Otarian – London’s first carbon-counting vegetarian chain funded by ammonium nitrate fertiliser

by timchester

Ever been at a fast food restaurant and just wished you knew the carbon footprint of your meal? Probably not, but it’s something we probably ought to start thinking about and if Indian-Australian socialite Radhika Oswal has her way we all will soon. Last night she launched the London branches of her fledgling vegetarian food chain Otarian, a place hell-bent on bringing eco-conscious eating to the masses, at a lavish event that left me with massively mixed feelings about the project.

On the face of it, Otarian is a good thing. The chain (run by her and financed by her billionaire husband – two branches in New York, two in London and more on the horizon) ticks every eco box going. The menu’s meat-free, fair trade, and mostly locally sourced, and every aspect of the restaurant is recycled in some way. And I mean everything. Chairs? Recycled plastic moulded to recycled aluminium. Tables? Constructed from buttons off discarded clothes. Floor? Tiles made of post-industrial recycled glass. Packaging? 100% compostable. Cooking oil? Reused for biofuel. The coloured baskets on the wall? Hand-woven from recycled newspaper in India. Staff? Recycled from the nearest Subway. Well, maybe not, but they are told to walk or cycle to work.

There’s much more planet-saving info on the website and Oswal herself spared no CO2 at the launch telling us again and again how bad meat is and how great Otarian is. And therein lay their first problem: it’s just so preachy. Any self-respecting vegetarian, or ecologist, or fervent advocate of anything, knows that there’s no better way to turn someone off your cause than droning on like a righteous lunatic. But drone she did, labelling meat eaters as grotesque, lazy, truck-driving slobs and wittering ceaselessly about our shared future. They hired a string quartet for ambience but ‘Earth Song’ on repeat would have been more appropriate.

Of course a little education doesn’t go amiss and I’m all about moving in this direction, but it might be more palatable if Otarian wasn’t founded on hypocrisy and misguided principles. For starters the very concept of a fast food chain flies against the idea of keeping it local, and can there be anything more ironic than a flat screen TV the size of a table tennis table showing cheap Virgin Atlantic-style graphics that lecture you about global warming and the perils of wasted energy? We didn’t get the lowdown on that bit of the furniture but even if it’s Phillips’ most environment-hugging option I’d wager its manufacture belches a few more gasses than an evening’s worth of Otarian diners. Definitely more than a large poster with the facts on the wall.

Is this a good time to point out that the couple’s billions come from hubby’s ammonia fertiliser-producing firm Burrup? And I know it’s glaringly obvious but the clown-sized carbon footprint of a woman that jets between Australia, New York and London setting up an international chain needs to be mentioned too.

Another problem with Otarian is they’ve made the whole thing so unsexy. The images on the website make the choices look like Play Doh interpretations of fast food and everything on the menu has an O in the middle of it. Who wants to ask out loud for a Potato Onion O Dill (1.03Kg CO2e) or a Beetroot O Feta (1.15Kg CO2e)?
Biryani and dip

The whole opening was showy, smug, and condescending. Our hostess mentioned her obscene wealth at least five times, pointing out that yes, she might be a billionaire, with several cars and houses (one with space for 17 cars and a mammoth swimming pool apparently which I presume they fill with water) and a husband with a “significant business”, but looking after the planet was everyone’s business rich or poor. For real. Then she went on to explain in detail how her wealth and the “millions” they spent on research and development will help people with less money make more environmentally sound choices. All this while standing by a sign that offered meal deals for over eight quid. I’m no mathematician but I’d bet a Tandoori Mushroom O Paneer (1.2kg CO2e) that charging double Ronald McDonald’s going rate for lunch prices your average Joe out of saving the planet.

It was sickening. The tacos (1.75Kg CO2e) didn’t help either. They’d had their shells half-inched from the back door of Old El Paso’s and were writhing under gallons of sour cream, although we did eventually uncover some nice firm vegetables and a piquant salsa. I think there was some guac in there too (which, without wanting to harp on, must been grown under some industrial-strength lamps if they were made ripe on England’s terra freeza).

