Chef Conor Spacey reflects upon how his culinary career led to the creation of FoodSpace, a champion of sustainable food. He talks to Joe McNamee.
In the food service sector, restaurants generally tend to hoover up all the attention and plaudits while those chefs working in contract catering (hospitals, public and private sector canteens etc) are often viewed as distinctly second-class citizens in the hospitality hierarchy and if you’ve ever had the misfortune to eat Irish hospital food, you may well agree.
Times, though, have changed and many will equally testify to the contrary, citing improving standards in their own workplace canteens but there is one Irish catering company, Food Space, that ranks as quite probably the most progressive organisation in the country when it comes to delivering truly sustainable food, its daily practices an infallible roadmap for any professional kitchen, from the lowliest cafe to any of our Michelin-starred restaurants, seeking to implement serious change for the better in their daily culinary practice.
What’s more, they have just opened a restaurant for use by the general public, Ink, in Dun Laoghaire, with most ingredients usually sourced from within 50 miles of the restaurant, no single use plastics — including clingfilm — and menus pinned to cardboard recycled from delivery boxes.
Food Space is headed up by Director of Services Grainne Carberry and Executive Chef and Head of Food Development Conor Spacey. Born and raised in Arklow, Co Wicklow, and now well-settled in Gorey, Co Wexford with his wife and two children, Spacey admits such a position would have been the last thing on his mind when first setting out to make his way in the world.
“I kind of accidentally fell into the cheffing career,” says Spacey, “It was never something planned. After the Inter Cert [precursor to today’s Junior Cert], I went to England in the 90s for a summer holiday working experience and got into a hotel as a kitchen porter and fell in love with the scene, the energy, adrenaline rush, the prepping, the buzz of service.
“I always had an interest in food, I always enjoyed food — that came from my Mum, we always had good home cooked food every day. I loved eating, I loved food, had an interest in flavours.
After a few years, back home in Ireland for Christmas, Spacey was approached by a local family, the Sharpes, to come in as head chef in a pub called Kitty’s of Arklow that they were determined to turn into one of Ireland’s very first gastropubs.
“They were from a farming background,” says Spacey, “and food was something they were very passionate about and they wanted to do pub food really well, using good ingredients. Over ten years, we grew to having 15 chefs and a 200 seater venue — there were two extensions added in that time. It built a big name, in the days before the internet, it was all about the food, the quality, the ingredients, local growers were coming in with produce, it just grew and grew.
Eventually the family decided to sell up but Spacey didn’t immediately dive into another job.
“When the family decided to retire from the business after a very successful ten years, they sold it and I stepped back and worked in a few places consulting, helping out, and saw a lot of people actually weren’t doing what I thought they should be doing — it was more about bottom line rather than about the food.”
Spacey opened his own catering company, Nubo, which in turn enjoyed great success until the downturn saw business take a massive hit as many of his clients were from the banking and financial sector. Then Apleona came calling.
“Apleona are a European wide facilities management company based in Germany,” says Spacey, “offering a suite of services to companies, from security to maintenance to car parks to gardens to energy management — sustainable energy is a big thing for them — they literally manage the infrastructure around a company’s business, and operate right across Europe.
“They had set up in Ireland and were doing little bits of catering but nothing substantial but they wanted to be able to offer full services and also include catering to clients but there was no one with a background.
"Me and Grainne started within a week of each other and she looks after the financial end and I slag her that I get to do all the fun stuff with the ingredients and chefs and all. We are very much on the same wavelength, that’s why we were brought together and we work well together. We both have the same vision and ethos for Food Space [the catering arm of Apleona’s business].
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“Contract catering is a very busy space, there are a lot of big companies already there, but Apleona wanted the food side to reflect their commitment to sustainability in energy etc. They didn’t want to be just another contract caterer — from a business point of view, there was no point in going to the market and joining all the others doing the same thing. We don’t think like those companies so our whole setup is very different. Others are very procurement driven — if they can get chickens in at half the price, then they will, For us, it was about bringing something new to the market that wasn’t being catered for at the time.
“On a European level this was their first serious engagement with catering. Ray Casey, Apleona CEO, describes it as a ‘boutique catering company’ — what he means by that, is we have a very clear ethos around what we do and so looked for clients to fit that ethos rather than changing to fit them.”
Apleona had won a European-wide contract with a particular pharmaceutical company and that included five Irish hubs.
