On a mission in promoting sustainable food and to raise awareness of the benefits of plant-based cuisine.
Peggy Chan is the executive director of Zero Foodprint Asia and chef-consultant of Grassroots Initiatives. She was trained in Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa and has worked in L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Hong Kong and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, among other places. Peggy Chan established Grassroots Pantry in 2012 as a training ground for young F&B professionals ready and willing to challenge traditional food service operations. The award-winning plant-based restaurant became Hong Kong’s first carbon-neutral business. She has been singled out by the United Nations Sustainable (SDG) Programme, the Basque Culinary World Prize 2019, the prestigious Global Wellness Summit, and other authoritative organisations for her commitment to sustainability in F&B, subsequently, she earned the HK Awards for Environmental Excellence in the Service Industry. An authority on food sustainability in Asia and a CISL* CPD certified net-zero strategist, Peggy developed the Grassroots Initiatives Consultancy to help accelerate and implement responsible F&B business practices; to veer the industries from degenerative to regenerative. She is the key driver of Hong Kong’s green-eating movement that believes the future of plant-based cuisine would be normalisation. She is a increasingly vocal activist for issues related to her work as a chef and entrepreneur. Aside from avoiding processed ingredients and sourcing locally and regionally, the trailblazing chef pushes her menus forward by incorporating a variety of raw food techniques and ensuring that each creation is nutrient-rich.
This interview first appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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How and when did you understand you wanted to be a Chef? Have you always had this clear in your mind? What motivated you?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking as a child as my mother was (and still is) an amazing cook. I often prepped alongside her and would tag along many of the cooking classes she attended before I even turned 13. However, I never thought that becoming a chef would be possible for a woman, nor had I known any professional women chefs I could look up to. I had only known my mom to be a great cook for the purpose of entertaining as a housewife. I think I was about 18 years old when I realised that it was a possible career choice. At the time I was in my first year of university studying fine arts, but quickly realised that dorm life and the constant come and go of people with different dreams and skills weren’t really for me. As a rebellious teenager, I needed some more structure and consistency in my life. That’s when my guidance counsellor back then nudged me towards trying out professional culinary. And to this day, I find surrounding myself with people who have similar passions, ambitions, and drive is what inspires me and helps me develop most.
Can you share with us some of your childhood food memories? Who has been your biggest influence or font of inspiration, and why?
My helpers who took care of me most as a toddler introduced me to balut, pancit, and suman. My dad who was born out of poverty in China in the 1950s taught us never to waste a single granule of rice. For this reason, any chance we had when visiting different provinces in China, he would make us try exotic ingredients such as pigs’ brain, beating snakes’ hearts, and stir-fried bee larvae so that we’re reminded to always stay grateful for what we have. Growing up in Montreal, one of the most culturally diverse cities in Canada, we were very fortunate to be exposed to different cultures at an early age. Authentic Lebanese, Vietnamese, Jewish, Italian, Thai and French cuisines prepared by immigrants who all learned to live harmoniously cultivated my appreciation for diversity and inclusivity. My biggest influence has to be Alice Waters who opened Chez Panisse 50 years ago. Farm-to-table cuisine and Edible schoolyard was still new in the vast space of gastronomic history back in the early 2000s, and I was instantly hooked when I learned that a woman can cook professionally, run a business, educate and create a difference in the world; all at the same time.
What do you love most about your job? What are the greatest rewards?
I’ve never just been a chef-chef. I don’t think I would enjoy dish creation or managing a kitchen if I didn’t also try to create meaning with my advocacy for animal welfare and environmental causes. Cooking solely plant-based seems to allow me to do all of the above. Even when I was working for others, I always integrated hobbies that kept me working to better myself or humanity – yoga, meditation, learning how to incorporate and prepare whole foods, health, and nutrition, and of course food policy, and food systems sustainability. When I started Grassroots Pantry, I never once thought, “oh I’m going to be famous by pioneering this new cuisine or lifestyle.” That wasn’t the reason why I opened a restaurant. The community piece and the potential for impact was my main driver, but it doesn’t take away my passion for culinary and hospitality either. As the Dalaï Lama says, the most sustainable way to extend compassion is the practice of selfish selflessness, because one must learn to take care of your own personal needs first in order to truly help others in the long run. In my case, I got to do everything I loved, despite how difficult things got, ultimately, compassion was what kept me going. So I guess the greatest reward is being able to do everything that I love, making a difference while earning a living for it. Not a lot of people get to realise their passions, let alone being able to do what they want.