The sweet potato fries (CO2 N/A at time of writing) were much better; the Otarian kitchen have managed an ideal equilibrium between healthy and crunchy by dusting them in a spicy crumb mix. Burgers (1.51Kg CO2e) looked appealing as well but we had our wrists slapped reaching for them as they were destined for the cameraman and a bloke that had been interviewing people. By the time the sermon had run its lengthy course the kitchen was almost spent so I didn’t get to try any more, although our goodie bags contained a milk-free chocolate muffin (0.62Kg CO2e) studded with chocolate pieces that did its best to be flavourful. Go for yourself from this weekend and let me know what you think.

Otarian has all the right ideas and I think their intentions are good; hopefully they’ll kick start some kind of revolution. But while they maybe the first I severely doubt they’ll end up the biggest or best.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Lizzie August 19, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Ethics aside, the simple fact is that I don’t want to eat what looks like a brick of sick. And that’s what those flatbreads look like on their website.

I’m off to Maccy D’s.

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Sarah August 19, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Ugh. Those aren’t even flatbreads, they’re wraps. Flatbreads are, well, flat.

And why are they all full of potato? I thought wraps were sandwiches for low-carbers.

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Food Urchin August 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Putting aside the hilariousness of this post (and it was v funny) who in their right mind is going to sign up for this crap, let alone eat in such an establishment?

There’s noble, worthwhile, green intentions. And then there’s Otarian.

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kensal habit August 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm

fools like this give eco-conscious living a bad name…I’d rather go to maccy Ds than put money in the pocket of an ammonia-producing megalord. is there a portion of buying myself good O karma on the menu?

also their decor is appalling. gives me a headache.

funny article though.

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Lulu August 19, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Loving your work TC! As an ecologically-motivated vegetarian I absolutely agree with you here!

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Beth August 20, 2010 at 7:41 am

Acorn House do the ecofriendly thing really well. Shame Otarian has come along to give the whole movement a grubby name. Very funny post!

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timchester August 20, 2010 at 9:02 am

Now THAT looks like a nice place

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Planet August 20, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Now you all are such assholes..at least someone is doing something about it, you guys can just sit in your small room and complain.. Meat is bad and we all know it, so then why not agree and become humans and not animals.

I will pray for you all in the church and hope fully Jesus will again say ” Thou Shall not kill”

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Lizzie August 21, 2010 at 6:28 pm

You know Jesus was made up, right?

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meemalee August 5, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Lizzie, you just dissed a celestial body!

Ree-spekt.

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John August 24, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I have actually tried their food and its simply delicious, I dont understand how all of you can have such terrible opinions about a place you haven´t even been to, atleast give it a try before forming your opinion.

Presumptions are dangerous and only display your absolute ignorance.

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timchester August 24, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Fair point

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Fun August 27, 2010 at 11:55 am

I have eaten there a couple of times, and my thoughts are:
- chaotic management with tills that keep breaking down. General air of panic
- food tastes good
- but while you’re sitting eating a jumbo TV screen tells you lots of facts about how many animls are slaughtered every second, and why not being veggie is morally wrong. Not what you want when you’re eating your lunch
- and the most ridiculous bit is that the drinks on offer are Coke, Diet Coke, Fanta… from a self-service machine

Not bad, but certainly not the 2nd coming. And after reading about the founder, I’m less inclined to eat there than ever…

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Paulina Smid October 2, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Having been to the Otarian on Wardour Street, London, last week, here are my observations:

- Staff are very friendly.
- Food is ok, but no more. Have tasted better stuff elsewhere.
- Food is overpriced, particularly since portions are very small indeed.
- No UK-made organic juices on offer. Why? It’s not like there’s no choice of suppliers!
- No booze on offer. If they had an alcohol license, they could offer organic beers and wines.
- Decor feels “cold” and unpleasant. Not a place to sit down and have a chat, but then it IS a fast food joint.
- I was put off by the huge flat screen constantly showing “educational” facts about meat consumption and CO2 emissions. Please, I’m there to eat, not to be preached at, so lay off while I’m ingesting. Plus, how much electricity does that flat screen consume, and how much CO2 is emitted as a result?
- Not sure about the packaging – it may be “recyclable”, but isn’t it better to avoid waste in the first place? So, how about switching to glas and metal instead of plastic cups and plastic cutlery?

