Destination Maldives

The Maldives chefs taking a stand on sustainability in the kitchen

Maggie Hiufu Wong, CNNPublished 31st October 2022
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(CNN) — With the threat of rising sea levels hanging over the resort islands of the Maldives, the country's hospitality industry is continually seeking out new ways to operate as sustainably as possible.
Among the areas currently under the spotlight: cuisine. With resorts trying to reduce their high energy and resource demands in a country where much of the food is imported, some restaurants have been stepping things up even further.
Leading the way is Roots, a new plant-based dining concept at Patina Maldives -- an island resort in the Fari islands that opened in 2021-- which aims to wow guests with its delicious, modern vegetarian dishes.
"At Roots, we are advocates of a plant-based diet. We've 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.
Born in Gemanafushi in the Huvadhoo atoll, the Maldivian chef trained in French and Japanese cuisines before joining Roots.
In the past, some of his favorite dishes to make were foie gras torchon and lobster thermidor.
But working at Roots has given him a new outlook 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."

A sustainable dining option for guests

Roots, at Patina Maldives, serves plant-based cuisine made with ingredients from the restaurant's own organic garden.
Roots, at Patina Maldives, serves plant-based cuisine made with ingredients from the restaurant's own organic garden.
Patina Maldives, Fari Islands
Patina is not the first resort here to add a vegetarian restaurant to its lineup.
Plant-based concepts have been popping up around the country since Just Veg at Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives -- credited with being the first vegetarian restaurant set in a Maldivian resort -- opened in 2013.
But a restaurant with a garden the size of Roots' is rare.
"There are plenty of resorts in the Maldives doing farm-to-table and plant-based concepts for many years," says John Bakker, executive chef of Patina and Roots.
"Roots is the next evolution of that...it's taking what's happening in the plant-based community globally."
With little food being produced in the Maldives, restaurants often need to rely on imports.
While Patina tries to be thoughtful during the process -- picking glass over plastic containers and sourcing from nearby countries, for example -- having its own garden significantly reduces the carbon footprints of the ingredients on Roots' menu.
Working in restaurants around the world for more than two decades, Bakker says that he has noticed a change in eating habits in the past 10 years.
"People want to eat healthier. People are starting to feel like what they eat is their personal responsibility and how that affects this sort of greater sustainability, global picture. It becomes ever present in people's minds," says the chef.
And that isn't just limited to what's served on the table.
Patina has its own biodigester that turns a large portion of the waste from around the island -- including its 12 restaurants -- into rich compost, which is then used in Roots' garden.

A new concept of luxury

"The definition of luxury has changed. When (our guests) come to the Maldives, they want to try something different. They want to make a positive impact," says Nicolas Khairallah, general manager of Gili Lankanfushi, one of the most eco-conscious resorts in Maldives.
"Our barefoot luxury concept works in harmony with sustainability which gives our guests tranquility and a beautiful experience. They can find luxury in the small simple things Luxury is when you have the chance to eat fresh organic food from the garden."
A visit to Gili Lankanfushi's organic garden, which features local fruit trees and fresh garden greens, is among the culinary-focused experiences offered to guests.
The kitchen also sources local seafood to reduce its carbon footprint.
In addition to a waste digester, the resort plans to install a biorefinery by the end of the year to transform leftover cooking oil into biodiesel.

Changing perceptions on plant-based cuisine

At Patina's plant-based restaurant, more ambitious plans are in the works.
Bakker is planning a new dining area in the middle of the garden, which he hopes will make eating green a more appealing option for guests.
"(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.
John Bakker, executive chef of Patina Maldives, hopes that Roots can change their guests' perception of plant-based cuisine.
John Bakker, executive chef of Patina Maldives, hopes that Roots can change their guests' perception of plant-based cuisine.
Patina Maldives, Fari Islands
For Rifzan, pushing boundaries and techniques is both challenging and fascinating.
Without relying on outside suppliers, the chefs work creatively with what's in the garden to give complexity to the menu and produce dishes like the Textures of Artichokes. This iconic Roots dish features cashew nut puree as the base, topped by a range of different textures of an artichoke -- 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 flavors, especially, from the plant-based cuisine."
Patina Maldives opened to guests in 2021.
Patina Maldives opened to guests in 2021.
Patina Maldives, Fari Islands
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."