Responsible. Regenerative.

What guides us
SEM Restaurant evening dining

SEM - Creating in Absence

At the core of our beliefs is the idea that restaurants and the people behind them hold immense power to create positive change in the world. After all, how we eat determines how we use our world. There is little doubt about how detrimental the food industry is and how much it contributes to the climate crisis. But food is, in essence, an industry based on creativity, and this pivotal difference allows it to be part of the solution too.

For us, understanding this ability we have to instigate change means we have a responsibility to do so. SEM, together with a handful of other restaurants out there, exists to show how things can be done differently.

Our model is founded on two pillars: to combat food waste and to support regenerative agriculture.

Like every decision we make, these two objectives were not chosen lightly. When it comes to finding solutions for the environmental problems of the world today, there are no silver bullets, no one-size-fits-all answer to our problems. This is why we do not like using the word “sustainable”. The term, never properly explained or clearly defined, has been used and awarded without meaning or merit. A word that can mean everything, means anything, and in the end, means nothing.

Years of constant research and intense work brought us to two conclusions: food waste is one of the most consequentially detrimental contributors to the climate crisis, with the highest negative impact in terms of the creation of harmful gases in our atmosphere today; and, regenerative agriculture, when applied within the concept of agroecology, is one of the most viable, beneficial, and practical solutions to transform our food system.

These were our choices: to tackle what we see as the biggest problem, to support the most viable solution.

This brings us to the first pillar of our model. We work with farmers and producers who work alongside nature, not against it. Their practices restore health to the soils and foster biodiversity in their ecosystems. What they produce dictates our menu. One of the most frequently asked questions by clients at SEM is “how often we change our menus”. The answer is there is no answer. We cook with what the farmers that we work with, the ones we believe are doing things right, have at any given time. Dishes evolve before changing. They adapt symbiotically to what happens in the fields. Their transformation happens together with the micro-seasons around us. Before we know it, a few weeks have gone past and the menu is completely different.

The second pillar of our model is to not have any food waste. All of the produce that arrives at SEM is used in its entirety. This allows us total control of the by-products. A by-product is an unintended but inevitable product that results from the manipulation of an ingredient. From fresh cream we make butter and as a by-product, we have buttermilk. From buttermilk, we make fresh cheese and as a by-product, we have whey. We turn our whey into sauces or powders for seasoning food. If we simply purchased processed butter, we would miss out on potentially incredible products. In the larger food industry, these by-products become invisible, they fall through the cracks of the manufacturing process and are, more often than not, wasted. In the industrial world, there is no accountability or traceability as to what happens to by-products. The same applies to a broccoli, a fish, or a herb. Peels, stems, seeds, skin, bones are all by-products, unappreciated parts of a whole that carry nutrition, flavour, and potential to become something more.

This is where our creativity comes in. By thinking “could this become something else? something more?” we define our cuisine: zero-waste innovation. We apply traditional preservation techniques, from Asian fermentation processes to traditional Portuguese preservation traditions, to by-products. As a result, our kitchen team is constantly assembling an arsenal of flavour to be used in future dishes. We are always cooking, whether for right now or for the future.

If the naked structure of how we work is defined by the model described above, below are the elements that are vital cogs in our system. These can be summarised into beliefs, hard statements we stand behind and make up the philosophy of SEM.

Local, to a limit. We are not a traditional Portuguese restaurant because our food is anything but traditional. Yet, we are a Portuguese restaurant because the vast majority of our produce is Portuguese. There are a select few items that are the exception to this rule. Firstly, cream - unfortunately, we cannot purchase Portuguese organic cream in reusable containers. As we said, controlling the by-products is of the utmost importance. We purchase the milk from a German cooperative with over 60 years of published and audited sustainability reports. The second non-Portuguese product is sugar. It is organic and comes in 25kg compostable paper bags, from India. The third is coffee. We source our coffee from Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, from small-hold farmers who produce low-intervention artisanal coffee. The origin varies due to the small production and high standards of social and environmental impact. Preceding each of these exceptions was a decision, in turn, preceded by questioning, research, and debate. None of it taken lightly.