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timchester October 5, 2010 at 8:30 am

Thanks for that Paulina. I thought the screens (four of them together) were just put in for the launch, but no, they’re lecturing there 24/7

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Stendhal's Ghost October 12, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I ate at the Wardour Street branch today, and was disappointed. I really wanted to like it, because a fast food veggie chain is such a great idea, but I’d give it only 2 / 5 stars.
My vegetable biryani was stingy with the veggies. I expected it to be 1/3 or at least 1/4 veggie curry but it was overwhelmingly rice with a sprinkling of cauliflower, carrot & peas.
It was tastier than a MacD’s meal for sure, but far less so than many other vegetarian places in London.
It was also oily. I eat a 100% plant-based diet and am very health-conscious. This meal left me feeling greasy.
I would have liked some juice / smoothie options too.
Price-wise I found it comparable to places like Neal’s Yard but the offering was not as good.
I wonder if the owner has done her marketing research. She’s targetting ethical vegetarians who are prepared to pay more based on their principles, but then seems to be off the mark as to what they really care about.
I would not go back there, unfortunately.
Next time I’m on Wardour Street, I am popping into Vitao which is just as fast, cheaper and far healthier, and gives off a much nicer vibe than Otarian’s LCD screens.

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Sarah November 5, 2010 at 12:13 am

I have been there twice in the last ten days and enjoyed the food very much: the roasted tomato soup was delicious. I will definitely go back as i want to support a ‘veggie’ establishment.

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timchester November 5, 2010 at 10:39 am

Thanks Sarah – didn’t try the soup but may well stop by for it now

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BurrupWatch December 20, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Looks like Otarian is involved with work VISA fraud in Australia now:

“A trail of documents and emails show Dr Moghe was hired last year by Oswal Projects to tutor Oswal’s 12-year-old daughter Vasundhara in Perth to help her win admission to the exclusive Lawrence School in India.

But the company allegedly gained approval from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for Dr Moghe to work as a chef — and the working visa was granted on that basis.

Dr Moghe, who has had a long career as a teacher in India, says he never worked as a chef while in Australia.

Oswal said Dr Moghe had applied for a position as a chef with Otarian, the vegetarian restaurant business run by his wife Radhika, but admitted that he went on to work as a tutor while in Australia.”

Source: The Australian
Tough times for a flamboyant tycoon:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/tough-times-for-a-flamboyant-tycoon/story-e6frg8zx-1225973580465

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timchester December 21, 2010 at 10:50 am

Interesting. I suspect some of their other chefs have never been chefs before

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deluxe_X January 15, 2011 at 7:25 am

Latest story is that the Oswals have abandoned the building of their 70million dollar “Taj Mahal on Swan’ mansion in Perth and feel ‘hurt’ by all the criticisms they have endured. The Oswals, who i have no need to remind you, are better than us, appear to have fled to dubai so they can be closer to their fabulous caustic soda plant in Oman.
And of course its environmentally friendly, its a plant.
http://www.perthnow.com.au/business/news/oswals-pack-up-for-dubai/story-e6frg2qu-1225988302856

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timchester January 16, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Ha ha ha – brilliant.

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BurrupWatch January 28, 2011 at 8:58 am

It’s a matter of time before the Oswals get investigated for fraud. I hope the receivers of their ammonia plant wraps up their investigation fast and hand the report over to ASIC. I’m sure the Australian Government would like to know how the Oswals spent the $150m grant given to them.

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deluxe_X February 3, 2011 at 7:14 am

My guess is that the Oswal’s private jet could hold the answer to your question, Burrup Watch.

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BurrupWatch February 17, 2011 at 8:07 am

Yes, but the jet only answers about $30m worth, that leaves another $770m to go!

