For restaurant folk, it embraces everything from locally-sourced produce, meat and seafood, to energy-efficient appliances, to compostable takeout containers—and everything in between.

The word’s a ubiquitous catch-phrase in the restaurant business. “Green” restaurants have been hot industry trend for the last four years, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry Forecast. The trend’s also reflected in the top health claims on menus; according to a 2010 MenuMonitor study, “vegetarian,” “organic” and “natural” were among the top five healthy labels applied to dishes.

With a north American restaurant industry finally emerging out of three years of negative sales growth, it looks like a commitment to sustainability may well go hand-in-hand with renewed business opportunities. And while many restaurants are just starting their green shift, a few dedicated pioneers are showing them how it’s done.

Toronto’s first green-certified restaurant stays ahead of the trend

Mark Cutrara, executive chef at Cowbell restaurant in Toronto

Enter Mark Cutrara, executive chef at Cowbell restaurant in Toronto, who  has made his restaurant’s commitment to sustainability official: Cowbell is Toronto’s first restaurant to be certified by Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice, a Calgary-based organization dedicated to standardizing environmental practices in restaurants. (More on LEAF and the certification process in our article about becoming a green-certified restaurant.)

For Cutrara, the road to sustainability started with a picture of a mad cow and a west coast wedding.

“I was working at Silver Spoon when mad cow disease hit, and I cut out a picture of a cow from Newsweek and stuck it on our corkboard,” says the goateed chef, perched on a barstool in his cozy Parkdale bistro. “This whole idea of cows feeding cows—” he makes a face—”we didn’t know about that. And I wondered, why didn’t we know about that?”

Organic 1, conventional food 0.

His second step along the road was an epiphany he had in 2006 while attending—and cooking for—a friend’s wedding in Victoria.

“I was asked to prepare the wedding feast, so as we were driving to the wedding, we were stopping off at organic farms—every few kilometres there was a farm stand. It was the best meal I’d ever made in my life.”

A salmon-fishing trip solidified Cutrara’s  newfound appreciation for organic, local food.

“I traded the salmon for stuff that came from the captain’s farm, like Salt Spring lamb. And I realized I had never eaten that way in my life.”

Organic and local, 1, conventional food, 0. Conventional food, down for the count.

Back in Ontario, Cutrara decided that restaurant dining based on a sustainable philosophy was the only way to go. “It’s part of the legacy we leave our children, right? Unless we want a cuisine of eating nothing but insects—and that’s where we’re headed—we need to change how we do things.”

By July, 2007, Cutrara had opened Cowbell, a restaurant nominally in the French-bistro tradition, but one that transcends culinary pigeonholing simply by its devotion to fresh, locally sourced food and a continually changing, seasonal menu. (Take a look at Cowbell’s list of local and organic suppliers and check out a sample menu.)

Sustainability can be profitable

It isn’t cheap to have a philosophy, but Cutrara made it work—in fact, he says his food costs come in below industry standards. Part of this is by investing in labour: butchering, curing and smoking the meat in-house, baking bread and churning butter all help keep food costs down, while still giving Cutrara’s suppliers fair market value for their products.

Using the whole animal helps, too. “Pound for pound, beef tenderloin is worth the same as marrowbone, so by using the whole animal—in sausage, for charcuterie, even using the bones for stock—and by having a representation of the whole animal on the plate, it all evens out.” This approach helps keep menu prices reasonable as well: appetizers range from $9 to $25, while mains go for anything from $20 to $34. (Curious about how the food actually tastes? Check out our blog post about eating at Cowbell.)

Cutrara says LEAF certification was more a philosophical decision than a business one. “Certification was part and parcel of our philosophy,” says Cutrara. “We’ve been making those kinds of buying decisions all along, so we knew we were on the right track.” LEAF—which offers three levels of certification—rewards restaurants that serve local, organic food, take steps to reduce their energy use and waste, and decrease their use of harmful chemicals. Among the benefits LEAF offers to certified restaurants are a listing on LEAF website and restaurant directory, and a window decal to display. Cowbell currently holds Level 2 LEAF certification.

And although Cutrara hasn’t seen a dramatic influx of business because of Cowbell’s LEAF status, a commitment to sustainability still isn’t bad for his bottom line. “I’m not going to make a million dollars. I’m not going to open franchises. But the community that believes in this wants this to succeed.”

He looks out onto Queen Street, then smiles.

“It’s been two difficult years—but I’m still here.”

Image credit: Cowbell