From northern to southern Europe, rural Eastern Australia to suburban Chile, something is happening in the best restaurants and it’s really very good.

Since we started judging the Sustainable Restaurant Award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013, the standard has, like good sponge, risen. And risen some more. Narisawa, in Tokyo, won the inaugural award five years ago. Twelve months later Bilbao’s pride and joy Azurmendi triumphed.

For the following two years, Christian Puglisi’s Relæ in Copenhagen raised the bar to new levels which, if we’re being 100% honest (which of course we always are), we weren’t convinced anyone would be able to top. As the first Michelin starred restaurant to be certified organic, with its own farm just outside the city, and a whole ream of innovations designed to reduce its environmental footprint, Relæ set an inspiring standard.

We underestimated the finest chefs. While sustainability isn’t strictly speaking a competitive sport, have you ever met a chef who isn’t hellbent on winning? One who certainly rose to the challenge was Bertrand Grebaut. His Paris restaurant Septime managed to knock Relæ from its perch, with an environmentally inspired strict no beef policy, wine shipped to the restaurant via canal and like Relæ and a menu of full of produce from its own farm just outside the city.

Surely, the standard couldn’t rise any further, could it? With the World’s 50 Best roadshow moving to Bilbao this year, there was added incentive for local hero Eneko Atxa and his team at Azurmendi to surpass the incredibly high standards they’d set back in 2014. Their efforts have been rewarded with the coveted prize finding its way back to northern Spain.

Ingredients for success
Relæ, Brae and Borago (more about them shortly) / certainly gave Azurmendi a run for their money, but by adding a very healthy sprinkling of new ingredients to an already top-notch sustainable recipe for success, it won out.
Common to each of the chart-topping restaurants is a whole-hearted commitment to tackle three of the biggest issues of the day – cutting the amount of meat on the menu, and purging their kitchens of both plastic and waste. Indeed, at Azurmendi the menu is now 75% plant-based, and the meat that is on the menu is almost always from lesser used cuts – helping address two of those pressing issues in one.

The three runners-up all have their own farm. While Eneko and his team don’t enjoy that luxury it certainly doesn’t reduce their passion for provenance. Eneko insists that his menu starts in the field. In fact, one of Eneko’s favourite ingredients is a mini-orange tomato that Azurmendi and the Neiker Tecnalia research centre have brought back from the dead – one of many heritage varieties that have been rescued from extinction and returned to their rightful place – the dinner plate.

Seafood dishes at Azurmendi showcase the best that the Marine Stewardship Council certified Basque fleet catches. Eneko, using his prominence to good effect, is also an MSC ambassador, fronting its Mares para Siempre campaign.
The local ties start at the back door of the restaurant. Together with the municipality of Larrabetzu, Azurmendi has been instrumental in a circular economy project which sees 250 families and four other bars and restaurants separate their organic waste and turn it into compost for local farmers.

Future-proofing
As well as a strong sense of the Basque food heritage, Eneko and his team are acutely aware of the need to secure the future. There’s a strong focus on developing the next generation of chefs and an keen awareness of wider sustainable development. To that end, they’ve developed a partnership with Basque University and created three annual scholarships for aspiring chefs at the restaurant. They’ve also formed close ties with the Basque Culinary Centre to provide learning activities for its students.

Eneko’s passion for sustainable, nutritious and healthy food means staff at the restaurant enjoy meals created with strict guidelines balancing vegetables, carbohydrates and protein, planned a month in advance. Eneko’s now extending this healthy eating regime beyond the four walls of Azurmendi. Building on the French definition of the word ‘restaurant’ – food that restores, he has created a menu for patients at the local hospital.

Already boasting solar panels and a geothermal system that heats the restaurant in winter and keeps it cool in summer, Azurmendi has taken a number of further positive environmental steps recently. It’s planted 800 trees around the restaurant and bought 100 hectares of forest nearby to compensate for its CO2 emissions. All lights across the estate were switched to LED in 2017 and an electric car charging point installed.

As you might expect from a restaurant where there is huge respect for its raw materials, Azurmendi is designed to operate with no waste – there are no walk-in coolers and food is delivered daily on the basis of the number of bookings and if there are any leftovers they are given to staff. Then the process starts again from scratch the next day.

Runners-up recipes
Thousands of miles away in rural, fertile Victoria, chef Dan Hunter makes the very most of the luxuriant larder on his doorstep. Brae’s own farm produces the vast majority of the food on the plate – everything from stone and citrus fruit through to nuts, honey and eggs. Like Azurmendi the menu is largely plant-led. Meat that is on the menu tends to be low-impact including free-range salt grass wallaby. And by next year guests will be able to enjoy bread made with home-grown bio-dynamic, organic wholegrain wheat.

Staff working in the kitchen at Relae which won the award in 2015 and 2016, can’t help but feel a closeness with the land. Every day a team of chefs and waiters go to its own Farm of Ideas to harvest vegetables. Like Azurmendi, there’s a strong nod to the past to help protect the future. Relae ran a Seed Exchange Festival in 2017 to promote interest and knowledge in seeds, seed saving and the consequences of seed legislation in Europe.

Borago also has its own farm and chef Rodolfo Guzman is on a mission to showcase the very best produce Chile has to offer. Foraged food features heavily on the menu, including many of Chile’s 750 varieties of seaweed and halophytes – plants that grow straight from the rocks and which have a very high protein content. And, instead of traditional coffee, guests at Borago are served its own version of an espresso made using the fruit of a tree called kirinka.
Such is Rodolfo’s devotion to his country’s natural pantry he has documented all the endemic ingredients used in the restaurant and has now made this encyclopaedia available online. Another outstanding example of a chef looking beyond the four walls of the kitchen, leading as well as feeding.

History tells us (recent admittedly) that while we should all be congratulating Eneko and his team at Azurmendi, any celebrations shouldn’t last too long. There is no time for resting on laurels in this fiendishly competitive world of sustainable fine-dining.