Chefs in the Maldives are Taking a Stand for Sustainability in the Kitchen
Rising sea levels pose a threat to the Maldives' resort islands, so the country's hospitality industry is always looking for new ways to run as sustainably as possible.
Cuisine is one of the topics that is now being discussed. With resorts attempting to lower their high energy and resource needs in a country where much of the food is imported, some restaurants have been stepping things up even further.
Roots, a new plant-based dining concept at Patina Maldives, an island resort in the Fari islands that opened in 2021, is leading the way with its delicious, modern vegetarian dishes.
"At Roots, we are advocates of a plant-based diet. We have a special menu that is coming from our very own organic garden. We grow everything in our organic garden," says Abdulla Rifzan, junior sous chef at Patina Maldives.
The Maldivian chef, who was born in Gemanafushi in the Huvadhoo atoll, trained in French and Japanese cuisines before joining Roots. In the past, his favourite things to cook were foie gras torchon and lobster thermidor. However, working at Roots has given him a new perspective on cooking.
"It's really important in the Maldives for our culture to be more green," he explains. "Maldives is (a low-lying country) made up of small islands. So by cooking plant-based dishes with homegrown ingredients, it helps the environment and the people."
Patina is not the only resort in the vicinity with a vegetarian restaurant.
Since Just Veg at Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives opened in 2013 as the first vegetarian restaurant in a Maldivian resort, plant-based businesses have been popping up all over the country.
However, a restaurant with a garden the size of Roots' is unusual.
"For many years, there have been lots of resorts in the Maldives doing farm-to-table and plant-based themes," says John Bakker, executive chef at Patina and Roots.
"Roots is the next evolution of that...it's taking what's happening in the plant-based community globally."
Because the Maldives produces little food, restaurants frequently rely on imports.
Patina tries to be environmentally friendly in every step of the process, like using glass instead of plastic containers and buying from countries close by. However, Roots' menu items have a much smaller carbon footprint because they come from their own garden.
Bakker, who has worked in restaurants all around the world for more than two decades, claims to have witnessed a shift in eating patterns in the last ten years.
"People want to eat healthier. People are starting to feel like what they eat is their responsibility and how that affects this sort of greater sustainability, global picture. It becomes ever present in people's minds," says the chef.
Patina has its own biodigester, which turns a lot of the trash from the island's 12 restaurants into rich compost that is then used in the garden at Roots.
More ambitious plans are in the works for Patina's plant-based restaurant. Bakker is building a new place to eat in the garden, which he thinks will make people more interested in eating green.
"(Plant-based cuisine) is a far more complex cuisine than many people give it credit for. It isn't just vegetables on a plate. We're trying to create complex dishes with different tastes and textures using modern techniques," says Bakker.
The chefs work imaginatively with what's in the garden to add complexity to the menu and produce dishes like the Textures of Artichokes without relying on outside sources. The backbone of this iconic Roots dish is cashew nut puree, which is topped with a variety of artichoke textures ranging from crisps to mash.
"Most of the feedback we are getting from the guests is 'wow'," says the junior chef.
"They really won't expect some unique flavours, especially from the plant-based cuisine."
Bakker hopes that Roots will encourage more guests to adopt a more sustainable diet during and beyond their holidays.
"Most of our guests have never been to a plant-based or a vegan restaurant before in their lives," he says.
"In their normal daily routine, if they have choice A and choice B, they wouldn't choose to go to the plant-based restaurants. But being here on vacation and having the option of the 12 restaurants, they may just choose a day and go to see what's there.
"The reaction has been sort of surprised and kind of delighted. They never knew that plant-based cuisine could be so complex or flavorful or textural, all of those things which we're trying to achieve with the Roots concept. So it's been overwhelmingly very positive."