How and when did you start to get interested in healthy food?
Pretty much right as soon as I finished culinary school at 20. I stopped eating red meat when I was 16 for animal welfare, spiritual, and health reasons. But I also wasn’t healthy, mentally. When I decided to clean my life up and started doing yoga, meditation, and eating less junk, consuming more whole foods just came with the lifestyle. Where everyone my age would have been eating Domino’s Pizza or pub food, I’d be getting my bulk grains and organic veggies from the hippie stores and farmers’ market, feeding myself with grain bowls and kelp miso soup. Over time, I felt better physically, and mentally. The time that I had put in to work on myself, inside out, to turn my depression into compassion for others is really what gave me the strength to do what I did with Grassroots in my later years.
How has Covid19 affected and influenced your project? What were the biggest challenges during the pandemic?
Closing Nectar after just 6 months of operating was painful, as at the time, it really felt that I was finally able to slow down from gp’s 7-days 14 hr trade business model. After running GP for 7 years, Nectar was a way for me to slow down, and elevate biodiverse, nutrient-dense plant-based cuisine. On top of that I had plans to start pollen lab – what would have been a sustainability culinary institution as well as a consultancy on the side, as more and more hospitality companies were coming to me for F&B sustainability advice and menu design. I always say that what happened in HK in late 2019 was a precursor to what was to come with the pandemic, and as much as we had tried everything we could to stay afloat in late 2019, I ultimately made the decision to close down the restaurant, by happenstance, one month before the first Covid case landed in HK. For that, I will be forever grateful to whoever that was looking out for us. As we were incredibly lucky to not have to go through the challenges that many in the industry ended up having to deal with.
A sustainable business can only truly be sustainable if the business’ revenue carries itself through, and is able to pay for all of its monthly overheads. The truth is, that is rarely how HK restaurants work. Cash flow runs out, and owners end up having to call up capital in order to extend their lifeline. I absolutely would not have wanted my restaurant to go down that way, to rely on handouts.
Grassroots Initiatives is a social enterprise with experience assisting food service and hospitality companies in developing sustainability strategies, implementing best practices, and establishing measurable KPIs. The team has combined 50-plus years of operational, management, and C-suite experience in the hospitality industry, allowing GI to create tailored solutions specific to their client’s needs. GI consultancy is equipped to deliver tangible results for all layers of the business, from menu research and development to conducting sustainable operations training; setting in-house carbon emissions reduction targets to assisting teams in measuring and reporting ongoing impact.
You are the founder, executive director of Grassroots Initiatives and Zero Foodprint Asia, what is the philosophy behind them?
GI is our consultancy where we work with hospitality and restaurant operators to tackle changes directly in their business, integrate best practices and monitor the improvements on the management and operational level. With Covid sparked a new wave of sustainable food concepts that new founders wanted to integrate into their brands. Operators and founders reached out to us for menu development and training work, as industry chefs weren’t (and many still aren’t) capable of creating innovative, zero-waste, low-carbon, well-balanced, and tasty plant-based dishes. There’s a lot to be done here. Finally, the consultancy is now also heavily focused on Food Sustainability M&E for our clients, which I would say the industry still wasn’t ready for in the last 3 years. I believe it’s time that the success of a restaurant isn’t purely based on revenue or how many awards It wins, but on whether sustainability targets are actually met. ZFPA on the other hand tackles systemic problems across the wider food and agricultural sector. Because without systems change, there is no true sustainability. For example would be: food waste treatment. Training chefs to reduce food waste, collect data on how much food waste they chuck out, or learn to create dishes using scraps isn’t going to solve the food waste issue on its own. It requires systemic solutions, logistics and facilities set in place as well as policies to enforce waste reduction right at the source.
