The sustainable food revolution

5 minutes
Ian Whitaker, General Manager of our catering partner, Leith’s, explains the company’s transformation towards more sustainable menus
When you come to an event at the EICC this year, you’re likely to notice a few changes when it’s time to eat. You might spot more vegetarian and vegan options, or find the dishes are based on local, seasonal produce. And if you’re a regular at EICC events then you’re sure to notice that the menu is being switched up more often.

These changes – and many more behind the scenes – are part of the sustainability revolution taking place at Leith’s, our on-site catering partner at the EICC.

Ian Whitaker“We have to take responsibility for the impact that we make with the food that we eat, and where we source our ingredients.”
– Ian Whitaker

Levy’s, the parent company of Leith’s, has made significant commitments to improving the sustainability of its operations – without compromising on quality, taste or service. For example, no fruit and vegetables in their kitchens will be flown to the UK, encouraging greater use of local produce. Significant targets have already been set, including: the use of 80% seasonal fruit and veg (achieved in 2021); a 50% plant-based menu in 2022; the implementation of carbon labelled menus at all venues by May this year; and an 80% reduction in carbon usage by 2027.

Ian Whitaker joined Leith’s as General Manager in June 2021, just as the EICC was reopening its doors to delegates. Though new to the role, Ian was actually coming full circle – he trained under Prue Leith in London and was involved in setting up Leith’s at the EICC back in 1995. Since then, Ian’s rich and varied career has taken him from Cawdor Castle to the island of Borneo. Now, he’s back at the EICC to help kickstart the sustainability movement at Leith’s.

“It’s all about thinking differently when it comes to food,” says Ian. “We have to take responsibility for the impact that we make with the food that we eat, and where we source our ingredients. Education will be key in this: ensuring that young people coming into the industry are taught to consider the environmental impact in the first instance so that it becomes second nature.”

‘A dynamic menu’

Whilst Leith’s has always celebrated seasonal Scottish produce through their menus, there is now a greater focus on basing menus around seasonal produce - and only in the months that the produce is available. In winter you’ll find things like leeks, beetroot and cauliflower on your plate, whereas in spring into summer, these will be replaced by spring greens, asparagus, berries and tomatoes.

“In Scotland, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best ingredients in the world”

The team is also getting local ingredients into the kitchen, reviewing the supply chain and making sure the whole chain is as sustainable as it can be. “We’re looking at what is available closer to home,” explains Ian. “When we create menus for clients, we’re considering the consequence of every ingredient. For example, where the ingredients come from, how they will get to us, how we will prepare them and how we can manage production to meet the delegates' needs while maximising sustainability.

This approach will mean a move to what Ian calls a more “dynamic” menu, which will change more frequently reflecting what is seasonal and available locally. “In Scotland, we’re lucky enough to have some of the best ingredients in the world,” says Ian. “That’s something we really want to celebrate.”

Towards plant-based

We are seeing more delegates following a vegan or vegetarian diet, so it’s crucial that our caterers provide them with a delicious and satisfying meal, rather than it being an alternative, which is secondary to the meat option.

The team are also keen to reduce the overall quantity of meat on their menu and make plant-based options more attractive even to those who don’t follow the diet. “We can produce incredible menus that celebrate all the taste and variety of plants,” says Ian. “People are becoming much more aware of this diet and keen to try it out. It’s up to us to provide exciting, tasty options.

“We won’t be getting rid of meat options entirely, though,” Ian highlights. “Scotland offers plenty of incredible sustainably-farmed meat, which we still want to showcase. But the focus is on reduction. For example, we’ve developed a burger that is made of 50% mushroom and 50% beef – so you still get all the flavour of the meat whilst significantly cutting the carbon footprint.”

“Scotland offers plenty of incredible sustainably-farmed meat, which we still want to showcase”

Future innovations

Exciting things are ahead for Leith’s. They are exploring options including growing cress hydroponically on the EICC site to be used to flavour food, and introducing Mara Seaweed, a healthier salt alternative grown in the East Neuk of Fife, to the menu.

The company is also considering measures to reduce food waste and move towards a circular economy. Recently, they have been sending used coffee grounds back to farmers to be composted and ultimately used to grow more ingredients.

“Our Head Chef Alex Floyd is 100% behind it,” says Ian. “He’s getting out there, meeting suppliers, finding out what options might be available to us that we hadn’t considered before. I think it’s really exciting. There’s a lot to consider and we’re all having to think differently, but we’re excited to rise to the challenge.”