This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Perhaps the most important things to say about the Water House restaurant, which has just opened in Shoreditch, north east London, are that its food is good, the service is friendly and that it offers excellent value for money. The restaurant is also comfortable, with a view out on to the Regent’s Canal, even if this is not its most beautiful stretch, and the bar and open kitchen beyond are easy on the eye.
All of this is crucial because the unlikely partners behind the Water House are aiming much, much higher. Their goals, other than creating a restaurant that does as little harm to the environment as possible, are to regenerate a run down part of London; to train local people into gainful employment; and to make a reasonable return for the regeneration trust that has backed them. All of those involved have realised from the beginning that none of these ambitions, however worthy, will be achieved if the food and wine on offer are not good enough. Happily, they certainly are.
The Water House’s location does not make these ambitions easy to achieve. Orsman Road has seen better days and although the restaurant itself is in a modern building comprising social and private housing, it is right next to a police station. The better-known Kingsland Road, no more than 200 metres away, brings the Turkish Suleymaniye mosque with its tall minaret into view and further along a string of London’s most authentic Vietnamese restaurants. The even taller buildings of London’s financial district are clearly visible in the distance.
‘Mixed’ may be an inadequate adjective to describe this area but it is precisely this lack of homogeneity which excites the Water House’s unlikely financial backer, Michael Pyner. The son of a docker, Pyner trained as a teacher before moving into the field of urban regeneration as CEO of the charitable Shoreditch Trust (www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk) and control of a budget of £60 million.
At the end of a lecture he gave three years ago, Pyner was approached by Andy Monroe from the Terence Higgins Trust, which had a corner site available in King’s Cross that, he hoped, could be of interest. Shortly afterwards Pyner met Arthur Potts Dawson and Jamie Grainger-Smith, the former a chef, the latter a restaurateur, who were beginning to plot a new career for themselves as consultants in a company whose name, Eat Green, speaks for itself.
The result of this unusual union was Acorn House, London’s first environmentally friendly restaurant, which opened in November 2006 and within a year had not only set a benchmark for those beginning to appreciate the environmental damage restaurants cause but had also passed the significant million pound turnover mark. Acorn House has fully validated Pyner’s decision to invest £300,000 in it.
When I asked Pyner whether it had ever been considered risky to invest such a sum in a restaurant and one in fact not even in his particular area, his response was immediate. “No, I never thought so. We receive 40% of the restaurant’s profits and these are ploughed back into the Trust so financially we are covered. But far more importantly, what we are trying to do is be more aspirational in our investments. Just because we are based in a relatively poor community I cannot see why we should not be investing in projects that can bring a better quality of life to those who live here. I have also invested in a spa and I can’t tell you how much pleasure the newly available reflexology has given many of the older women in the area.”
A holiday in a small village outside Granada, southern Spain, where a mountain restaurant attracted the entire local community irrespective of class or income, opened Pyner’s eyes to the social benefits of a restaurant. But more pertinent examples of what these restaurants can teach the local community are now beginning to emerge.
Restaurants generate large volumes of waste, a subject Potts Dawson has faced up to squarely by telling his suppliers from the outset that he wants their produce but not their packaging. As a result, they all now take away whatever packaging they have used to deliver in every day and my visit to their outlying store just before lunch found it admirably bare. But installed in the corner was a machine from GAIA which treats all the kitchen’s food waste and reduces it to manageable proportions. This is then taken away to be converted into compost and then returned to fertilise the pots of rhubarb and herbs on the restaurant’s balcony.
While Potts Dawson sees this as an obvious, cost-saving process for all kitchens, and one that will become increasingly valuable for all concerned once the inevitable land fill tax becomes applicable, Pyner sees wider applications. “We are trialling this system on a small scale at the moment but once we have made it work I can see huge benefits for the various large housing estates round here which have a big problem with their refuse, particularly in the warmer summer months,” he explained.
The seemingly immediate success of the Water House - and it has been busy since the end of its first week - led Pyner to talk optimistically of their next two ventures, both of which are geographically and socially much more challenging for a newcomer to the restaurant world. “We are going to open restaurants in Amble, a fishing village that commercially has seen better days, near Newcastle up on the north east coast late this year and also in Derry in Northern Ireland which is going to be tough. These will test what we have tried to establish but I think the combination of the social enterprise role bringing money into deprived areas and the role of accessible, inexpensive restaurants is a very effective one.” The Water House’s menu that rolls breakfast to brunch then lunch and dinner is sensibly written to meet these criteria.
Certainly, I left the Water House not only well-fed but also impressed by Pyner’s vision and enthusiasm, qualities that have been matched and complemented by those Potts Dawson and Grainger-Smith have contributed.
A tour of the kitchen revealed the links to the 50 solar panels on the roof that produce renewable electricity; a simple but effective heat exchange system of ventilation that dispenses with air conditioning; a filtered, chilled water system and a wormery which digests raw food. For the curious restaurateur there is a great deal more to discover and not just how the architects’ proposals have been kept in check to ensure that overall costs have not exceeded £540,000, of which Pyner has contributed £400,000.
The Water House made me acutely aware of the carbon footprint I once created as a restaurateur and of the huge discrepancy between what I saw here and in so many often far more expensive kitchens that have obviously not been designed to mitigate the environmental challenges we all face.
But there was no sense of guilt implied. Potts Dawson and Grainger-Smith have good, conventional pedigrees with the River Café and Fifteen as well as coming under the influence of Sue Miles, a chef who has preached the principles of cooking the best ingredients possible as simply and as correctly as possible for the past 30 years (and is still cooking at the Thorpeness brasserie in Suffolk). For those involved, the principles behind the Water House do not constitute a mantra but rather a set of obvious, practical facts of working life that all restaurateurs and their customers have to face up to - the sooner the better.