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My Dinner with Andre

I was having dinner with Andre. Andre LaRiviere. Former CBC Radio producer. Chef and local food writer. Member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council. And now the executive director of Green Table Network, a non-profit that helps restaurants go green and then certifies them.

Andre  is also father of Pascale, the four year old who gave us colour commentary throughout the meal. The delicate saffron rice was too yellow. The thick and satisfying corn and potato soup not yellow enough. The ratatouille, well that was just plain fun to say when you’re bilingue and you’ve just seen the animated film of the same name starring a French rat aspiring to be a chef.

In 1996, upon turning 40, Andre  decided it was time for an adventure. He left CBC and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. After graduating, his instructors encouraged him to go to the South of France to hone his skills. He landed a job at a quaint bistro just north of Cannes on the Cote d’Azur.

“We used to get movie stars coming in all the time,” he said. “Gina Davis, Uma Thurman, Quentin Tarantino.”

“Papa used to cook for dogs,” Pascale cut in, bursting the bubble.

Andre  laughed. The rich and famous used to ask him to cook up “un plat pour FiFi, s’il vous plait.” So he often found himself frying up liver and other delicacies for les chiens.

After a year in France, he spent the next couple years in Toronto writing for various food industry magazines, building connections with chefs across the country. When he landed in Vancouver in 2000 he wrote about food issues for the Straight and City Food. He was covering the Bioneers Conference (a leading edge environmental forum) in San Francisco when he first encountered the idea of a green certification program for restaurants developed by Ritu Primlani of Thimmakka Resources for Environmental Education in Berkeley. On his return to Vancouver, he secured a license from Primlani and adapted the basics of Green Table Network from her program.

In the summer of 2006, Andre  launched a pilot program with a dozen lower mainland restaurants including Raincity Grill, West and Vij’s. Each restaurant was assessed from top to bottom using a check list.

“We look at everything from the lights out front to the bins at the kitchen door,” says Andre.

After the assessment the team writes up a report that tells them how close the operation is to Green Table Network Certification – they must achieve a score of 25% in each of five categories to qualify; the areas are solid waste/recycling, energy and water conservation, pollution prevention and sustainable purchasing, which includes using local food. Then they come up with an implementation plan and help them achieve their goals.

“Within a week we had composting set up and we’d reduced our water use in the kitchen pit by three quarters,” said Suzanne Fielden of Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company. “What I like about Green Table is they put us in touch with the products and the experts we need to make it happen. And our customers love what we’re doing.”

“Margins are very tight in the food service industry,” says Andre. “We wanted to help businesses become greener and save money.” That appeals to Don Letendre, Executive Chef at Elixir in the Opus Hotel.

“It’s not about being more green than the guy down the street or just doing the right thing, it’s about measuring what you’re doing and seeing the cost savings as well.”

According to Andre, the pilot identified gaps in the supply chain and the food system. For example, larger scale restaurants can’t yet buy case lots of local organic food. And there are still some glitches with composting pick up services.

“We provide a service for corporate clients who are embracing green,” says Andre, “but we also want to help develop a more sustainable food system across the board. There is opportunity for us to help develop that system.”

In May 2007, Green Table Network was officially launched. They currently have over 40 members around the province including food caterers and a chain, the Cactus Club Cafes. There is a list on their web site.  Initial membership and assessment costs $595 – “ $300 a year after that which includes an annual reassessment. Green Table window stickers identify members.

So just how green was my dinner at Andre’s? Well, the produce was all bought at a local farmers’ market that morning. We sipped BC wine. We used cloth napkins. There was a composter in the back yard. Tomatoes, beans and basil were growing on the deck. And thanks to Pascale’s keen eye for colour during a trip to Ikea, we dined at a green patio table. Full marks.

This article first appeared in Shared Vision magazine in November 2007.

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