The Difference Between a $16 and $32 Dish.

In the May issue of Restaurant & Catering magazine, Red Lantern's Executive Chef Mark Jensen chats about Red Lantern reducing its environmental impact and selling this as a point of difference.

GREEN APPEAL: “It’s a complex web,” says Mark Jensen, owner of Red Lantern in Sydney. “It’s virtually impossible to run a successful business and take everything into account – so you have to concentrate on one thing or another, and for us it was food provenance.”

Red Lantern, which serves modern Vietnamese, is known for its fresh, free-range fare and a focus on promoting local producers. While Jensen has implemented initiatives ranging from waterless wok systems to low-energy lighting and energy offsets – which have all resulted in considerable cost savings for his business – he is particularly interested in sourcing quality, ethical produce.

Most of the vegetables served at Red Lantern come from the Sydney basin, within 45 minutes to an hour from the restaurant, and when it comes to protein, the focus is on quality over quantity. “We’ve always endeavoured to let the produce shine,” he says. “There’s a perception of Vietnamese food that it’s cheap and cheerful, and it can be if you disregard many things including the quality and provenance of the produce – but we wanted to elevate the cuisine.

“We started to reach out and talk to our suppliers so we could form relationships and use free-range and organic produce where we could. It was a natural journey where we were trying to provide a point of difference for ourselves.”

The challenge for Jensen was trying to get people to understand what they were paying for. “When you have a dish in one restaurant and it’s $16 and you come to my restaurant and it’s $32, there’s always the question of why it costs more,” he says. “And that comes down to doing things properly.”

Jensen says the transformation of his approach to business occurred over a 16-year period, during which he wrote a book on the subject – The Urban Cook: Cooking and Eating for a Sustainable Future.

“That was when I really started to look at where our produce is grown and where it comes from, encouraging people to go to farmers’ markets and to consider the food that they eat and how it’s produced. I wasn’t trying to lecture people – I was trying to start a discussion.”

Having children was part of the impetus. “Thinking about the next generation and where the food is going to come from and what sort of legacy you’re going to leave them with, it makes you consider what you’re doing now,” says Jensen.

He sees an opportunity to influence diverse food communities, starting with his in-laws, who have run traditional Vietnamese restaurants in Cabramatta. “They really love the direction we’ve taken it in and it’s been a bit of a journey for them too. At first, they couldn’t understand why you’d spend so much extra, especially on the protein, but they get it now.

“There’s an opportunity to influence that community. The younger generation are definitely changing things too.”

Phuong Nguyen