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BurrupWatch February 18, 2011 at 9:51 am

Looks like the Oswals cannot afford losing BOTH Otarian AND the fertiliser:

“Radhika Oswal is suing ANZ bank and PPB Advisory, claiming they invalidly appointed receivers to the Burrup Fertiliser plant in the Pilbara.

Mrs Oswal claimed the events of the default that ANZ used to appoint receivers did not occur.

She claimed that up to the appointment of the receiver, all money owing to ANZ had been fully paid and on time.

ANZ appointed PPB Advisory as receivers of the company two months ago over suspected irregularities in the books of Burrup Fertilisers.

ANZ is owed as much as $900 million by Burrup Fertilisers and other Oswal entities. The Oswals own 65 per cent of Burrup Fertilisers, with Norway’s Yara International, which owns 35 per cent.

“Mrs Oswal has been in contact with representatives of the receiver in relation to aspects of the receivership,” said the statement.

“She has concerns about the conduct of the receivership and the direction it is taking.

“As the holder of 35 per cent of the shares in Burrup Holdings Limited – almost all of which is not subject to any security – she has formed the view that the receivership is not in her interests.

“In light of the fact that the board of Burrup Holdings Limited has taken no action in relation to this matter, Mrs Oswal has therefore resolved to take this action in her capacity as a shareholder of the company.”

The Oswals left Perth just before the receivers were appointed, heading to his native India for family reasons although he is also known to spend time in Dubai, where he has business interests. Mr Oswal is not expected to return to Australia.

A spokesman for ANZ said it was a disappointing development.

“We have strong legal rights under the security we hold and we will be vigorously defending the action,” said the spokesman. “We continue to expect to make a full recovery of our exposure to Burrup/Oswal.

“The action is disappointing and poorly conceived in view of all the circumstances associated with the Burrup matter including financial irregularities.”

Source: The West Australian
http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/business/a/-/wa/8859991/radhika-oswal-sues-over-burrup-receivers/

I guess you could say the couple are knee-deep in fertiliser right now.

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BurrupWatch March 9, 2011 at 4:26 am

Otarian was founded to pay Oswal’s taxes in Australia?

http://www.perthnow.com.au/business/news/court-hears-radhika-oswal-owes-140-million-in-tax/story-e6frg2qu-1226018327938

The last few paragraphs are especially bizarre:

“Bizarre name change

In a further twist to the saga, Mrs Oswal also recently made a bizarre change in name for one of the couple’s private Australian companies.

It’s currently unclear what role the company, formerly known as Oswal Projects Perth, plays in the Oswal’s complex network of related private companies, but it appears to have an association of Mrs Oswal’s Otarian chain of vegetarian restaurants.

The company is listed as the registered owner of Otarian’s website, and job advertisements for Otarian positions have previously been listed under Oswal Projects Perth.

Mrs Oswal is a director of the company, and in February lodged documents to change its name in late February to Comical Ali Militant Vegetarian Pty Ltd.

“Comical Ali”, or Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, was the Information Minister in the dying days of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. He is best remembered for his propaganda broadcasts before and during the war, which proclaimed victory after victory for the Iraqi army, even as it was being destroyed by the allied forces.”

Source: Perth Now

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NoExpert August 6, 2011 at 10:18 am

Fasinating stuff, and the tragic comic #otarianwatch saga continues http://t.co/sbh2utD Wonder if “Comical Ali” is ghost writing their tweets!

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a fair go August 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Pardon the globe trotting Radhika who leaves a trail of bad debts, for she is blissfully ignorant of her own carbon footprint. This woman dares to lecture AT LENGTH, and yet when she was in occupation of Perth WA, this same lady dispatched the company jet to India to pick up rolls of pink material because it was too late to arrive in time through Australian customs. Then there was the time she had porta-loos taken to a country marquee site VIA HELICOPTER, because her disorganized management style precluded a more standard form of transportation. Yep, Radhika certainly has a way about her. We cannot wait for her to return to Perth to chat about old times.

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