George McLeod’s Restaurant, Sem, Has No Leftovers

By Maggie Wicks
Grilled nectarines, cherries and lemon thyme at Sem restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo / @Restaurant_sem

In his Lisbon kitchen, the Dunedin-born chef is cooking with regenerative food, without a bin.

It’s 1am in Portugal, and George McLeod has just finished work. He’s outside his house, smoking a cigarette, his partner and 10-day-old son sleeping inside. McLeod is co-owner and head chef at Sem, a zero-waste restaurant and wine bar in the heart of Lisbon.

At work, he serves his customers aged steak with foraged sea figs, brown butter whelks cooked in roasted eel dashi, and burnt eucalyptus ice cream. At 2am, after our interview, he will heat up a packet of spicy ramen for his dinner, before kissing his baby son and falling asleep around 3am. Such is the life of a chef.

McLeod, 33, runs Sem with partner Lara Santo. He hails from Dunedin; she is Brazilian Portuguese. They met in London (at a Bonobo concert, in the crowd. “What do you do for work?” he asked her. “I’m a chef,” she replied. “Funny,” he said, “me too”), and worked together at London’s first zero-waste restaurant, Silo.

McLeod worked his way up to head chef, but Covid brought a change of plans. Living in a basement flat in Hackney, with the restaurant industry on ice, they decided to take a break in Lara’s native country.

“It was terrible,” he says, about living in London with lockdowns approaching. “We had no windows. We had to go outside and look up the stairs to see what the weather was like, and when everything was getting closed down, we were like, ‘Let’s not do this’. It would be a nightmare of an experience.”

The plan was to take some downtime, then move back to London, but instead, a short visit turned into a job — the pair took over a beach bar, the kind of place you’d pick up an icecream or bottles of water for the beach, serving simple lunches to tourists.

“It was super-simple — vegetable salads, a pork sandwich, croquettes. But it was all coming from responsible suppliers, and everything was organic and fresh.” The reaction was mixed — the locals were upset to learn they could no longer buy their tuna sandwiches and hotdogs for the kids. But the tourists kept coming back for more.

“The expats and the tourists were loving it,” says McLeod. “They’d always come back again, and it ended up being a really popular spot, because it was like a different offering. And based on that response, we took a bit of a gamble, and decided to stay and open a restaurant.”

Two years later, Sem (the Portuguese word for “without”, reflecting the fact that they don’t have a bin) is a buzzing hotspot. Situated in the heart of old Lisbon, there are two tenets the restaurant abides by — zero plastic and food waste, and regenerative agriculture.

I want to change the model, and instead of restaurants having a completely negative impact always, you can actually switch it around, and run a business that has a positive impact.

The restaurant takes its zero-waste commitment seriously — here, nothing goes to waste. They forage, ferment and preserve, and dishes come and go with the micro seasons (“We work with small suppliers, small farms, so when they have something, there’s usually not a lot of it”), but there is one dish that has stayed on the menu since opening — bread and butter.

“We make sourdough bread from Portuguese heritage grains, and then we take any leftover bread, burn it, and turn it into a miso. We let that age for about six months, and then we take that miso, and blend it into the butter, which we then serve with the fresh sourdough. So on the bread plate you’re getting fresh bread with eight-month-old fermented bread in the butter. It’s super-good, and it closes the loop on our food waste. That’s a big part of our system — closing the loop.”

McLeod’s goals are loftier than simply serving tasty dishes — he wants to change how restaurants operate, and how consumers choose what to eat, and the impact we all have. “I want to change the model, and instead of restaurants having a completely negative impact always, you can actually switch it around, and run a business that has a positive impact.”

From Otepoti to Portugal

McLeod is Dunedin-born, Christchurch-raised, but it was in Wellington that he got his start in food. “I didn’t really choose to be a chef,” he says. “I kind of fell into it, and just straight away, I absolutely loved it.” He moved to the capital in his early 20s, to take on kitchen work while training in cookery at WelTec. It was during his walks to work that his interest in foraging developed.

