'I didn’t want to make money if it was detrimental to the people or the planet. How could I?'
Step inside The Duke of Cambridge pub in north London, and it hardly seems like the field headquarters of a militant food revolutionary.
At one table, diners pore over a menu featuring ‘Grilled herring with braised puy lentils’ and ‘Wild mushroom risotto with pecorino cheese’. At another, a lone drinker quietly reads the newspaper over a pint of lager.
Only when you reach the bar does the counter look queasily unfamiliar: on the beer pumps, not a single brand is recognisable
(where are the Carlsberg, Stella and Boddingtons?), while on the shelves behind, the iconic labels of Schweppes and Britvic are
‘We never buy from multinationals,’ says Geetie Singh, the pioneering Asian businesswoman who founded The Duke, the world’s first organic gastropub in 1998, ‘which is why you won’t find sachets of Heinz ketchup. I can’t be sure they are doing the right thing, meeting my ethical criteria, so the only way is to stick with small companies run by their owners.’
It’s a radical, highly politicised stance that has won the 36-year-old awards for entrepreneurial vision and created a new, principled business model for others to follow. However, Singh’s shunning of global corporations is no more unusual than her food policy. The herring on the menu is sourced from one of the 11 fisheries approved by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and all The Duke’s fish is from non-depleted stocks, caught using sustainable methods.
Prawns are banned – even wild ones – because they are ‘completely unethical’. Like the vast majority of the food, all the beers are organic (from the Freedom and Pitfield lagers to the Shoreditch stout and East Kent Goldings light ale), as are the wines and mixers. The tea, coffee, sugar and chocolate are Fairtrade, the electricity is solar-generated, and the fruit and vegetables are seasonal and locally grown wherever possible. Nothing is processed or pre-packaged (to avoid packaging waste) and nothing is air-freighted (to cut food miles and emissions).
So exacting are Singh’s standards, that no other pub has matched The Duke on its impeccable green record. It remains the only pub to be certified by the Soil Association, meaning that 95 per cent of its ingredients are organic. Even the non-organic ones have to be approved by the same stringent body, to make sure organic alternatives if they exist have not been overlooked. ‘With other certifiers,’ Singh explains, ‘it’s only 70 per cent organic and the other 30 per cent can be anything you bloody like.’
It’s the first expletive of many, a sign of her raging indignation at the themed, soulless pub and restaurant industry. ‘My reason for opening The Duke was environmental,’ says Singh, who was brought up in a hippie commune and trained as an opera singer before managing other people’s restaurants for five years, ‘but I wasn’t on a mission to save the planet. It was more that I didn’t want to make money if it was detrimental to the people or the planet. How could I?’
In restaurants, she had witnessed everything from bullying chefs and tearful waitresses to outright exploitation. ‘There was no minimum wage,’ she says, ‘and sometimes you wouldn’t get paid, so you’d live off your tips and there was your f’ing boss driving an f’ing Porsche! That made me really furious.’
For her, there was no choice but to open a restaurant that was ‘sustainable, self-sufficient, with as minimal an impact as possible’. She set out to create a ‘damn good gastropub’, more democratic and down-to-earth than a restaurant with the added marketing advantage that it was organic. By using small local producers and micro-breweries, she hoped to boost a flagging rural economy, revive the declining craft brewing industry and encourage diversity – all of which she has.
From the outset, The Duke has been busy every night. While customers scarcely noticed the limitations of a seasonal menu or the vagaries of the organic supply chain, the pioneering staff preparing the food were exasperated by Singh’s steely resolve to be 100 per cent ethical.
‘Our first chef, Caroline, was massively frustrated because she couldn’t use the ingredients she wanted,’ Singh admits. ‘She found it impossible when broccoli was substituted for potatoes because the supplier didn’t have any, or when she had to order all her vegetables for a week, five days ahead. You just don’t know, especially with a start-up restaurant, how much you’re going to need.’
For a chef, though, wasn’t it an exciting liberation to make creative use of whatever showed up? ‘I don’t think Caroline ever found it liberating,’ says Singh with a sardonic laugh. ‘When she left, she vowed to cook prawns, and fly salami all the way from Italy. She felt liberated by leaving!’
Despite such difficulties, The Duke has had only three chefs since it opened, a low turnover that Singh attributes to the autonomy and equality she gives employees. ‘They all come to staff meetings, the accounts are open so they know what I earn, what everyone else earns, and how much the company makes.’
Being organic is a small part of the equation.‘It’s about being an ethical business where you’re considering the impact you’re having from every angle,’ she says. As a result, she never stops refining her philosophy and moving forward in her thinking.
A good example is her fish policy. For Singh, who is troubled as much by the dwindling livelihood of fishermen as by plummeting fish stocks, even the MSC’s enlightened policy isn’t good enough. ‘Not only am I buying local fish off day-boats, but I’m buying anything, provided it’s not endangered, that they’ve caught.’ It’s admirable, but would her chef thank her for it? ‘Probably not,’ she says. ‘I mean, what can he do with only one monkfish!’
Sometimes, though, ecological highmindedness has to be sacrificed in the face of commercial reality. ‘For the business to succeed,’ says Singh, ‘it has to be an excellent gastropub first of all, so I need to employ great chefs. But I’m not going to keep my chef if she can only use onions and potatoes in February – I’m not going to survive. I have to compromise on my values in some areas.’ Like what? ‘We now get our f’ing peppers from Spain, don’t we?’
Nevertheless, Singh is light years ahead of restaurants that call themselves ‘organic’ because they have certified meat or a handful of other items on the menu. EU law has been reinterpreted so that such terminology is legal as long as the owner is telling the truth. ‘Producers can’t use the word organic without being certified,’ says Singh. ‘Caterers can and it’s self-declaration. Nobody monitors it.’
These days there is no excuse for being a pretender rather than the genuine article. ‘Things have changed dramatically,’ she says, ‘it’s so much easier now to operate ethically. There are more suppliers and there is no reason why your electricity shouldn’t be green. I understand why people don’t do it because it’s a hassle, but I’m surprised no one has. The day The Duke opened, I thought everyone would open organic pubs.’
Clearly, not everybody has Geetie Singh’s mettle or her masochism. Why should other restaurateurs choose such a difficult path? ‘I’m
doing it because I believe in it,’ she says, ‘but there is another reason: the customers love it, and I love it.’
GEETIE’S PUB GUIDE
1. Support your local, independent pub
2. Encourage them to stock local beers, if they don’t already, and to avoid multinational brands if brave enough!
3. Come and see us! Duke of Cambridge
30 St Peters Street
Tel: 020 7359 3066
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2006