The Pioneer: Albert Franch Sunyer on zero-waste cooking

At Helsinki zero-waste restaurant Nolla, chef Albert Franch Sunyer dedicates himself to being environmentally aware and celebrating local produce in all its forms.

Starter of oxheart tomato carpaccio with crayfish sauce and redcurrant sorbet.

Photograph by Louise Long
By Louise Long
Published 18 Mar 2023, 06:00 GMT

“I remember very well,” says Albert Franch Sunyer of his light bulb moment. “I was inside one of the rubbish rooms in a restaurant in Helsinki. There were five big containers and you couldn’t walk into the room because of the amount of trash.” It was filled with bio-waste and vast amounts of packaging, all kept fiercely air-conditioned round the clock, he recalls.

At the time, the Catalan-born chef was three years into a series of stints in the Finnish capital’s top kitchens, including two-Michelin-star Chez Dominique (now closed) and Olo (one star). The latter is where he met chefs Carlos Henriques and Luka Balac, with whom he’d go on to establish Nolla, the first zero-waste restaurant in the Nordics.

There’s no kitchen bin at Nolla. No single-use packaging and no cling film or disposable food containers. Serving plates are made from waste clay, kitchen uniforms upcycled from discarded textiles and water glasses made with used bottles from the Presidential Palace. There’s even a high-tech composter, nicknamed Lauri, in the dining room, from which data is recorded, analysed and presented at weekly team meetings.

Ingredients, meanwhile, are sourced directly from producers in order to cut down on packaging. Only salt and sugar, in compostable paper bags, are supplied by a wholesaler. Each ingredient presents its own challenges, from the sourcing of Finnish ginger and tomatoes to decanting the 1,750-pint vats of Finnish rapeseed oil (delivered twice a year to Franch Sunyer’s parking space outside the restaurant) into carafes that can be stored in the basement.

It’s all a far cry from that rubbish room encounter. But while that moment was a catalyst of sorts, Franch Sunyer’s interest in environmental issues can be traced back to his childhood in Catalonia. His hometown, Sallent, is a 6,000-person mining community, where the largest mountain on the horizon is an artificial pile of sodium chloride waste. His formative childhood memories aren’t, therefore, in his family’s kitchen, but as “a youngster engaged in environmental protest groups, trying to solve the problem”.

After leaving school, Franch Sunyer began a biology degree before deciding to pursue a career in pastry. “Restaurant pastry,” he qualifies. “I had a clear idea that I wanted to be a ‘desserter’.” He turned down a hard-earned place at Barcelona’s Espai Sucre school, however, when he landed a pastry chef role at Michelin-starred restaurants Angle and ABaC, run by chef Jordi Cruz.

After four years in Barcelona with Cruz, he was headhunted to be executive pastry chef at a luxury resort in Thailand. It was here that he first encountered terms such as ‘carbon neutral’, ‘CO2 footprint’ and ‘offset’ in a hospitality context, he recalls. But the issue was muddied by such things as guests flying in by private jet, vast refrigerated rooms for 60 different types of ice cream, and a large gas generator. “When you start working in a kitchen, your main aim is survival,” he says. So his environmental concerns remained latent. What tipped the balance? “When you start getting comfortable in the kitchen, your view opens out,” he says. “You realise what’s happening globally.”

Franch Sunyer moved to Helsinki in 2011 and, after completing his tour of its top kitchens, he took a year out to travel and recuperate from “many years of working 16- to 17-hour days”. During this time, he heard tell of Silo, the groundbreaking zero-waste restaurant that was based first in Brighton before relocating to London. “It resonated with the worries that were on my mind,” he says. 

Left: Top:

Albert Franch Sunyer at Nolla.

Right: Bottom:

Grilled romaine lettuce with gooseberry salsa and a herby pil pil sauce.

photographs by Louise Long

Franch Sunyer returned to Helsinki determined to scratch this environmental itch, and a whirlwind ensued. One afternoon on the steps of Helsinki’s Senate Square, Franch Sunyer, Henriques and Balac made a decision: they would start something that would be more than just a place for “good food, good wine”. Nolla, meaning ‘zero’ in Finnish, was born. Two pop-ups, one bricks-and-mortar site, a new venue, a pandemic and a second restaurant — Elm, launched in 2022 — have followed. Today, Franch Sunyer, Henriques (financial manager) and Balac (restaurant manager) preside over a team of 14, each responsible for ensuring minimal environmental impact.

The main concept of the restaurant’s menu, says Franch Sunyer, is ‘local’. “I like to understand local as a radius, rather than a map,” he says. What sense is there in ignoring a producer from northern Estonia, 50 miles away, in favour of using something Finnish, from the more distant far north, perhaps at a distance of 600 miles? Each ingredient is considered for its own environmental impact, as well as its growing conditions. 

“We don’t define what’s on the menu — the producers define what’s on the menu,” says Franch Sunyer. “We just go along with whatever is in the fields.” Ingredients are incorporated into as many dishes as possible, with the chefs extracting every ounce of value. Currently, for example, fennel is being brought in, stems and all. This forms the basis of a vegan fennel marshmallow ice cream that accompanies wild blueberries, and a fennel-tip puree for a fish course, with the remainder becoming vinegar, “for when flavours are missing from the fields in winter”. Meanwhile, surplus tomatoes are dried for use in an oil for romesco sauce; vegetable offcuts are transformed into a ‘treacle’ (a recipe borrowed from Silo); and spent grain from the in-house brewery is used three ways in a single dessert, including a malt ice cream. 

The Nolla team have been rewarded for their sustainability efforts with a Michelin Green Star, but Franch Sunyer’s broader aim is to “de-normalise waste” in the industry at large. “That’s the biggest issue we’re fighting.” 

With characteristic modesty, he notes even Nolla is “far from perfect”, pointing to the use of company phones, flushing toilets in the restaurant, and ceramists being unable to fix some broken plates. But, he says, “you just need to aim to do good. That’s the starting point”.  

Top three tips for zero-waste cooking

1. Citrus peel
Leftover skin from juicing (or your breakfast grapefruit) can transform a vinaigrette: lemon zest for a classic French dressing with Dijon mustard, garlic and honey; lime zest to flavour an Asian-style salad with sesame oil, rice wine vinegar and ginger; or grapefruit zest for a fennel and orange salad dressing to accompany grilled oily fish. Salted and preserved peels, meanwhile, can be jarred to last through the off season.

2. Coffee grounds
Spent coffee grounds are as potent as they are versatile. They can be used in everything from chocolate brownies to ice creams and marinades and pair well with spicy, smoky flavours and barbecued meat. An aromatic rub for pork ribs, chicken thighs or tofu steaks can be conjured by combining equal parts coffee grounds and tomato puree, seasoning with smoked paprika, black pepper and chipotle chilli. Store your grounds in the fridge and use within a week; alternatively freeze any surplus or dry them out in the oven and store in a sealed jar.

3. Fish parts
For a wholesome homemade fish stock, gather up fish bones, skins and trimmings in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer for a minimum of five hours until reduced to a marvellously milky, gelatinous liquid. Strain through a cheesecloth and, once cool, skim off any remaining surface impurities. The resulting stock can kick-start various stews or sauces, including a Basque-inspired pil pil sauce. Simply emulsify the stock with good quality oil and vinegar (as you would a loose mayonnaise).

Published in Issue 19 (spring 2023) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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