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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