Yerba: Leading with heart for a new way of dining

Published by Net Impact Amsterdam on

To learn about how Yerba is putting their sustainable philosophy into practice, Net Impact Amsterdam Founding Member, Bhavika Megchiani, headed to meet owners, Sally Mitchell and Chef Walter Marskamp.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and as I walk in, I’m greeted by the friendly faces of Sally and Walter, co-owners of Yerba. The restaurant is closed between lunch and the evening dinner rush and that means Ziggy, their adorable 9 month-old is at Yerba too, whose baby cooing provides the perfect background noise to our chat.

Bhavika: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you started Yerba?

Sally: Well I’m from the UK and Walter is a Michelin Star trained chef from the Netherlands. We met 10 years ago when we worked together in the restaurant business in Melbourne. We relocated to Europe a few years ago and, a short while later, in 2015, we came up with the idea of Yerba. The time was right, there was more and more interest in plant-based eating. We saw the explosion of veganism brewing.

B. Where did you see that plant-based trend coming from?

S: In the hospitality industry, we say that the first groups to catch on to a new concept are women under 35 – and we’ve definitely seen that with plant-based eating. Women under 35 kicked off the brunch scene in Amsterdam too. When I ran a brunch restaurant here in Amsterdam, I noticed that even though the menu was all about the chicken, pork and beef, there were more and more people coming in and asking me for the one vegan dish on our menu.

B. How do you source your produce?

S: So we don’t claim to be wholly vegan. Our menu is around 90% vegetables and we offer meat as an add-on. All our meat is locally sourced. For instance, we use Wilde van Wilde, local hunters, to source venison.

Walter: The supply is really dictated by the ecosystem. Our hunter hunts in a forest at the border of the Netherlands and Germany. He will only shoot animals of a certain age, and won’t hunt grazing animals that are needed to preserve the ecosystem. Our fish supplier fishes in the North Sea, as per their set quota. I will never source fish from anywhere other than the North Sea, due to the food miles (i.e. distance your food has to travel to your table).

B: What are you doing to make this a sustainable business?

S: Our tabletops are all bamboo as that’s a fast-growing crop and easy to replace. Bamboo also has natural anti-bacterial properties. Our chairs are made of recycled materials. They really were the best option and the sustainability was a bonus. Apart from our sourcing and cooking primarily vegetables with 90-95% of the menu being plant based, we try to minimize waste as much as possible.

W: I practice zero-waste cooking as much as I can.

(At this point, an incredible dessert is placed in front of me)

S: One of our no-waste dishes is this vegan Magnum ice-cream bar made from white asparagus (pictured). When it’s white asparagus season in the Netherlands in spring and we have it on the menu, Walter holds on to all the peels and cooks it into an ice cream.

Yerba’s vegan Magnum ice-cream bar

W: Also, when I make gnocchi, I use potatoes and keep the skins. I dry them in an oven, turn them into a powder and use them to make an ice-cream sandwich. (author’s note: this ice-cream will be at the dinner!). The gnocchi is served with peas and I also use the leftover pea-pods and make a custard.

S: We try to be as circular and to reuse as much as possible. We constantly monitor our menu to see if there are any ingredients we shouldn’t offer anymore. For instance, whenever there is a change to the sustainable fish stock list, we respond to it. We got rid of octopus from our menu due to this reason. Demand for octopus was increasing and people were factory farming octopuses in Asia. It was turning out to be completely unsustainable. The farm tried to feed the octopus but the animals wanted to hunt. So all this left over fish feed and octopus feces were polluting the seabed, and octopuses weren’t breeding – it was a huge failure. Not to mention how intelligent octopuses are. So we removed them, as we couldn’t risk serving any product that could have been sourced from these systems.

And this applies to all animals, once you start doing the research, the animal welfare factor really starts to bother you.

W: I have two cats at home and I treat them as my babies so why would I look at any other animal and treat them any differently.

B: People have cognitive dissonance…

S: Exactly! I had this moment of epiphany when I was breastfeeding, and it was just exhausting. And then I thought about cows who are kept in these conditions for their entire life-span, but at least I have the comfort of knowing I’m feeding my own baby and those cows don’t even get that.

Once you get the ball rolling on a sustainable venture, you keep making small steps towards real impact.

Sally Mitchell, Yerba Restaurant

B: What’s the one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs or others who want to be in this field?

S: Trust your gut. When we opened, I didn’t want dairy milk at all but I was advised against it by our coffee supplier. I knew not having dairy milk was the right thing but I took someone else’s advice. However, really soon, I realized we didn’t need to offer it as not having dairy milk wasn’t a big deal to our customers. We offered alternatives like almond milk and oat milk and didn’t present it as a surcharge, it’s just a choice.

B: That’s true, in a lot of cafes you get charged extra for non-dairy milk.

W: Yes, you almost get punished for it. And dairy milk is subsidized by the government anyways.

My advice would be just to look around you, don’t be complacent. Think about what personal change you can make and how you can change your business. Sometimes you’re so busy running your business, you just need to sit down and think what are you doing wrong and what can you change.

S: People get afraid if they’re the first ones showing the public a new idea. But I think you shouldn’t be afraid anymore. People want these new ideas and innovation. Whatever you’re thinking might be a step too far out, do it and make people take that step with you. Everything we’ve ever done here has been accepted really well by the general public. And, at the end of they day, we still have a business to run. There’s no point in having a bunch of environmental principles and being broke.

B: How do people find Yerba? Are they looking for vegan food, or just delicious food?

S: It’s a mix of both: vegan people looking for an up-scale treat and people just looking for really good food. Yerba is an adult, fine-dining experience. Flavor comes first and we believe that comes from working with the seasons.

W: We now have the reputation of a really good restaurant, with no labels.

S: What we do is we offer people choice and show them how tasty and fantastic plant-based food can be, and we hope the flavor and quality will persuade them. I run this business as sustainably as possible, as low-impact as possible, and, hopefully, this serves as a model on how sustainable businesses can be run.

B: Tell me a little bit about the upcoming dinner.

S: We’re really looking forward to this partnership with Net Impact Amsterdam and we want people to have a beautiful evening. The event, Herba Vora, will be a four-course seasonal menu with as little waste as possible, and it includes wine pairings. The event will also have guest speakers including Dierenwelzijnscheck, an organisation that independently ranks restaurants on their sustainability. They ranked 500 restaurants across Amsterdam by looking at menu items, sourcing, staffing etc., and we have the highest rank possible without being 100% vegan. 100% vegan restaurants are ranked 10 and we earned 9.8 (see Yerba’s Dierenwelzijnscheck full score). Other guest speakers include Cityplot and PwC.

We will serve our signature dish, spiced zucchini beignets. This is a complete no-waste dish and one of the first ones Walter developed, while sitting at home and we were working on finance applications. Other courses will include a root-to-seed broccoli salad, where we eat every single part of the broccoli.

B: Every single part? What can you even do with every part of the broccoli?

W: You can use the broccoli or cauliflower stem, don’t use just the flower. With the stem, you can slice it really thin and cook it, you can make a soup out of it, you can pickle it. The leaves are delicious sautéed with garlic. You can use everything. If you’re just starting to cook, experiment and be creative, think about how you can use everything in the vegetable.

S: And our desserts will be the highlight, they are spectacular. We’ll serve a pea avocado custard with macerated berries and sprinkled with fennel pollen. We’ll also have a potato skin ice-cream sandwich with hazelnut biscuits and cashew cheese.

After the interview I devoured the aforementioned Magnum vegan white asparagus ice-cream bar, which was incredible!