“Our first task was to roll out five work-based restaurants across Ireland — Donegal, Cavan, Sligo, Longford, and Clonmel, Tipperary — so that was to be spread out over so many months. When you win these contracts, you are taking over from existing caterers — some local, some ‘bigger boys’ — and that meant you inherited the employment contracts of the staff so when we go in, we offer to keep on all existing contracted staff, front of house and kitchen management and most of them want to stay. I don’t we’ve ever lost anyone actually.
“We had to retrain everyone to a different food ethos. They would have been used to one big lorry coming in with food from wherever and then cooking according to established processes and recipes but I started in Donegal and began meeting local farmers and producers and we had a lot of boxes we needed ticked on sustainability and sourcing.
We gradually worked our way down the country, training the teams on cooking from scratch and cooking seasonal, which was a big thing. Irish produce would always be preferred to imported produce. The chefs that stayed or came in from other companies were reinvigorated, they embraced it as a whole new challenge in a good way.”
Tackling food waste has become a major plank of any sustainable catering strategy but Spacey is especially committed. “I always say I’m on a zero waste journey although you are always asking, ‘can you be truly zero waste?’ If I have a guy roasting coffee for me using Columbian coffee beans, what has happened on that journey of the bean to the cup? I am always saying we can control the waste in the kitchens but I’m also asking what is happening elsewhere.
Continuing with the coffee example, we use a lot of different local coffee roasters throughout the country, but one company, Bell Lane in Mullingar, we are working closely with Stephen Bell, taking the husks (winnowed from the bean during the roasting process) and combining them with the used coffee grounds and it is almost like a pickle. I marinate beef in it for 72 hours and it’s almost like a pastrami. It’s like doing a corned beef: pierce the beef, slow roast and a taste I’d best describe as pastrami. It doesn’t taste of coffee it is rich, umami, almost chocolate-y. That’s one example of how we look at our waste.
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“In our bigger kitchens, we’d be chopping a lot of exotic fruits that we have to serve, melons, pineapples, but we ferment the skins for eight weeks. Onion skins, we roast and dehydrate. Hotels would buy in bouillons but we in effect make our own with the tops and tails of veg. We take whey from ricotta, which we make and use it for barley porridges or as a base for a ferment, The people dining in our canteens are eating better, Kombucha, ferments, scobys and so on these are for their gut health. We make a Kim Chee cauliflower which is a huge veg in Ireland and we turn the leaves and the stalks into a Kim Chee, using sea salt, sugar, ginger, garlic and carrot for sweetness. The Koreans use fermented fish sauce but we found that didn’t suit the palate for a lot of our diners so we calmed it down a bit.
“All these things but we are not reinventing the wheel; these ideas are from a history that we lost and we are bringing them back.”
In addition to dealing with food waste, Food Space also look at other areas of the kitchen where sustainability might be improved and single use plastics are currently very much in their sights, most especially in Ink, Food Space’s zero waste restaurant, operating out of Dun Laoghaire’s Lexicon Library and Cultural hub.
“Apleona as a company already manage the facilities at the Lexicon and we also saw it as an opportunity to showcase what Foodspace does in the contract catering side of the business
FoodSpace is not just a local success story, having procured a three-star rating from the international not-for-profit Sustainable Restaurant Association, an organisation that works to help the food service sector to achieve sustainability in their daily work practices.
Andrew Stephen, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, said: “For a catering business to launch across 14 sites and achieve three stars in the SRA’s sustainability rating, all in a year, is an outstanding achievement.”
In addition, Food Space is signed up to the Chef’s Manifesto, another global campaigning group of chefs committed to working to achieve the 2nd of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals: To end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.
“Chef’s Manifesto is basically a collaboration of chefs across the world at this stage to come up with ideas and plans on how to fix our broken food system and to work on sustainable development goals. The UN has 17 but we concentrate on zero hunger but when you look at them all, they are some way connected with food.
“I got involved through the Sustainable Restaurant Association in London who we worked with and we got together June two years ago so we’re meeting very soon for a second anniversary. There are 200 chefs involved globally, in Africa, India, Europe, the US, quite a big group now using the chef’s manifesto as a platform.”
“I’ve tried stuff that never will work — zero waste is sometimes like a Pandora’s box, you find one solution but it leads to another problem.
“We are trying to be responsible, if I have a purse of money and can buy for my customers, does it not make sense to buy Irish seasonal, sustainable and locally sourced produce? I feel it is my responsibility as a chef to do that.”