May 26, 2010

AUSTRALIA: Sydney eatery shows food wasters the door

TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / News / May 26, 2010

Wafu's 'Iron Chef' makes organic restaurant a bastion for dining right, sparking fans, foes

By Kede Lawson, Kyodo News

SYDNEY — Mom's old adage of finishing everything on your dinner plate has been given a new, hardline interpretation by one brave Japanese chef in Australia.

Failure to sufficiently clean your plate at Yukako Ichikawa's restaurant, Wafu, will see you banned from returning to the popular Sydney eatery. "(When they try to return), if I remember their face, I say no," Ichikawa said.

A little more than two months ago, Ichikawa, 42, grew so dismayed at the increasing amount of food being wasted by diners that she temporarily closed her three-year-old restaurant.

According to Ichikawa, a favorable newspaper review of Wafu in December was behind the sudden influx of wasteful consumers.

Kale and hearty: Yukako Ichikawa prepares an armful of kale at her restaurant, Wafu, in Sydney on May 16.  Kyodo Photo

However, spurred on by loyal customers and some legal advice, the Nagoya native adopted a new policy that rewards good eaters and sees "picky people" banished indefinitely.

Diners able to polish off their old-fashioned Japanese meal get 30 percent off their bill and an invitation to join Ichikawa's exclusive list of more than 800 regulars.

No other restaurant owner in Australia has gone to the same lengths to reduce food waste.

Still, Sydney's only organic, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, gluten-free and wheat-free restaurant is so popular that Ichikawa is trying not to take any new customers.

The indefatigable owner-chef-waitress has also begun restricting regulars to visiting on a one or two-person basis only.

Like Jerry Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi" from the 1990s, Ichikawa's tasty cuisine has customers lining up to get in, despite often being turned away.

Ichikawa and her staff direct all diners to the front door, where they must read and, importantly, agree to the new restaurant policy.

The guidelines recommend ordering "just the right amount of food" and suggest sharing meals to reduce food wastage and to increase the number of dishes an individual can experience.

"If after reading this, you feel uncomfortable and find yourself unwilling or unable to respect our philosophy, we will not be offended if you choose to leave," the policy reads.

Patrons refused entry often find themselves dining at Ichikawa's ex-husband's restaurant, just 100 meters away.

Menus also lay down the rules, dictating everything except "lemon slices, 'gari' (pickled ginger) and wasabi" must be consumed.

"Sometime people can't use chopsticks (and leave) three or four pieces of rice. I can't complain," Ichikawa chuckles.

Keen to bring the Japanese concept of "mottainai" to Australia, Ichikawa works hard to conserve the environment through a number of different measures.

Stemming from Buddhist philosophy, "mottainai" essentially involves making the most of limited resources and avoiding wastefulness.

The concept has also redefined the term BYO (bring your own).

Wafu customers keen on grabbing a takeout meal must bring their own plastic container, or face a surcharge or refusal of service.

Ichikawa said she has already noticed a significant reduction in the amount of garbage she throws away.

These days she has to remind herself to take out the trash can because it takes so long to fill.

One of Ichikawa's customers also takes the restaurant's food waste and uses it as compost and to feed his worm farm.

Dubbed the "Iron Chef" by local media for her rigid stance on food wastage, Ichikawa has made both friends and foes with her new approach.

"I get letters, so many e-mails, even phone calls not for reservations but just to say thank you," Ichikawa said.

While she has received an overwhelmingly positive response to her antiwaste movement, there has been some grumbling about the way the policy is communicated to diners.

Unhappy customers have gone online to the diner-review restaurant guide Eatability to lament their treatment.

"I'm all for the sustainable approach, too, but managing your customers in a respectful way is surely doable within this framework?!" a message posted April 14 said. "Their treatment was totally unnecessary, patronizing, and downright rude."

"Love the concept . . . in reality the way the philosophy/rules were communicated made for rude and to be honest very weird customer service," another said.

However, Ichikawa said people simply need to be better educated on food wastage, with restaurants, schools and families bearing the brunt of this responsibility.

The New South Wales government, under which the municipality of Sydney falls, has recently started a Web site called Love Food, Hate Waste to educate residents about the topic.

According to the site, New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, throws away 2.5 billion Australian dollars (about ¥188 billion) worth of food every year.

Australians waste around 3 million tons of food a year, according to the Australian action group Do something, and New South Wales throws away 1.1 million tons, according to Love Food Hate Waste. The Web site says the food supply chain accounts for 23 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions — the second-highest contributor after power stations.

Looking at the bigger picture, Ichikawa believes there is more than enough food in the world and that with better education, as well as a more equitable distribution of food, everyone can "share the good feeling."

"(In) India, Africa, many people die . . . every three seconds see people die without food, if we can change to four or five seconds, I am happy," the chef said with her characteristic iron. [rc]

(C) The Japan Times