with the staff we have now because they’ve fought with us. Broccoli is a family. Staff is family.” 

But Sakson is responsible for more than his staff. The restaurant is a socially conscious business that gives five per cent of its revenue to SATI, a non-profit founded by Sakson that works with at-risk and underserved youths to improve health and education. He also runs eco-conscious Na Café at Bangkok 1899 and its vocational training programmes for at-risk youths and urban refugees. 

Sakson could only keep in touch with the people from the programmes via Line groups during the worst of Covid when schools closed and programmes stopped running, leaving young people in even more vulnerable positions. But through his Covid relief work in urban communities, Sakson learned that some of the poorest people in the city are garbage collectors. He now plans to work with them through a garbage-separation and upcycling project to improve their livelihoods and communities. 

The word “sustainability” used to make Phanuphol think big, like the entire planet. Covid made him think smaller, so he took a three-month agriculture course to become more self-reliant. What he found was a larger group of friends to rely on. 

“I saw a way to survive when I was among those people. Maybe I’m not a farming expert and maybe I don’t have land, but the most important thing is I have friends. I have what my friends have. Survival is seeing what your friends have. Even if there’s a crisis, we’ll survive. We’ll use what we have to support one another,” Phanuphol said. “Sustainability and survival are the same word, because if we do something and we don’t survive, that means it’s not sustainable.”