x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

We investigate The Taste Initiative cafe's claim of sustainability

When we received information about a new venue claiming to be the UAE's first sustainable cafe, we knew we had to learn more. Here's what we discovered.

Gundeep Singh, the founder and chief executive of The Change Initiative. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Gundeep Singh, the founder and chief executive of The Change Initiative. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The Taste Initiative is a cafe housed within The Change Initiative, a large store on Sheikh Zayed Road that opened earlier this year and sells environmentally friendly products.

If you make your way through the high-ceilinged, light-flooded store, taking in the glasses made from recycled bottles, the eco-friendly fabric softener, solar-cell lamps, organic make-up and children's toys, you'll come to the bright, clean cafe.

Gundeep Singh, the chief executive and founder of The Change Initiative, says that the idea behind the cafe is to serve "high quality food at a reasonable cost, with a focus on fresh ingredients".

Singh explains that portion sizes have been carefully designed with well-being and minimal wastage in mind. "I call the plates 'little morsels of love'. We work on the premise that it is so much better to have a well-judged plate of something delicious, rather than an oversized portion of something mediocre. We don't overfeed our customers, so there is very little in the way of leftovers."

UAE's first sustainable cafe

This is a big claim to make and one that invites scrutiny, but Singh is confident that this isn't merely a hollow, media-friendly assertion.

"Everything we've done has been with lifestyle and sustainability together in mind; we have worked hard and invested a lot of money in making the cafe and the building itself sustainable, beginning with the infrastructure. The stainless steel in the kitchen is made from recycled materials, the taps are low flow, the paint we have used is low VOC [volatile organic compound], our ovens are induction ones, which are twice as efficient as gas, our equipment is LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified and we use LED lighting, with energy harnessed from the solar panels on the roof."

As we tour the restaurant area, noting the mosaics made from recycled materials, the absence of plastic bottles and paper tray liners and the plates from the local company RAK Ceramics, it is clear that serious thought has gone into this - it's not a flash in the pan project for Singh. Other items that add to the cafe's sustainable credentials include a Hoshizaki ROX machine which ionises water to allow for the chemical-free washing of ingredients; the use of Bokashi bins to compost any waste; chemical-free, plant-based cleaning products; and the Vitra finish on the tables and chairs.

"We have tried our very best not just to create a sustainable environment, but to prove that it can be done and that importantly, this is a viable endeavour," says Singh.

But what about the food?

While this all sounds commendable, the obvious question here is that given the region we live in, how can a cafe claim to be sustainable when ingredients need to be flown in from all over the world?

"The idea is very simple: if you look at sustainable ingredients they should be healthy and as much as possible locally procured. If we can get something close by we will, but that isn't always possible," says Singh.

From looking at the menu, it is clear that many of the items would be very difficult to source without racking up air miles and on this point Singh admits that this drive towards ensuring that the food can be called sustainable and local is an "ongoing project".

"We are continually learning and will continue to strive to do this, but it is a constant battle. We have to also be commercially viable and provide our customers with choice. In four months time, we hope to be doing more."

The menu

The menu reads very nicely, the gist being light, healthy and wholesome, but still tasty and enticing.

Breakfast options include a selection of granolas - banana, raisin and maple syrup, toasted coconut and pomegranate, almond, apricot and vanilla - served with yoghurt; griddled crumpets; and wholegrain English muffins topped with the likes of Portobello mushrooms and spinach or smoked salmon, creme fraiche and capers. There are interesting-sounding salads - minted pea and pearl barley with grilled tuna; salmon, green apple and smoked paprika; sandwiches filled with aged cheddar, white grape and shallot compote; one featuring turkey harissa and blackened red pepper; as well as a few large main course dishes.

While it is clear that in terms of sourcing their ingredients as locally as possible there is still work to be done, it does seem that at The Taste Initiative the impetus is there. Perhaps some time over the next year or so they really will be able to call themselves a fully sustainable cafe. For now, though, both the store and its cafe are well worth a look.

The Taste Initiative is located in The Change Initiative in Al Barsha 1, Dubai.