“I was living at the top of the hill by the lookout, and my work was down by the water. So I’d walk through the forest on my way to work every day, and I just got super-curious about what I could eat. I’d walk into work with a bag of stuff, saying, ‘Hey look what I found today, can we use it on the menu?’. Most of the time, the answer was just ‘yes’. Sometimes it was more like, ‘that’s poisonous...’”

Acclimatising to living and working in Portugal has been a process — McLeod says the culture and approach to work is quite different from the Kiwi approach.

“The mentality here is not what we’re used to,” McLeod says. “In New Zealand and the UK, the mentality is to just show up and work hard, get the job done. Whereas that’s not really the case in Portugal. Here, they live the Mediterranean lifestyle - like long boozy lunches and going away every second weekend, and it took a very long time to get used to that. I’ve had to learn that things are just going to take longer than they normally would, and definitely longer than you want them to take.”

The local suppliers who work with Sem have also had to get used to the restaurant’s commitment to sustainability and zero waste. “It’s old-school here, and we’re coming in with a new idea and a new way of thinking, a whole new system. So we’ve had to convince a lot of people to play ball with us. To explain to our suppliers that they don’t have to wrap our deliveries in plastic for example. There’s been a lot of convincing people to work in a way that’s outside their normal operation. I think that would be hard in any country, but it’s especially hard here - the Portuguese are very, very strong-willed people.”

I’m a big dreamer, you know, and I’m always thinking about the next thing and thinking about how it can be better and never happy sitting still

McLeod is pretty strong-willed himself. His plans for the future go beyond the restaurant and his family — he’s making plans for the future of restaurant culture.

In the next year or two, the plan is to begin consulting to help other hospitality businesses to become more responsible, and to open a second place — a butchery serving high-quality, well-sourced meat, with a sandwich shop on the side (“just because that’d be fun”). Beyond that, a plan to return to New Zealand is in the works.

“I’m a big dreamer, you know, and I’m always thinking about the next thing and thinking about how it can be better and never happy sitting still. I’ve not had a five-year plan before, but now that we’ve got a little son, I’m thinking about it more.”

Next February McLeod and his family will visit New Zealand for five weeks — he’s been making restaurant reservations already (“I want to try Bar Magda, go to Pasture — Ed Verner is crazy good — and Amisfield — those guys are world-class. In another country, they’d be a two- or three-Michelin star restaurant”).

And during that visit, he and Lara will be coming up with a plan.

“Lara’s not been to New Zealand yet so we’re going to have a look around the country and come up with a bit of a plan, because I definitely would like to return to New Zealand. I’ve always had this dream of having a countryside restaurant, growing everything yourself. That’s been a dream of mine for a very, very long time, and I think New Zealand is probably the place for it.”

But for now, it’s 1.30am, and there are instant noodles to eat, and a baby to hang out with in the morning. Once last cigarette, and George McLeod is off to eat his instant spicy ramen noodles for dinner, and then collapse into bed.

Three quick questions

What do you love about where you live?

The best thing about Lisbon is being able to escape to the beach for a surf. There are loads of great spots around here and they’re super-easy to get to. My favourite is Praia do Guincho.

What’s your favourite local ingredient?

My favourite food is Farinheira, it’s a smoked pork fat and bread sausage. It was born out of poverty, when food was short, but there was always an abundance of bread and pork fat. So being a naturally zero-waste chef I love the idea of using odd bits to make something delicious.

What are Portugal’s must-dos and tries?

  • Gooseneck barnacles. They’re hand-foraged from the rocks in between swells and they are a very special bivalve from around here.
  • Braga wines — this is the Portuguese burgundy. Anything Braga is a tasty drop worth having a second bottle of.
  • Monsanto, an old Roman town in the north of Portugal. Perfectly preserved town up in the mountains, and my favourite place in Portugal.
  • Nazare in the winter. Sitting on the bank with 10,000 others drinking beers and watching the big wave surfing is something you cannot miss. Heading down into the town for some seafood is a perfect day and only just over an hour from Lisbon.

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