Back in February, we noted that New York seemed to be experiencing a rise in vegetarian and/or vegan fast-food dining outlets. Among their ranks was Otarian, a new chain whose food was purportedly “based on the principles of vegetarianism and its benefits to human health, the well being of all living creatures and the natural world.” And in case that statement wasn’t quite lofty enough, the Australia-based company also proclaimed it would be the first global chain to carbon footprint all of its menu items according to international standards.
Curious to know more about Otarian, which will launch a Bleecker Street outpost on April 19 and one in midtown (on Eighth Avenue and 55th Street) on the 23rd, we began hunting around for information about its founder, Radhika Oswal.
What we found in about five minutes of Google searching was a bit surprising: Oswal is the wife of Pankaj Oswal, the billionaire owner of Burrup Fertilisers, of one of the world’s biggest liquid ammonia plants, located on Australia’s northwest coast. The Indian-born couple recently made local headlines in Australia for reportedly banning workers from eating meat on the construction site of the Oswals’ $70 million mansion in Perth. That mansion, when it’s completed sometime next year, will reportedly be the biggest private home in the country, putting it seemingly at odds with Radhika Oswal’s desire to educate her customers about the carbon footprint made by their veggie wraps. So when we were offered an opportunity to speak with Oswal, we jumped, eager to learn more about this seeming discrepancy, and also what, exactly, an “otarian” is.
Oswal, who we spoke with by phone and over e-mail, explained that her chain is called Otarian “because the ‘o’ is a symbol for the globe and zero, as in carbon-neutral.” An otarian, she added, is “someone who eats with the earth, an earthatarian.”
At Otarian, eating with the earth will involve a “global menu” comprised of foods like wraps, noodles, flatbreads, Italian penne, and three kinds of veggie burgers. Everything on the menu comes with its carbon footprint information, which was calculated using PAS 2050, the internationally recognized carbon footprinting standard. Oswal says she has spent several years studying sustainability, and has worked with both Sustain, a “leading independent carbon reduction” consultant, and the food sustainability consultants at Eat England. She and her team also tested 600 recipes over the course of three years before arriving at the 13 menu options currently available. “Otarian is my thesis, not a restaurant,” Oswal joked.
Otarian’s ingredients policy, Oswal added, “indicates that we have to source with the lowest environmental impact.” Thus, she says, the ingredients are not completely organic, because “organic doesn’t mean the lowest environmental impact,” and some organic ingredients carry a higher air freight than their non-organic counterparts.
Speaking of non-organic foods, when questioned about how the environmental impact of her husband’s fertilizer plant might conflict with Oswal’s expressed desire for people to eat in a more environmentally conscious way, she responded, by e-mail, that “Oswal Group Global’s fertilizers business is based on green initiatives as well. We are using natural gas to produce fertilizers as opposed to coal, which already reduces emissions produced by over half the impact of fertilizers produced from coal. The sensible use of fertilizers are an inherent process of conventional farming methods, without which it would not be possible to feed the world’s growing populations.”
Oswal went on to point out that her husband’s business and Otarian are two separate entities, but even so, we felt compelled to ask how her personal lifestyle — the $70 million mansion, when completed, will reportedly contain a beauty salon, gymnasium, and parking for 17 cars — corresponded with her mission to lower everyone else’s carbon footprint. “The lifestyle truthfully is very sustainable,” she said over the phone. “We’re working towards a neutral carbon output. What you read in the paper doesn’t paint the whole picture; it never does. Living in a large house is not an indicator of unsustainability.” The house, she said, will use “100 percent green energy, and water recycling — we’re harvesting all the water we use. It [will be] a totally carbon-neutral house.”
The same, presumably, cannot be said of the 17 cars that the house will accommodate, or of the equipment and resources being used in its construction, but moving on. On the topic of construction, did Oswal, a lifelong vegetarian, really ban her construction workers from eating meat on her mansion’s grounds?
“There is a contract with the workers,” she said. “Like in any work place, there are requirements.” But did she tell the workers the couldn’t eat meat? “We do have contracts based on those definite things.”
Perhaps, given the reception this contract earned in Oswal’s adopted homeland (the Western Australian construction union declared the ban “absolutely wrong”), it’s not entirely surprising that she chose to open the first locations of Otarian in New York and London (which, like New York, will have three outposts by the end of the year). Oswal believes that her chances of success are greater here and in London because the cities are “far more multicultural…and far more ready for sustainability and sustainable living,” that Australia, though she hasn’t ruled out opening locations there.
Wherever the chain goes — Oswal also wants to do airline catering — Oswal wants Otarian to be known as the “one-stop vegetarian shop.” With any luck, the food it sells will be good enough to inspire more people to eat in a more conscientious way. Even if its founder’s professed desire to “eat with the earth” seems to be somewhat at odds with her own impact on it.