Another example: we know sourcing organic is better than conventional, but it’s not affordable and readily available. However, chefs design menus based on food cost ‘budget’ – so nothing ends up being changed to help more farms actually become organic. (known fact, despite the organic label having been around for ~60 years, only less than 2% of arable land in the world are certified organic). Which is why ZFPA works to engage, educate and utilises a crowdfunding model to encourage food and hospitality to participate in creating a renewable food system. Just 1% added to every bill, in aggregate, can help to fund the transition on thousands of acres of farms from conventional to regenerative. In the last 3 years, ZFP US has raised USD1.2 million, supporting 65 farming projects in California and Colorado in this transition, with as much GHG benefit as not burning over 17 million liters of gas. We lead the Asia arm and are responsible for cultivating a network of chefs and food business leaders around the importance of financing soil restoration, while we work to push the envelope on the science and guidance around soil health which is only just starting to develop in Asia.
How much has Zero Foodprint Asia grown since it started? What are the milestones you have achieved so far, and what benefits people can get from being more conscious?
The growth has been slow due to Covid interruptions, and other ongoing crises (climate disasters, war, price increases), and that already takes up most of people’s short attention span. But to date, we have funded 10 projects with approximately 80 restaurant partners and supporters on board. Moreover, we have grown tremendously as operators of this non-profit. We understand that ZFPA’s cause is not the easiest to explain. Is it about supporting local farming, is it about climate change? What I can say is we need to do everything all at the same time to truly meet the gravity of the crisis, so ZFPA’s model taps into solving problems from the root up, quite literally. It’s actually a very simple way for diners and restaurants to contribute. The restaurants help crowdfund 1% from every bill, essentially paid for by the diners. More restaurants come on board to pledge, more diners dine at ZFPA partner restaurants, more business they generate means more funds that can help support farmers to adopt regen ag. More regen farms = more biodiversity = happier farmer = healthier soil = healthier crops = healthier society. It’s not a surprise why subsidies currently going into industrial ag is also what’s driving more need for healthcare. At the end of the day, health is wealth. Healthier soil is wealth. Equipping farmers with the tools and knowledge to keep us nutritiously fed is wealth. Being self-sufficient and resilient is wealth. So if you want to be a conscious consumer, invest in your farmers that care deeply about the health of our ecosystems.
Zero Foodprint Asia is managed and licensed by Grassroots Initiatives and is part of a global non-profit working to address systemic issues in the industrial food system. The mission is to raise funds via restaurants and food businesses to grant farmers who want to transition away from the current extractive food system towards more regenerative farming practices; helping to protect soil, produce more nutritious food, and help solve climate change by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
How much are people nowadays concerned about health, food, and the environment?
Concerned but also helpless.
Do you believe that there is a growing awareness that everyone can help the environment by making simple food changes?
For the past 10-15 years I would’ve said yes. But small changes alone aren’t enough. People want ease and convenience. If 1% is taken from what they’re already paying (on a meal) to fund regenerative projects in the region, it just seems like a no brainer doesn’t it?
What are the most difficult obstacles to overcome when introducing plant-based cuisine? Are habits and lifestyles difficult to re-educate, despite the knowledge of beneficial improvements for health and the planet?
10-15 years ago, it was ‘but where would I get my protein from’?
Today, it is ‘but is this protein good for me and the environment?’
There is always a reason for why adopting a pb diet is difficult and mostly it stems from culture. If you tap into ppls cultures and make food taste good, everybody can become a conscious consumer. What you don’t want is to appropriate what a ‘conscious’ ‘sustainable’ diet means for everyone. How I do that in the kitchen is to make chefs familiarise themselves with the reference of the dish, incorporate their way of cooking it, and substitute the meat with a plant ingredient.
Has your life changed since you started to be environmentally conscious? What advice would you give to people to arouse this awareness? What advice do you think was important to you, and could make a difference for others too?
I don’t remember life when I wasn’t environmentally conscious. I am part of the environment, the environment is what makes me. But I also understand not everybody feels the same. Be in tune and spend more time out in nature. If there is one thing I hope everyone has learned, individualism can no longer exist in this post-Covid era. Cherish what you can do and what we can achieve when we come together.
Photo courtesy of Peggy Chan