CASE STUDY: part eco restaurant, part cookery school

Green Living_53.jpg
Paul Kingsnorth meets the Bristol-based chef with an eco-friendly restaurant and a mission to take real food to a wider community.
Bristol has changed. When I lived near the city a decade ago, its old docks were run-down and crumbling, their water murky, their buildings empty. These days they’re fronted by pubs, bars and restaurants, spanned by a swanky new footbridge, moored with narrowboats and widely visited. Regeneration has arrived.

It’s quite a transformation, but not the only one going on here. For it’s on this reborn harbourfront that Barny Haughton runs Bordeaux Quay.

At first glance, Bordeaux Quay doesn’t look out of the ordinary. It fits in well with its transformed, upmarket surroundings. It’s a huge, white ex-warehouse at the end of the docks that has been converted into a restaurant, bar and brasserie. Inside, it’s spacious and open-plan; all light wood and high ceilings. A well-stocked bar lines one wall; the other features a mouthwatering cheese counter, a deli and open hatches in the wall through which you can see white-clad chefs at work in a stainless-steel kitchen. The staff are friendly and efficient and the food is great.

So far, so familiar, perhaps: another new gastro-eatery serving extra-virgin olive oil to the bourgeois foodies of a major city. But all is not as it seems. Bordeaux Quay is different. It is the result of almost a decade of work by its founder, award-winning chef Barny Haughton; and it’s not just a restaurant: it’s a mission.

For a start, the food served here is organic, and the vast majority of it will be sourced from named and monitored producers within a 50-mile radius. The building itself is as green as they come. All the building and refitting materials have been sustainably sourced, its carbon footprint has been reduced to its smallest possible size, natural airflow is harnessed in place of airconditioning, rainwater is used to flush the toilets; and everything that can be will be reused, composted or recycled. Even the wooden spoons come from sustainable forests.

But even more, Barny Haughton’s mission is to bring good, local organic food to the people. To take it beyond middle-class foodies. To give people on income support, young carers and the disadvantaged the practical skills to feed themselves with real food. To explode the current myth that good food is only for the rich. And Bordeaux Quay is the base camp from which he is going to do it.

He’s well-qualified for the task. Brought up in Yorkshire, Barny was taught to be ‘aware of the value of things’ by his green-minded family. ‘It’s been in my blood for as long as I can remember,’ he says. A chef for a quarter of a century, he first had a policy of using organic and local ingredients in 1988, long before most chefs had even heard of them. In 1992 he became chair of the judges for the Soil Association Organic Food Awards and in 1995 was elected to the Academy of Culinary Arts. He’s run event catering for the royals at Highgrove and Clarence House.

Over this time he’s also been developing ways to take real food to the wider community. He’s opened and run cookery schools for adults and children, developed a training programme for primary school cooks and piloted food education schemes for low-income families and young carers. Bordeaux Quay is the latest phase in his mission – the biggest so far, and the most ambitious.

‘What we’re doing here is massively different from an ordinary restaurant in so many ways,’ says Barny, as we sit at a table on the upper floor of Bordeaux Quay, looking out over the docks. ‘Even if you just took the core business of the restaurant, brasserie and bars – the way we’re sourcing our food locally, and only going for the really good stuff, that’s different. And we’re doing it for real. There’s a lot of talk from a lot of restaurants these days about doing things organically, but there’s not a lot of evidence to support it really happening.’

The point, says Barny, is to link all aspects of the process together, and make them work as a whole.

‘It has a certain integrity,’ he says. ‘I don’t mean that in a moral sense, I mean as part of the overall food concept. If, for example, we buy in a whole carcass of pork then we want to be able to use every bit of it. So it will be used in all these different areas. We can sell stuff in the shop, in the brasserie and in the restaurant, the cookery school can use other parts of it for demonstrations, and so on. It’s really a way of thinking – ensuring that nothing is wasted, and everything fits together.’

This part is challenging enough, even before Barny’s wider ambitions are taken into account. This is why Bordeaux Quay has taken the unique step of employing a Sustainable Development Manager, Amy Robinson, whose job is to oversee and continually improve the sustainability of the whole operation.

‘What she’s having to do,’ says Barny, ‘is take into account every aspect of this business, from the sustainability of the building itself to what comes in and out of it, from developing policy on environmental issues all the way down to the organic linen for the tablecloths, the staff education, our links with community groups, energy use, etc. And there are no models to follow, because no one else is really doing all this.’

As if on cue, one of the staff brings us a bottle of sparkling water. This, Barny tells me, is actually Bristol tap water – de-chlorinated, carbonised and as good as any expensive mineral water you’re likely to find. It’s locally sourced, high-quality, and customers can drink as much as they like without paying a penny. But there’s nothing on the bottle that advertises this fact, and most people drinking it probably have no idea. It’s a good example of his preferred approach – don’t boast about it. Just do it.