We are not a vegan restaurant. Much to the contrary. We are firm believers that grazing animals are a critical part of what a future food system should look like. This is not to say we support business as usual. We are incredibly proud of the animal products we serve because they are sourced from producers who understand the critical role these animals have to play in creating soil health, fostering biodiversity, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. These animals are reared with the highest ethical standards.

We stick to an 80:20 ratio of vegetables to animal protein in our menus, reflecting what we believe is an appropriate amount of meat in our diet.

We do not serve fish from the sea. Being a restaurant in Portugal, we are fully aware of how unusual this might be. But if we hold true to our values, there is no reason for us to pursue sourcing fish from the oceans. With over 85% of fish stocks reported to be either fully exploited, overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion, there is little justification for us to be yet another restaurant serving fish from the sea. At the same time, freshwater fish exist in variety and in excess. An under-appreciated and untapped resource of the highest quality, and this is what we serve.

Using invasive and wild species is paramount for us. According to the UN, invasive species are costing the world at least $423 billion a year and are a leading threat to the diversity of life on Earth. Often introduced by humans, species that are not native to a particular environment can be extremely detrimental to local fauna and flora, particularly when they have no means of control. This is the case of the Zander, a freshwater fish introduced in Western Europe in the 1980s. In the case of Portugal, it was introduced for sport. The Zander is a predatorial species, highly adaptable, aggressive, and very fast. It is present in every river in Portugal and causes a lot of negative impact as its diet is based on native, endangered species. The problem is so bad that currently there is a law in Portugal forbidding fished Zander to be reintroduced into rivers. We have used Zander as our fish course consistently since introducing our “no fish from the sea” rule. It is a highly versatile ingredient, favourable to numerous applications of cooking techniques. A massively undervalued prime produce.

In addition to promoting the use of invasive species, we use as many wild ingredients as possible in our menus. Portugal has close to zero suppliers of wild ingredients, which means that we have to forage for them ourselves. However, there is a world of potential edible species available in wild sections of Portugal. Using “non-agriculture” food is of extreme importance to help diversify our diets and to highlight the value of food that is not popular simply because it is not commercialised. From elderflowers and berries, nasturtiums at every stage of the year, sorrel leaves, stalks and flowers, sea figs, eucalyptus leaves, crowberries, to name a few, we strive to promote the deliciousness of wild food. Many of these are also invasive plant species that have detrimental effects on the environment and no measure of control.

We are constantly thinking about the future of food. It is also part of our philosophy to work with products that are at the forefront of food innovation. We do not work with “lab-grown” food, we vehemently do not believe in a farm-free future. But we do still believe in potential alternatives to extremely detrimental products. One example is chocolate alternatives. Cocoa-free and made from by-products, these food items are created to substitute mainstream chocolate, a massive industry with huge social and environmental costs. We work with food innovation partners such as WNWN and Endless Food Co, both of whom supply us with cocoa-free chocolate alternatives, using fermented by-products as their ingredients. Both companies work to create an alternative for the industry without the negative social and environmental implications of cocoa production.

Moving Beyond Sustainability

At SEM, we've moved beyond the ambiguous term "sustainability" to a practical approach centered on regenerative agriculture and combating food waste throughout the supply chain.

Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture isn't just farming; it's a commitment to soil health, biodiversity, and efficiency, crucial in combating climate change. For SEM, it starts with our direct relationships with pioneering farmers, shaping our menu around nature's bounty and constantly evolving to reflect seasonal availability.

Refusing Plastic

Our direct supply chain enables us to refuse single-use plastic, with over 90% of resources entering our kitchen being plastic-free. We're vigilant in avoiding plastic wherever possible and repurpose any that slips through for innovative design projects with partners like Recycle Lab.

Fighting Food Waste

We combat food waste at every stage, from the field to the plate. By utilising overlooked ingredients and employing traditional preservation techniques, we transform what would typically be discarded into flavourful components of our dishes. Our shelves are stocked with ferments and preserves, ensuring nothing goes to waste.

Eating for the Future

Our model is dynamic and ever-evolving, constantly learning and adapting. We're committed to demonstrating that a closed-loop system is not only possible but efficient and effective. At SEM, we're eating for the future, one innovative dish at a time.

We've moved beyond the ambiguous term "sustainability" to a practical approach centered on regenerative agriculture and combating food waste.