It’s also a good example of what has made Barny successful over the years. Because it tastes good; delicious, in fact. And what is at the heart of all of this is precisely that: the enjoyment provided by good food and drink. For Barny Haughton, it’s central to a good life. ‘Before I was aware of any bigger environmental issues, I was interested in food,’ he says. ‘And if you become passionate about food and ingredients – well, I defy anybody to be a real chef and not care about where it comes from. That’s what it’s all about.’

It’s certainly been in his bones for a long time. Barny cooked his first major meal – coq au vin – at the age of nine. If it tasted anything like as good as the moules frites and home-cut chips that I had for lunch at Bordeaux Quay, it would be well worth eating.

‘Everybody loves food,’ he says with certainty. ‘Even if they think they don’t. It’s like the kids we have coming here for cookery classes. You ask, “What don’t you like?” So they give you a list as long as your arm, and we say, “Right, we’re going to use those ingredients.” And when they start playing with those things themselves, most of them – 80 per cent – will eat what they cooked, and love it.’

His passion for food is clear, but Barny is also passionate about Bordeaux Quay being a real, working part of the local community. ‘I wanted this place to be for Bristol,’ he says. ‘It was about the Bristol community rather than simply about a grand restaurant with aspirations towards sustainability.’

This is where the community work comes in. The Bordeaux Quay cookery school (which, like the restaurant, opened last autumn) is a not-for-profit venture. All the revenue it generates will be returned to a community fund, which will allow low-income families and underprivileged children to attend specially designed, free courses. Barny and his chefs will give hands-on lessons for small groups, teaching them how to cook, how to source food, where to buy it – and how to enjoy it.

‘In May,’ he says, ‘we’re launching our Community Food Education Programme. Part of it will be offering training at primary school level, showing school cooks how to make decent food with decent ingredients at a low price. We’re talking about cooperatives of schools clubbing together in a small catchment area of the city, facilitated by Bordeaux Quay, to train and coordinate producers, growers and farmers.’

A few years ago, staff working for the Princess Royal Trust Carers Centre in Bristol spotted an advert for one of Barny’s cookery courses. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if he could do something like that for our young carers – under-18s from poorer families, burdened with the task of caring for adults, siblings or ill relatives. So they called Barny, who was more than keen to help. He offered free places on the cookery courses at his previous restaurant, and obtained sponsorship to take 12 young carers on a day course to teach them about fresh, healthy food.

‘It’s been terrific,’ says Jo Holborn, Senior Carers’ Support Officer at the Carers Centre. ‘Often, the kids we work with eat a lot of takeaways and ready meals, because they have really busy, difficult lives. What Bordeaux Quay does is give them the awareness of how easy it is to cook a real meal – and what fun it is. We asked Barny at the outset not to do fancy wholefood stuff. We wanted stuff that they could make at home – shepherd’s pie, soup, meatballs – and he was on exactly the same wavelength. It gives them a real boost, knowing they’ve done it themselves, and we’ve had fantastic feedback. We’ve had families ringing up, saying, “Jamie cooked a whole roast dinner all on his own!” Some of them have even said they want to go on to be cooks.’

For Barny, this proves an important point. ‘Food is a class issue,’ he says firmly. ‘There’s no reason why people with less money should have to eat rubbish. It’s all about information and confidence and access to ingredients. If this very small model enables people to come away understanding how to get five meals out of a chicken, what to do with the vegetables that they see in the farmers’ market but don’t even know the name of, how to shop seasonally, and – very important – to know that it’s cheaper to do it that way… if this can help to spread that message, then that’s got to help.’

Barny has been trying to spread this message for two decades. Recently it’s a message that has become much more common, in the wider availability and increased popularity of organic and local food, and in the prominent campaigns of celebrity chefs like Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver. Is he heartened by this development?

‘I think Hugh would not thank you for calling him a celebrity chef,’ Barny chuckles. ‘I think he’s great, and so is Jamie, but you can’t depend on them to lead the way in terms of how we eat. You know, if you want better food in schools, you’re going to have to train cooks, you’re going to have to spend money. Two years ago, after what Jamie exposed in School Dinners, there was this great outrage, politicians were harping on about how something must be done – but it hasn’t been followed up. The commitment isn’t there.’ It frustrates him, he says, this lack of interest from the government, in what should be a crucial subject – the health and nutritional needs of its citizens, especially the poorer ones.

‘We get people writing in after our classes, saying “it’s changed my life.” And what’s frustrating is that we know what’s possible. But the City Council, the Education Department and Department of Health, they need to wake up. The change is all coming from smaller groups, from charities, from places like this, from community organisations. It’s not coming from government, and they need to buck their ideas up.’

Yet Barny is, he says, optimistic about the possibilities. Things are finally moving in the right direction. ‘If this kind of exposure for Bordeaux Quay plants seeds, and if other people can be encouraged or inspired by it – fantastic,’ he says. ‘It’s really about spreading the message. Now we need that message to be taken up by those in power. Think what that could achieve.’

Contact details

Bordeaux Quay, V-Shed,
Canons Way, Bristol BS1 5UH

Reservations: 0117 9431200
General enquiries: 0117 9065550

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007

More from this author